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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. Class A is taken the most seriously, and includes drugs like heroin, cocaine, crystal meth, LSD, psilocybin, DMT, mescaline and MDMA.

At present Class B includes most forms of amphetamine, barbiturates and cannabis. However the Home Secretary David Blunkett announced on October 23, 2001 that he would like to see cannabis reclassified as Class C, which has so far been reserved for drugs like antidepressants and steroids. This reclassification - which is expected to take effect in Spring 2002 - would be in line with the Runciman Report of the Police Foundation. The recommendations of this report (released in March 2000) also included moving LSD and ecstasy from Class A into Class B, along with various other measures. At the time the government dismissed very nearly the entire report, claiming that any easing of the drugs laws would "send the message that some from of drug taking is in some way acceptable".

The reclassification would mean the possession of cannabis would no longer be an arrestable offence; however, it will remain a criminal offence, potentially punishable by jail. This is not simply decriminalisation by another name. However - as happens with most cannabis offenders now - it is expected that anyone caught with cannabis will receive a formal warning (which does not go on any permanent record) or a police caution (which does). The main difference is that they will not be hauled away to the police station to receive it. In some cases they will receive a court summons later.

Penalties

Possession of a Class A drug can potentially lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years, while the maximum penalty for supplying or trafficking is life imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

In principle the maximum sentence for possession of a Class B drug is five years and a fine, but in practice most police forces around the country will usually just give a police caution to anyone found with cannabis thought to be for personal use. In Lambeth, South London, an experiment has beeng going on since June 2001, whereby those caught with cannabis receive only a verbal warning; in effect, this means that the criminalisation of cannabis users has been almost entirely abolished. Police say this experiment is a great success so far, freeing up huge amounts of police time and doing wonders for community relations; there has been talk of extending it to cover the whole country, which would tie in well with the drug being reclassified.

The maximum penalty for supplying or trafficking a Class B drug is fourteen years plus a fine, but in practice many convicted weed dealers just get fined, and a fourteen-year jail sentence is almost unheard of. However, sentencing practice varies throughout the country and in some places ganja sellers still get sent down for long stretches.

Possession of a Class C carries a maximum sentence of up to two years in jail; supply and trafficking carry a penalty of up to five years in jail. It remains to be seen what sentences will be passed on especially unfortunate cannabis users and suppliers once the drug is moved to Class C.

Sources:
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
Additional information: http://www.ukcia.org/

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