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Under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, controlled drugs in the UK are put into three classes: A, B and C. Offences relating to Class A drugs carry the heaviest penalties; MDMA, heroin, cocaine and the psychedelics fall into this category. Class B includes most forms of amphetamine, barbiturates and cannabis, while Class C has so far been reserved for prescription drugs like antidepressants and steroids. However, under proposals by the Home Secretary David Blunkett cannabis is due to be reclassified as Class C in Spring 2002. This move would be in line with the Runciman Report of the Police Foundation (published in 2000), which also recommended moving LSD and ecstasy from Class A into Class B and abolishing prison sentences for possesion of Class B and Class C drugs. Almost all of the recommendations were dismissed by the government at the time, but the New Labour stance on drugs seems to be softening and further changes are likely.

The move into Class C would mean the possession of cannabis would no longer be an arrestable offence. However, it will not stop it from being a criminal offence, and one for which people could still be sent to prison. As is the case now though, most cannabis offenders will receive only a formal warning (which does not go on any permanent record) or a police caution (which does). The difference is simply that they will not be under arrest at any point in the process, and they will not usually have to go to a police station.

The maximum sentence in law for possession of a Class B drug is five years in jail plus a fine, but throughout most of the country those caught with quantities of cannabis which could plausibly be for personal use usually receive only a police caution. More and more, the police do not even take the time to do this, and will simply confiscate the stash of anyone with a small quantity and give them a verbal warning. Since June 2001 it has been official policy in Lambeth, South London, to simply issue cannabis offenders with formal warnings, a policy which is said to have saved some 2,500 hours of police time in its first six months of operation. The experiment, which has also seen a 19% increase in arrests for dealers of Class A drugs and a marked improvement in community relations with the police, looks set to be extended to the rest of London and eventually the country.

The maximum penalty for supplying or trafficking a Class B drug is fourteen years plus a fine, but many convicted cannabis dealers are merely fined, and a jail sentence of anything like fourteen years is only handed down when a court decides to make an example of someone caught with a huge quantity. Sentencing practice varies throughout the country, and in some areas ganja sellers run a real risk of a long stretch inside.

The full list of Class B drugs as it appears in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (may not be up to date):

  1. Any stereoisomeric form of a substance for the time being specified in paragraph 1 of this Part of this Schedule.
  2. Any salt of a substance for the time being specified in paragraph 1 or 2 of this Part of this Schedule.
  3. Any preparation or other product containing a substance or product for the time being specified in any of paragraphs 1 to 3 of this Part of this Schedule, not being a preparation falling within paragraph 6 of Part I of this Schedule.

Cannabis reclassification Q & A: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_1616000/1616100.stm
Drugs policy change rejected: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk_politics/newsid_693000/693846.stm
Misuse of Drugs Act 1971: http://www.ukcia.org/pollaw/lawlibrary/misuseofdrugsact1971.html
UK: Met plan to extend softly, softly drug scheme, The Guardian, Saturday 09 Feb 2002
Additional information: http://www.ukcia.org/

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