Mon, Jun 28, 2004 - Page 6 News List

British police want return to a tougher line on cannabis

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

British 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 UK government downgraded cannabis to a Class C drug, there was still widespread confusion about how to treat blatant smokers who went beyond "acceptable behavior" 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 organization 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 prioritize 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.

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. The solution was the complete legalization of cannabis, Kushlick said.

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 programs."

She is concerned about growing evidence of a link between cannabis smoking and psychotic illness.

Although a EU-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. There have been calls for the government to commission more independent research into the potential health risks.

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