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The Limits of Possession

When the Drugs Act 2005 was passed, it included an amendment to the original Misuse Of Drugs Act such that a court must assume that someone possessing a specific quantity of drugs or above was intending to supply it.

At the time, these amounts were not specified. Some dissent was noted in opposition political parties and police organisations such as the ACPO, mainly claims that when an amount was specified, drug dealers would carry just under that amount in order to avoid prosecution for supply. The difference between the punishment for a possession offence and a supply offence is significant. Under the current laws, cannabis, possession can lead to up to 2 years imprisonment, whereas supply gets up to 14 years.

At the end of November 2005, the Telegraph reported that values for these amounts had now been proposed by the Home Office. The proposals for cannabis are that possession of an amount greater than 4 ounces or 10 pieces of cannabis resin, and half a kilogram or 20 bags of cannabis leaf, must be assumed to be evidence for a supply offence. These limits may sound high at first sight, but it is far from unheard of for personal stashes to reach this level. This is particularly the case with the increasing amount of people who grow their own cannabis for personal use in order to try and avoid the added risks and dangers of going to black market drug dealers, some of whom value profit over any sort of welfare consideration.

Of course, as is usual with certain papers reporting on topics regarding the War On Some Drugs, it was not reported with great clarity or objectivity, rather under the headline "New drugs limits to allow 500 'joints' for personal use". The figure of 500 joints was attributed to the higher end of how many spliffs could be made allegedly based on figures of amount of resin used per low-strength joint from Drugscope. The Daily Mail went a few hundred better and claimed that 4 oz would be enough for 810 joints. As especially under prohibition, there can be no set amount of cannabis per joint, the exact figure is pure conjecture and in the end irrelevant. However the reporting spin and words such as "escape" and "allow" have created the impression that this law change is some sort of irresponsible free-for-all liberalisation whereby malicious drug dealers will be able to wander down the street forcing 499-or-less joints onto innocent children with impunity.

This misinformation is not at all based on the reality of the situation, and obscures a hugely worrying precedent which reverses the supposedly steadfast concept of innocent until proven guilty.

Firstly, there is no "liberalisation", or even a movement towards the sensible regulation and control policies that could be seen under controlled legalisation, here. Owning any amount of cannabis will still be illegal, and selling any amount of cannabis will still be cause for a supply offence. All penalties remain the same. These amounts are guidelines to the upper limits of possession and nothing more. If it can be proven (as would normally be the necessary case) that you are supplying someone with cannabis, you will still be prosecuted for a supply offence no matter how little cannabis you possess.

The only thing that changes is that if you possess a greater amount of cannabis than the limit is set at (i.e. 4 oz of resin if the current Home Office proposals are kept), then irrespective of whether there is any evidence that you intended to supply the cannabis, in the words of the Drugs Act, "the court or jury must assume that he had the drug in his possession with the intent to supply it". You may contest this, but only if you can muster up hard evidence that you were not intending to supply it.

This is in direct contravention of the legal convention that you must both have the intention of committing a crime ("mens rea"), and actually commit a crime ("actus reus"). Following this legislation it will be legal and indeed normal for you to be prosecuted for a supply offence without anyone having to prove either of these factors. You can be prosecuted for a crime, and end up with a long prison sentence, without any semblance of evidence. There is a clear presumption against innocence.

This is an example of the already harmful and ineffective laws supposedly governing the cannabis trade growing even more dangerous; in this case further prejudicing our right to a fair trial. Indeed it is hard to see how this legal development is compatible with Article 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 - "Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law".

Can one really imagine the presumption made that, if you had a wine cellar replete with 50 bottles of wine, you clearly are intending to commercially supply alcohol on an unlicensed and hence illegal manner being taken seriously with no other evidence?

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Last updated 11th December 2005

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