'If I was at a friend's house and someone was smoking

cannabis I'd do nothing' - Chief Constable

'Legalisation is inevitable'

Source: The Cumberland News, UK

Date published: Friday 13 October 2000

Author: Victoria Brenan


CUMBRIA'S Chief Constable believes the legalisation of cannabis is "inevitable".

In a frank and unprecedented interview with The Cumberland News yesterday, Colin Phillips admitted he would personally turn a blind eye to cannabis use at asocial occasion, and said the acquittal last month of Cumbria's multiple sclerosis sufferer Lezley Gibson was a "triumph for the jury system."

Speaking for the first time since the cannabis issue has hit the headlines last week, Mr Philips said he believed public opinion and the police service were shifting towards a more lenient approach.

"It's inevitable, in due course, that legalisation will happen," he said.

"If you look at how society has moved on, I think there will be a lifting of restrictions on cannabis but there will still need to be controls on the sale. The market would have to be controlled effectively, with age limits. I wouldn't want my 12-year-old daughter being able to light up a joint of cannabis."

Mr Phillips, the former drugs spokesman for the association of Chief Police Officers, admitted that if he was at a friend's house and someone there lit up a joint, he would do nothing.

"I wouldn't say anything and I wouldn't do anything at all," he said.

He called the acquittal of Lezley Gibson, an MS sufferer from Alston, who took cannabis to alleviate her symptoms, an example of the "strength of the jury system."

Mrs Gibson, 36, was arrested after eight grammes of the drug, worth 32, was found in her home by Cumbrian police last September.

She was cleared last month after a three-day trial when the jury heard how she took the drug to prevent 'excruciating pain.'

"That's the strength of the jury system," Mr Phillips said.

"Even though she was clearly guilty - if you look at the facts - they decided in their wisdom to make a stand and say 'this isn't sensible.' That's the great triumph of the jury system."

Mr Phillips, who said he understood Mrs Gibson's position, added: "I would support the legalisation of cannabis for prescription if there was a proven medical benefit. At the moment it's still a criminal offence."

He believes the shift towards legalisation will continue, with one of the first steps occurring with legalisation for medical purposes, possibly over the next 5 to 10 years.

"What I would support now is a knowledgeable debate," Mr Phillips added. The police no longer targeted cannabis users although they come across them in the course of other inquiries - and had moved towards cautioning them or offering help through the Drugs Referral Scheme.

"When I was in the drugs squad in the early Seventies, it was virtually court every time foe someone caught with it," he said. "It was a new phenomenon and we were a lot tougher"

Latest figures show Cumbria's police caution around 50 per cent of those caught in possession and charge the remainder.

"Up to now, the stance is that if we come across cannabis, and do something about it, it will probably be a caution," he said.

Two years ago, a strategy by drugs tsar Keith Helliwell (sic) recommended concentrating on hard drugs, not targetting cannabis users and offering drug users help," Mr Phillips added.

"That was a massive step forward and now it's common practice.

"I think we'll see a rewriting of that strategy over the next five years but how far in the future complete legalisation will be and whether I support that is something else."

The growing use of police cautions for cannabis use came to the forefront of public debate when Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Anne Widdicombe told the Tory party conference last week that their policy would be one of zero tolerance, with fixed penalties of 100 for anybody caught with the smallest amount of the drug.

Following widespread condemnation and the admission by eight shadow cabinet members that they had smoked cannabis, Conservative leader William Hague has admitted that plans needed further thought and consultation.