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Next steps for tougher action on cannabis

Next steps for tougher action on cannabis

HOME OFFICE News Release (173/2008) issued by COI News Distribution Service. 13 October 2008

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith today confirmed that repeat cannabis offenders will face tougher penalties. People caught carrying cannabis for a second time could now face an on-the-spot fine of £80 instead of a warning. This was announced alongside a Parliamentary Order laid to reclassify the drug to Class B from 26 January 2009.

Reclassification is a preventative measure to protect the public. Cannabis is a harmful drug and poses a real risk to health of those who use it. The stronger strains, such as skunk, that now dominate the illegal UK cannabis market may increase mental health problems, especially if young people start to use at an early age or "binge smoke".

That is why the Government accepted the Association of Chief Police Officers' proposal for a strengthened and escalating enforcement approach for possession in England and Wales. Under Penalty Notice for Disorder proposals, which the Ministry of Justice will shortly consult on, those caught with cannabis on a first occasion could still get a cannabis warning, but on a second occasion are likely face a fine of £80 and arrest if caught for a third time.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said:

"While cannabis has always been illegal, reclassifying it to a Class B drug reinforces our message to everyone that it is harmful and should not be taken.

"Fewer people are taking cannabis, but it is crucial that this trend continues. I am extremely concerned about the use of stronger strains of cannabis, such as skunk, and the harm they can cause to mental health.

"This is the next step towards toughening up our enforcement response - to ensure that repeat offenders know that we are serious about tackling the danger that the drug poses to individuals, and in turn communities. We need to act now to protect future generations."

Criminalising people unnecessarily is not the Government's aim. However, the proposed new escalation of penalties will ensure the police and courts have a range of sanctions at their disposal so that the punishment is proportionate to the offence. Both reclassification and escalation for repeat offenders will reinforce the message that cannabis is illegal.

The Association of Chief Police Officers' Lead on Drugs and Chief Constable of Humberside Police Tim Hollis said:

"There is evidence of increasing harms to community safety associated with criminal behaviour around the cultivation, distribution and the use of cannabis.

"While enforcement alone will not provide the total solution to a crime that is a global problem, this will act as a deterrent, along with better education about the impact of drugs.

"Where cannabis use is repeated or where there are aggravating circumstances locally, officers will take a harder line on enforcement and escalate their response accordingly. Every encounter at street level provides intelligence and helps us to act against the criminal gangs who seek to profit from cannabis production and distribution."

Alongside this, the Government also published its response to 21 recommendations made by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In accepting 20 of the ACMD's recommendations in its Report - Cannabis: Classification and Public Health, the Government has committed to taking forward work across a range of Departments.

Children and Families Minister Delyth Morgan said:

"The reclassification helps us get our message across that cannabis is not a harmless drug and that there are real concerns about how this will impact on the future of young people who use it. The FRANK campaign and our review of drug education will ensure that the potential harms are better understood by young people and their parents."

Notes to Editors

1. The Government's decision to reclassify cannabis as a Class B drug was announced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on 7 May 2008. The decision sits within the over-arching aims of the Government's 10 year drug strategy - Drugs: protecting families and communities.

2. The required draft Order in Council will be listed tomorrow in the House of Commons Order Paper. Changing a drug's classification means affirmative resolution debates in both Houses before being submitted to the Privy Council for approval and subsequent implementation. Cannabis should become a Class B drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 from 26 January 2009

3. The decision follows a review of cannabis classification which was carried out by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, at the request of the Prime Minister. The ACMD's full report is at: http://www.drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk/drugs-laws/acmd

4. The Government accepted 20 of the 21 recommendations from the ACMD report. The Government's response has been published today at http://www.drugs.homeoffice.gov.uk

5. On 26 September 2008 it was announced that Mark Matthews had been appointed as national co-ordinator to combat cannabis cultivation. During National Tackling Drugs Week in May this year, 89 cannabis farms were shut down. Mr Matthews is now intensifying work in this area, working with law enforcement agencies to develop a comprehensive intelligence picture and robust national response to combat cultivation, making the UK a hostile environment for criminals involved in this illegal trade.

6. Cannabis warnings were introduced specifically for the purposes of being consistent with reclassification of cannabis to Class C in 2004. Under current ACPO guidelines, a person can receive a second warning without any further escalation. The Government's decision to reclassify cannabis to Class B points towards a step change in the enforcement regime. The Home Secretary wrote to ACPO for proposals for a strengthened and escalating approach to possession which she and the Secretary of State for Justice Jack Straw have accepted, subject to consultation on Penalty Notices for Disorder (PNDs). The proposed escalation for simple possession by an adult offender is :

* one cannabis warning for a first offence;
* one PND for a second offence;
* arrest for a third offence, then to be considered for further action - including release without charge, caution, conditional caution or prosecution. All subsequent offences are likely to result in arrest.

As the Home Secretary made clear on 7 May, the current procedure for under-18s caught in possession - which uses a reprimand, final warning and charge - will remain unchanged as it provides an appropriate escalation mechanism.

7. The proposed escalation response for repeat offenders remains proportionate, is consistent with reducing police bureaucracy and continues to offer discretion and flexibility to the police. However, it does not preclude officers from immediately effecting arrest, for instance where there are aggravating factors present. It will not apply where there is any evidence of dealing or possession with intent to supply to others.

8. When cannabis was reclassified to Class C in 2004 the policing approach in Scotland and Northern Ireland did not change. Cannabis warnings were not introduced. Anyone found in the possession of cannabis was and will continues to be reported to the Procurator Fiscal or Public Prosecution Service respectively where a decision on cautioning or prosecution will then be made.

9. Reclassification of cannabis to a Class B drug has a number of consequences in terms of maximum penalties. For possession of cannabis as a Class B drug, the maximum penalty on indictment increases from two to five years' imprisonment. On summary conviction, in respect of which the majority of possession cases are dealt with, the maximum imprisonment penalty remains the same at three months, although the maximum fine that the Magistrates' Court can impose increases from £1,000 to £2,500. For the supply and production offences for cannabis, the maximum penalties on summary conviction increase to six months' imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine (from three months and/or a £2,500 fine respectively). The penalties for other offences relating to cannabis are unaffected, including the maximum penalty on indictment for supplying or producing cannabis of 14 years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

10. Data from the British Crime Survey continue to show cannabis use is falling steadily across all age ranges. Between 2002/03 and 2007/08, the proportion of 16-24 year olds reporting the use of cannabis in the last year fell from 26.2 per cent to 17.9 per cent, equating to a drop of more than 30 per cent over the period.

11. A survey of secondary age pupils shows that young people had more negative attitudes to cannabis in 2007 than in 2003. 10 per cent of 11-15 year olds thought it was "okay to take cannabis once a week" in 2003, dropping to 6 per cent in 2007. Furthermore cannabis use among 11-15 year olds, 16-24 year olds and the wider adult population have all been falling fairly consistently since 1997.

12. The FRANK campaign has been successful in shifting young people's attitudes towards cannabis use. In a survey to measure the effectiveness of the campaign, the number of 11-14 year olds who said that cannabis is "very likely" to damage the mind of someone rose from 45 per cent in 2006 to 58 per cent in 2008. Young people who want to know more about the risks of using cannabis or other drugs can contact the FRANK website and helpline: http://www.talktofrank.com 0800 77 66 00.

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