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Life after reclassification

As time has passed it has become apparent that what will happen in the real world after reclassification is more complicated than might have been expected from the simple movement of cannabis from class B to class C in the Misuse of Drugs Act. It is of course impossible to predict in a definite manner what will happen, but from the debates and legislation the Government has made and a set of guidelines the ACPO have released regarding how the cannabis laws should be enforced after reclassification we can see the likely outcome.

Cannabis possession, supply or growing will remain a criminal offence, punishable by various means including imprisonment.

The maximum prison sentence for simple possession of all types of cannabis and derivatives will be 2 years. All other forms of punishment currently in use, e.g. fines, cautions, community service etc. will still be able to be used against cannabis users. However, from the police officer's point of view, there will be a "presumption against arrest" if a person is found to possess a small amount of cannabis and no other offence has been committed. However you won't just be able go on your way - your cannabis will be confiscated by the officer and your identification details (e.g. name, address etc.) taken. If you refuse to provide any identification, or they don't believe what you say, you may be arrested. Identification is necessary because you may be arrested if you are found in possession of cannabis repeatedly.

The new legislation does allow for full arrest for cannabis possession to take place if the police officer so desires. Certain circumstances surrounding cannabis possession that are more likely to result in arrest have been given by the ACPO guidelines and are often referred to as "aggravated possession". These include:

  • Where a person is smoking cannabis in public view
  • Where locally a person is known to be repeatedly dealt with for possession of cannabis.
  • Persons who are in possession of cannabis under circumstances that are causing a locally identified policing problem.
  • Persons in possession of cannabis inside or in the vicinity of premises frequented by young persons, e.g. schools, youth clubs, play areas.

In addition, if you are under 18 and found in possession of cannabis, you will be arrested. The Crime and Disorder Act requires youth offenders to be dealt with at a police station, so you will be arrested and taken to a police station. You may or may not just be reprimanded when you are there but you will initially be arrested.

There is no distinction between recreational and medical use, so the same rules will apply if you are using cannabis as a medicine. The Government has promised to license cannabis-based medication for use at some point in the future if it is approved by the necessary medical agencies but this is a separate issue from reclassification. Officially, despite evidence to the contrary, cannabis has no beneficial medical use and the laws reflect this. If and when such a license is granted it is very unlikely it will permit general cannabis use for medical reasons - much more likely is the case where a specific medicine, e.g. GW Pharmaceuticals' "Sativex" is permitted for specific illnesses.

The maximum prison sentence for cannabis supply remains at 14 years, as is currently the case, following an amendment to increase the punishment for supply of class C drugs to 14 years rather than the 5 it is at present. There is no new "social supply" offence, so in the context of the legislation, passing a spliff around is the same legal offence of supply as importing and selling a ton of cannabis. Of course, as is the case now, your punishment is likely to reflect the severity of your "crime".

Little has been said about how growing cannabis will be dealt with. However, under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, a drug "production" offence falls into the category of "trafficking" and hence it seems likely that the maximum sentence for growing cannabis will remain at 14 years and there will be no assumption against arrest. A report called "The Domestic Cultivation of Cannabis" published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked at alternatives for growing offences after reclassification, finding there were "persuasive grounds for treating cultivation for personal use on a par with possession". However the Government has made no indication whatsoever that this will be the case.

There is no intention to permit coffeeshops similar to those in Holland. It has been made clear that people trying to run such coffeeshops will be arrested for supply if this offence takes place. Even if no supply or possession offence has been committed by the owner of such a shop, it is and will remain a separate offence to allow your premises to be used for smoking cannabis under section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Currently the punishment for allowing class C drugs to be used on your property is up to 5 years imprisonment. It is unknown whether this will also be increased to 14 years upon reclassification, but it seems it certainly won't be reduced.

Back to the UKCIA guide to the reclassification of cannabis.

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