Just 4 per cent of people caught in possession of cannabis by Devon and Cornwall Police were charged with the offence - the lowest rate in the country - new figures have shown.

Last year, officers stopped 2,047 people for possessing the drug in the two counties. Only 83 were charged and taken to court while 502 were given police cautions.

The remaining 1,462 were given so-called "street" warnings for cannabis possession, which do not result in a criminal conviction. The warnings were introduced after Labour's decision to downgrade the drug to Class C in January 2004.

Last week, the Government opted to return the drug to Class B, although fears persist that the "soft" approach will continue.

Devon and Cornwall's charging rate for cannabis was the lowest of 31 forces that responded to a survey.

But Det Con Mike Bradley, force drugs intelligence officer, said each case had been dealt with "appropriately" and in accordance with guidelines laid down by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

"If someone is smoking or in possession of cannabis inside a school gate, for example, then they will be arrested," he said.

"If you are walking down the high street with a small quantity of cannabis in your pocket, and you have no previous warnings or convictions for it, then a street warning would be an option."

He said that each case was "judged on its merits" but stressed that people could not be given "four or five warnings in the space of a year".

Although the "street" warnings were not a criminal conviction, people did have to admit the offence. Their details were also recorded on the force's system although not on the Police National Computer.

The charging rate for possession was also under 10 per cent in Merseyside, London and Warwickshire.

The highest charging rate was in Northumbria, where 1,209 people were charged out of the 1,973 stopped - the equivalent of 61 per cent. Police issued street warnings in less than five per cent of cases.

The new figures emerged just a week after a study which showed that most cannabis seized on the streets of Devon and Cornwall was the extremely potent "skunk".

Of the 97 samples sent for analysis by the force, 60 were found to be herbal cannabis, rather than the weaker cannabis resin.

Det Con Bradley said: "The samples we sent were seized from street warnings and cautions at the beginning of this year and almost two thirds were herbal. Certainly that is the trend we have seen and matches the shift away from cannabis resin.

"We are seeing more home-grown cannabis in this country and there are organised crime networks involved in the production of cannabis and this is reflected in the findings of the study. The 'skunk' is of a much higher strength than the cannabis resin."

The Government has defied its independent advisers on drugs to reclassify cannabis.

The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs had recommended keeping the classification at Class C.

However, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she was responding to "public perception and the needs and consequences for policing priorities".

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