Even police know this law's not working

Source: Independent on Sunday, UK

Pub Date: 15 October 2000

Author: Sophie Goodchild, Home affair's correspondent


If you're caught with marijuana today, whether you are prosecuted or get off with a warning depends on where you live. But imagine a world where it's not a crime to enjoy a joint. It's easy if you try and millions already have.

Even police know this law's not working.

When police raided the home of Lezley Gibson earlier this year they found her in possession of eight grammes of cannabis. She was charged and put through a four-day trial at Carlisle Crown Court until the jury found her not guilty.

Ms Gibson suffers from multiple sclerosis, and was taking the cannabis for medical reasons. Had she been living in, say, Northamptonshire, she would probably have been spared such an ordeal, receiving only a caution. The case highlights the huge regional differences in how cannabis possession is treated by the police, and the inconsistency with which the law is interpreted.

According to the wording of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, simple possession of class B drugs, which includes cannabis, is punishable by a 400 fine and/or 12 months in prison by a magistrate, or 14 years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine by a crown court.

Conviction earns a criminal record that would debar a person for life, from entering most non-EU countries, ever becoming a carer or teacher of children, or being accepted into the armed forces. The anomaly is that in some parts of Britain offenders are eight times more likely to get a criminal record than in more lenient areas.

The latest statistics show that 4,852 people were jailed for cannabis possession in 1997, but most faced other charges. The average sentence was four months. In Northamptonshire, 93 per cent of people arrested for possession were let off with a caution, 3 per cent were fined and 1 per cent received prison sentences. But in Dorset, 37 per cent were cautioned, 26 per cent were fined and 5 per cent went to prison.

The case of Ms Gibson highlights the growing public sympathy of the general public towards the use of cannabis to relieve pain.

Another multiple sclerosis sufferer, Colin Davies, was acquitted by a jury at Manchester Crown Court of four charges of cultivating and possessing the drug with intent to supply. This was the first time that a British court had cleared a defendant of supplying cannabis on medical grounds. In March, Thomas Yates, who also suffered from MS, was acquitted on charges of cannabis possession.

Earlier this year, Keith Hellawell, the UK drugs tsar, told this newspaper that police officers should focus on more harmful drugs. "I don't support the legalisation or decriminalisation of cannabis but police must be allowed to use their discretion," he said.

Francis Wilkinson, the former chief constable of Gwent, believes cannabis should be removed from the 1971 act and legalised. "There are many cases that have been to court where judges have acquitted people," he said. "Individual officers have their own views on how to deal with different sorts of drugs. There are so many variable."

Roger Howard, chief executive of Drugscope, aid that large numbers of people are still prosecuted for low-level cannabis use. "It's not about police being difficult or being easy. We have to decide whether sending people to prison and to court is the most effective use of public resources."