Cannabis users will not be arrested until they have been caught three times, the Home Secretary has announced. Campaigners say the plan is not strict enough.
Jacqui Smith revealed the plans to MPs yesterday, as a Parliamentary Order was laid to return cannabis to the stricter class B category of drugs in January 2009.
She said that those caught with cannabis will only be given a warning for their first offence. After that, an £80 fine will be issued, and if they are caught a third time they will face arrest.
Miss Smith said: “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.”
However, critics say that because the first offence will not be recorded on a national database, police will struggle to identify repeat offenders. The Home Office says it will look for a way to close this loophole.
Cannabis was made a class C drug in 2004 by then Home Secretary David Blunkett. However, mounting evidence of the risks associated with the drug led the Government to return it to class B, against the advice of its own drugs council.
Now campaigners say that a ‘slapped wrist’ for a first possession offence is not enough, and that stricter penalties should apply.
Debra Bell, who runs the campaign Talking About Cannabis, added: “This is not enough in the least. It has to be a very strong message from the beginning.”
Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: “The Home Secretary is deluded if she thinks this represents a toughening up of the law.
“The system is full of holes with half of fixed penalties not even being paid under this Government. The Government needs to wake up to the real harm cannabis does to young people and realise it requires real action, not more spin.”
The evidence for a stronger law
Evidence that the weakening of the law on cannabis in 2004 was a disaster has mounted in recent months.
Police officers have warned that cannabis dealers are now operating a “potentially lucrative” trade. A stronger and more dangerous strain of the drug, ‘skunk’, has become increasingly popular.
Doctors and mental health experts have repeatedly blamed the rise in cannabis use since the law was weakened for the soaring numbers of people being treated for psychosis and schizophrenia.
In April, a coroner urged the Prime Minister to reclassify the drug after a 21-year-old cannabis smoker who had developed schizophrenia hanged himself.