Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda


Submitted by the Home Office

  This memorandum responds to the invitation from the Home Affairs Select Committee to give evidence to its enquiry "The Government's drugs policy: is it working?"


  1.1  As indicated by the Home Secretary, in his statement to the Committee, combining the work of the Home Office and Cabinet Office provides an opportunity to review progress against the four aims of the Strategy. A Drugs Stocktaking Review has therefore been launched to assess the effectiveness of the Strategy. It will look broadly at the achievement of the aims, whether there are any gaps or weaknesses in the Strategy and consider whether resources could be used more effectively. The work undertaken will feed into the next Spending Review.

  1.2  This work will include a review of progress against the Strategy targets. (See earlier Memorandum). The targets were set in June 1999 at levels which reflected the US and Australian targets as these were the appropriate benchmark at the time. Significant progress has been made since then in setting up programmes and additional funding has been provided for services and research. Ministers have asked for a review of the targets to ensure that they still have the right balance and focus.


  2.1  The Committee has asked the Government for its position on decriminalisation. This is a term that has been used frequently during the recent drug debate, but can be interpreted in different ways. Decriminalising controlled drugs would be to retain the prohibition on their use, replacing current criminal sanctions with civil or administrative measures. Many who talk about decriminalisation in fact mean legalisation, ie removing any sanction attached to the use of drugs.

  2.2  The main argument in favour of decriminalisation is generally that it is wrong to criminalise those whose only offence is the use of a controlled drug. But drugs are controlled because of their harm potential and the law and its sanctions help to limit experimentation. As some people would seem to be attracted to experiment with controlled drugs because of their illegality (eg "forbidden fruits"), the evidence suggests that a great many are deterred by the law. 19 per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults surveyed by MORI on behalf of the recent Police Foundation Inquiry, mentioned the law as the reason for not taking drugs. And the respective prevalence rates for controlled drugs and alcohol and tobacco are also illustrative.

  2.3  In the Government's view, the existing range of criminal sanctions, applied with due discretion, are preferable to decriminalisation. Minor offences are normally dealt with by way of a warning or caution. The Government has accepted that cautions should become immediately spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which will mean that the large majority of offenders will not get a criminal record. The courts and, ultimately prison, provide the severest sanctions for persistent or serious offenders. About 3 per cent of those dealt with for possession of cannabis are sent to prison. A sample analysis of this cohort showed, on average, 14 previous criminal convictions per offender. Sentencing data is not routinely collated to show secondary or tertiary offences, but this sample tends to confirm the views of the enforcement agencies, namely that where imprisonment is imposed for cannabis offences it is usually because of the seriousness of the offence itself or as a result of concurrent imprisonment for other criminal offences.

  2.4  The Home Secretary has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to review the arguments for re-classifying cannabis from Class "B" to Class "C". This would not involve either legislation or decriminalisation, but rather the re-positioning of policing and penalties, in line with new priorities. Cannabis would remain a controlled drug, and both possession and supply would remain a criminal offence, with a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment for possession, and five years for supply. The ACMD has been asked to report to the Home Secretary within three months. The Home Secretary also wants to take into account the Committee's inquiry into the Drugs Strategy, and the evaluation of the current pilot in Lambeth on policing of cannabis offences, available in February.

September 2001

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