Gaby Hinsliff, chief political correspondent

Sunday June 27, 2004 The Observer

· Police claim drug dealers openly flout the law

· Officers fear community backlash over arrests

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1248264,00.html

Police are demanding a U-turn over the softening of the law on cannabis, claiming it has brought a ‘sense of lawlessness’ to the streets as smokers flaunt their habit.

Officers say more people are openly taking and selling cannabis in public, with calculated attempts to provoke retaliation, according to the chair of the Police Federation.

Jan Berry said her members were ‘walking on eggshells’ amid tensions over whether they treated different groups in their communities differently for smoking in the streets.

Six months after the government downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug, there was still widespread confusion about how to treat blatant smokers who went beyond ‘acceptable behaviour’ in public, she said.

‘If a person insists on doing something to get themselves arrested, you can use your skills to try and calm them,’ said Berry, whose organisation represents frontline officers. But ‘there will be other people watching how you react, if you react in one way to a group of people and not the same to somebody else. It’s very often walking on eggshells.’

The legal change, which means that people can still be arrested for possessing cannabis but are unlikely to be, had left officers confused, Berry said.

Many would not, for example, arrest someone for blowing dope smoke in their faces, but they were torn: ‘The government’s saying, “It is not really serious, we don’t want you to prioritise it.” But it is an arrestable offence, and now we get people saying, “Go on, arrest me”.’

The Home Office insists the change allows the police to concentrate on more serious offences involving hard drugs and that there is no evidence of higher cannabis consumption. New figures expected to show significant successes in tackling the smuggling of heroin, cocaine and other Class A drugs will be used to justify the policy.

Caroline Flint, the Home Office minister responsible for drugs policy, is monitoring national arrest patterns across the country to see how different forces react.

Danny Kushlick, of the drugs charity Transform, said the reform had made little practical difference: many officers had, in effect, ignored personal use of cannabis before the law changed.

But some forces were still ‘being quite heavy’ on cannabis offences, while others were letting smokers off without even a caution.

Kushlick said it was ‘a hard thing’ for officers to operate. ‘You effectively have a law that cannot be enforced.’ The solution was the complete legalisation of cannabis.

The federation’s Berry called for a public debate over the law on soft drugs. ‘I think it would be wrong to change the law every six months because it hasn’t worked,’ she said. ‘But I am convinced it is not law enforcement which will make a real different in drugs. It’s about properly raising awareness and treatment programmes.’

She is concerned about growing evidence of a link between cannabis smoking and psychotic illness. Labour backbenchers want the government to commission more independent research into the potential health risks.

Although a European Union-wide study found that potency of the drug had changed little between 1979 and 2001, recent British research suggests some versions are now two to three times stronger than average.

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, who supported reclassification and believed it was ‘highly ignorant’ to suggest the change had encouraged dope smoking, also said more action was needed on the health risks.

‘There is a difference between drinking a bottle of beer and a bottle of whisky, yet people wouldn’t immediately recognise the difference with cannabis,’ he said.

Mann wants Britain to follow the example of Queensland in Australia, where dope smokers are cautioned, but sent to a health counsellor to discuss their habit.

Home Office aides retorted yesterday that the Police Federation had always been opposed the reform, and officers could arrest smokers who behaved provocatively.

‘This wasn’t done at the behest of rank-and-file officers, it was done at the behest of leader of the police services who wanted the operational freedom to spend more of their time tackling Class A drugs,’ said a source close to David Blunkett, the Home Secretary.

‘And part of the agreement we reached with police was explicitly to give them the power to still arrest people who were effectively winding them up,’ the source said.

Evidence on the psychiatric effect of cannabis had already been considered, and ministers had never denied it carried health risks. ‘It remains harmful to the user.’

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was ‘too early’ to judge how the law was working. It had issued guidelines on when arrests should be made.

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1248264,00.html

Reefer madness :: No wonder the police are confused

Leader : Sunday June 27, 2004 : The Observer

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/leaders/story/0,6903,1248308,00.html

Not for the first time, the Police Federation is confused. As we report today, the union representing beat officers believes that the downgrading of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug has left its members unclear about what to do about the rise in the numbers of people openly smoking marijuana on the street. They say that declassification has led to a casual culture of lawlessness and that police officers are provoked by people smoking joints and believing they are above the law.

The Police Federation has traditionally opposed liberalising reform, insisting it will lead to mayhem on the streets. The move to change the classification of cannabis was backed by senior officers, who believed that it was crucial for police to concentrate their efforts on the deadly trade in harder drugs. Now, though, they should listen to the federation. It is too easy to dismiss the complaints of ordinary officers who face a genuine dilemma in the policing of cannabis misuse.

In opting for the middle way between prohibition and full legalisation, the Home Office has confused all of us. This newspaper has always backed the liberalisation of drug laws, but we have to recognise that declassification has had a perverse effect. The endeavour was designed to free police time for other work, not to provide the means for users to taunt officers who are forced to tolerate what remains an illegal act.

The answer is not, as the federation demands, to return to the status quo ante, but to move towards the licensing of cannabis. This should be accompanied by full trials of the new, stronger strains of the drug available, which research suggests can induce psychosis.

The cannabis debate can fuddle the brain almost as much as the drug itself. What police and public need is a clear head from government on this issue and a clear message on its legality.

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