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Massive explosion in cannabis possession

 

JAMES SLACK. Daily Mail , UK, 20th July 2006

 

Cannabis crime has exploded since Labour downgraded the seriousness of being caught with the drug.

 

Government figures reveal an alarming 36 per cent increase in possession of cannabis last year - the equivalent of almost 32,000 more offences.

 

More than half of those caught by police - a staggering 63,635 drug users - escaped with a simple ticking-off.

 

Before the Government downgraded the drug to Class C in January 2004, they would have faced arrest and a possible jail term.

 

Now they are smoking cannabis with apparent impunity after Ministers ruled there should be a 'presumption' in favour of nothing more than a formal warning.

 

Such a warning does not even count as a criminal record. The number 'let-off' last year was 23,000 more than the previous 12 months - an increase of almost 50 per cent.

 

Critics said it was clear that dire predictions of an explosion in the drug's use following the adoption of a 'softly, softly' approach had proved true.

 

They added that those caught by police are likely to represent only a tiny fraction of those who tried the drug since re-grading. Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: 'It is shocking enough that drug offences have increased so much since the Government declassified cannabis.

 

'It is a double betrayal of a whole generation of young people that so many of these offences were merely punished with a warning.'

 

The figures are a huge blow for Ministers, who had dismissed the warnings as scaremongering. Cannabis accounted for the vast bulk of the total 178,502 drugs offences recorded last year, an increase of 23 per cent.

 

Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity SANE, said: 'It is disappointing, but not surprising, that following the lowering of the classification of cannabis there should be such a large increase in the number of offences for possession.

 

'This could be extremely damaging to those people, who by taking cannabis risk life-long mental illness.'

 

Mary Brett, UK spokesman for Europe Against Drugs, said: 'I'm afraid this is a case of we told you so, and should come as no surprise. 'The message was given out that having cannabis was not a serious offence, so more people have started to use it.

 

'What these figures reflect is who knows how many thousands of people using cannabis who may not otherwise have done so? That may well then act as a gateway to other drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.'

 

Under Labour's controversial reforms, rammed through by then Home Secretary David Blunkett, cannabis was re-classified from B to C.

 

As a Class B drug, anybody police caught for possession faced automatic arrest. Offenders were then officially cautioned, or taken to court to face a possible jail term, community punishment or fine. Even a caution counted as a criminal record, which would be disclosed by any Criminal Record Bureau check.

 

Since it was shifted to Class C, officers have the option of simply issuing a 'formal warning', handed out on the street. It is the equivalent of a ticking-off.

 

The Government has said that, unless there are aggravation factors such as openly smoking the drug in the street, the 'presumption' should be for a formal warning. Last year, 63,635 people caught with cannabis were dealt with in this way, 53 per cent of all those caught. The remainder, most of whom are likely to have been second-time offenders or worse, were either fined, cautioned or taken to court.

 

It compares to 50 per cent in 2004/5, when 43,000 of the 85,500 people caught in possession of cannabis were given a formal warning.

 

It suggests that as the re-classification beds down, police are increasingly opting to dish out a formal warning. The figures, published today, follow warnings from the United Nations that the decision by Britain to downgrade cannabis has led to confusion among youngsters and helped spread a pandemic.

 

Its drug control chief said cannabis was as dangerous as heroin or cocaine and warned countries that performed U-turns on drug laws that they were putting impressionable young people at risk.

 

Antonio Maria Costa declared: 'Policy reversals leave young people confused as to just how dangerous cannabis is.'

 

Mr Blunkett first mooted the reclassification of cannabis from Class B to Class C in 2001, saying the change would allow police to concentrate on dealers and more serious drug offences.

 

Less than 15 months after it took place, in January 2004, his successor Charles Clarke called on Government advisers for a rethink because of growing evidence of links between cannabis and mental illness.

 

He also warned of the increasing availability of very powerful strains of the drug, called skunk. But this year he accepted advice not to change the law back because to do so would cause even more confusion.

 

Since then the new Home Secretary, Mr Reid , has twisted the law again by reducing the proposed amounts of cannabis needed to be considered a dealer.

 

Initially, ministers had been considering allowing people caught carrying as many as 2,500 'spliffs' to escape with an offence of possession. Formal warnings have proved popular with police, as it counts as an 'offender brought to justice'. Incredibly, dishing out a formal warning in the street carries as much weight as trapping a burglar.

 

A Home Office spokesman said the 2004/5 British Crime Survey had found the level of drug use among both youngsters and adults was stable. Compared to 1998, the number of 16 to 24-year-old saying they had used cannabis in the previous year had fallen by 16 per cent, she said.