Home > Reclassification of cannabis in the UK.

Connolly, Johnny (2004) Reclassification of cannabis in the UK. Drugnet Ireland, Issue 10, March 2004, p. 8.

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On 29 January the UK government introduced a number of amendments to its Misuse of Drugs Act, 1971.1 As a consequence, cannabis has been reclassified as a Class ‘C’ rather than a Class ‘B’ drug. Other Class ‘C’ drugs include anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines and buprenorphine. Possession of cannabis or cannabis resin will remain an arrestable offence, although there will be a presumption against arrest for adults (i.e. those aged 18 or over) to be determined on the basis of police guidelines provided by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).2 The maximum penalty for possession for personal use will reduce from 5 years to 2 years while the maximum penalty for the trafficking of any Class ‘C’ drug will increased from 5 to 14 years imprisonment, with the maximum penalty for trafficking cannabis remaining at its current level of 14 years’ imprisonment. The changes will apply in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, arrest for the possession of cannabis is not automatic and depends on the facts and circumstances of each case.

The changes came about following a recommendation from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in March 2002. The Council concluded that although cannabis is harmful, its classification as a ‘Class B’ drug was disproportionate in relation to its inherent harm, and to that of other substances, such as amphetamines, which are Class B drugs.

The Government justified its decision on the basis that ‘an accurate reflection of the assessment of the relative harmfulness of drugs…would give the misuse of drugs legislation greater credibility and enable…a more effective message to be conveyed to young people about the dangers of misusing different types of drugs’. Reclassification would also highlight the Government’s priority to tackle Class A drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and crack cocaine.

The ACPO guidelines suggest that arrest powers might be used against those who disregard the law by smoking in a public place, repeat offenders, those whose use of cannabis causes or threatens to cause a public order problem or those in possession of cannabis in proximity to young people, such as near schools, youth clubs and play areas. Such people would be arrested and cautioned. However, it is anticipated that, for most offences of cannabis possession, a police warning and confiscation of the drug will be sufficient. Young people under 18 will receive a more formalised response, such as a reprimand, final warning and charge. Unlike the procedure for adults, such procedures will be administered at the police station.

A study by South Bank University’s Criminal Policy Research Unit published in March 2002 represented the first detailed study of the policing of cannabis in England. 3 The study focused on the offence of possession, drawing on case studies of four police ‘basic command units’ in two police forces. An examination of custody records and interviews with police officers and young people were complemented by national police and court statistics. The study found that the financial cost of policing cannabis was approximately £50 million a year (including sentencing costs) and that this activity absorbed the equivalent of 500 full-time police officers. Reclassification of cannabis to a Class C drug would yield some financial savings, the study concluded, allowing officers more time to respond to other calls on their time. The main benefit of reclassification would, however, be non-financial, in removing a source of friction between the police and young people. It was anticipated that there would be a very small decline in the detection of serious offences, but this should be offset by the savings in police time.

In Ireland, since 1977, possession of cannabis or cannabis resin has been treated differently to other drugs. Possession for personal use is punishable by a fine on first or second conviction. From a third offence, possession for personal use incurs a fine and/or a term of imprisonment up to one year on summary conviction and up to three years and/or a fine if convicted on indictment. The reclassification of cannabis in the United Kingdom has contributed to a renewed debate as to its legal status in Ireland. In rejecting suggestions that Irish law should be changed in this area, on 31 January, 2004, Noel Ahern TD, Minister of state with responsibility for the National Drugs Strategy stated that, ‘We’re quite happy with how the law stands…In the UK, even after reclassification, in theory you can still get a tougher prison sentence than here, so in many ways they are more or less coming into line with how we are.’ 4 

1. UK Home Office Circular 005/2004 Controlled Drugs.

2. Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland 12 September (2003)  Cannabis Enforcement Guidelines. London: ACPO

3.. May T, Warburton H, Turnbull PJ and Mike Hough (2002) Times they are a-changing: Policing of Cannabis.  York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

4. Where the grass is greener The Irish Times 31 January 2004.

Item Type
Publication Type
International, Open Access, Article
Drug Type
Intervention Type
Issue Title
Issue 10, March 2004
March 2004
Page Range
p. 8
Health Research Board
Issue 10, March 2004
Accession Number
HRB (Available)

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