POLICE officers across Scotland will continue to arrest offenders for
possession of cannabis, despite moves in England and Wales to let most
people off with a warning, Jack McConnell, the First Minister, announced
yesterday.

Mr McConnell said he had no plans to change existing recommendations,
although he confirmed officials would continue to review the position.

The First Minister's decision to maintain the status quo is seen by
observers as an attempt to prevent recent efforts to appear tough on crime
from being weakened.

Mr McConnell has made tackling crime, and in particular youth crime, a
central plank of his new administration, and any move to downgrade the use
of cannabis could be interpreted as undermining this hardline stance.

His statement follows the unveiling last week by David Blunkett, the Home
Secretary, of new police guidelines which recommend "a presumption against
arrest" for possession of cannabis.

The new rules were issued as part of Mr Blunketts plans to downgrade
cannabis from class B to class C in January.

Last night, the SNP and the Scottish Socialist Party reacted angrily to Mr
McConnell's comments, claiming Scotland was living in the past and should
follow the example of England and Wales as soon as possible.

However, Annabel Goldie, the justice spokeswoman for the Conservative
Party, backed his stance, claiming the situation in England was now confusing.

The Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland (ACPOS) confirmed that
those caught in possession of cannabis would continue to be arrested,
although they stressed that they would take "great interest" in
developments south of the Border.

Speaking in the Scottish Parliament during First Minister's question time,
Mr McConnell said: "I dont believe current prosecution guidelines are
inadequate. I think that in Scotland we have the balance right for the moment.

"There are no plans to issue new guidance to Scottish police forces,
although we will continue to keep this under review with ACPOS."

Later, a Scottish Executive spokesman underlined the First Minister's
position and highlighted the separate role of prosecutors in Scotland.

"The long-standing power in Scotland to arrest for cannabis possession will
remain in place. Drugs will be confiscated in all cases north and south of
the Border," he said.

"In England and Wales, it is generally the police who take the initial
decision whether or not to start criminal proceedings. This is why the
police have issued these guidelines.

"In Scotland, investigation and prosecution of crime is a matter for the
Lord Advocate, and it is for him to decide whether to issue guidance to
police forces."

He said decisions on whether or not to start criminal proceedings rested
with the procurator-fiscal. "Fiscals already have guidance on cases
involving drugs, and this guidance is thought to be sufficiently flexible
to deal with cases involving cannabis, now and after reclassification," he
said.

Mr McConnell's comments were seized upon by Nicola Sturgeon, the justice
spokeswoman for the SNP, who said it was "commonsense" to follow Mr
Blunkett's example.

"We need to target police resources more appropriately and prevent police
officers wasting time going after people who are using cannabis for
themselves and allow them to spend more time catching drug-dealers and
cracking down on harder drugs.

"There is a need to modernise the law and we dont want to get stuck in the
past. It is important that trying to appear tough on crime doesn't get in
the way of that."

Colin Fox, an SSP MSP, said it was a "colossal waste" that 70 per cent of
police anti-drug work was spent chasing cannabis users. "Scotland's police
and court time is being taken up with the prosecution of cannabis users,"
he said.

"By ruling out a change to the guidelines in Scotland, the First Minister
is ensuring that Scotland will continue to live in the past when it comes
to making progress on these arcane and outdated laws."

However, Ms Goldie sided with Mr McConnell's determination to pursue his
crime-fighting policy, regardless of changes at Westminster.

"What is happening down south is now sending out a very confusing message,
which seriously undermines the battle to rid our communities of drugs. It
would have been completely unconvincing for Mr McConnell to talk tough on
justice in one area and then appear to go soft in another area."

Andrew Brown, the chief constable of Grampian Police and chairman of the
crime committee of ACPOS, said: "ACPOS has no policy not to arrest those
found in possession of controlled drugs, and therefore those found in
possession of cannabis will continue to be dealt with in the same manner as
previously.

"It must also be recognised that the Scottish police have no facility of
formal cautioning or reprimanding, as is afforded to our counterparts south
of the Border; therefore this alternative to arrest and prosecution is not
available. Chief police officers in Scotland will take great interest in
the results of the English and Welsh forces change in approach."


Pubdate: Fri, 19 Sep 2003
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2003
Contact: Letters_ts@scotsman.com
Website: http://www.scotsman.com/