Juvenile Justice

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Leicester, England—What happens when a country reduces the penalties for smoking marijuana to the point where most users won’t get arrested for it?

In England and Wales, arrests for possession of cannabis have, somewhat predictably, gone down. But there’s no indication that youth are smoking joints more than before.

The change took effect on Jan. 1, when the United Kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) downgraded cannabis from a class B drug to class C. That means most adults found with small amounts no longer face arrest, although police do confiscate the drug and issue warnings about possible charges if the offenders are caught again. Those under 18 generally receive a warning for a first offense, but police typically take them to a police station to see if any underlying problems need to be addressed.

As the change approached last year, youth workers reported widespread confusion among young people, with some thinking marijuana had been decriminalized entirely. (See “Relaxed Pot Law Puts Youth Workers in Haze,” July 2003.) The government launched a $1.8 million campaign to emphasize to young people that the drug remains illegal, and sent 2.5 million leaflets and information packs to drug advisers working with young people.

Youth workers have done their own educating. Amanda Davies, drug education coordinator for South Gloucestershire, England, said she helped launch a local awareness campaign that included conferences and workshops with schools and youth organizations. “This direct contact found that many young people were confused, and we still had to reinforce the message that cannabis remains illegal and can be harmful,” Davies said.  

Subsequent research for the Home Office showed that 93 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds in the U.K. were aware that cannabis is illegal. Davies believes “it is essential we continue to keep young people informed of the current legal position.” Outreach workers with South Gloucestershire’s Drug Action Team have devised further awareness events, such as an arts project based on the reclassification theme. 

As for arrests, figures from 26 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales showed a 33 per cent reduction in arrests from January through July, compared with last year. (England and Wales are often combined for statistical summaries here.) The arrests often involved aggravating circumstances, such as smoking near schools or youth centers, or flaunting drug use in front of police. Age breakdowns were not available.

The Home Office said the drop in arrests indicates that some 180,000 hours of police time would be freed up over a year.

“The police are spending less time arresting people for possession of cannabis and filling in the paperwork that goes along with it,” said Home Office Minister Caroline Flint. “This enables them to concentrate on the class A drugs, which cause most harm to society.” Class A drugs include heroin, cocaine and crack. Class C includes anabolic steroids and tranquilizers, such as Valium.

Although senior police officers backed the change, some rank-and-file officers remain unhappy with the degree of discretion they’re expected to exercise. Jan Berry, chairwoman of the Police Federation, which represents frontline officers and opposed the reclassification, said some police are still confused about how to treat blatant smokers. She said officers are “walking on eggshells,” as they try to treat everyone fairly.

“The government is saying, ‘It is not really serious, we don’t want you to prioritize it,’ but it is an arrestable offense,” she said. “And now we get people saying, ‘Go on, arrest me.’ ”

Routine drug testing of young offenders has also been introduced. Fourteen- to 17-year- olds charged with certain “trigger” offenses – such as burglary, theft and various automobile crimes – are tested for heroin, cocaine and crack use. Those who test positive are referred to specialist youth workers. “We think we’re adopting an honest and effective way of targeting class A,” a Home Office spokesman said.

Flint, the Home Office minister, also announced figures in July that showed a decline in the number of 16- to 24-year-olds using cannabis. Just under 25 percent said they had tried cannabis during the 12 months ending March 31, compared with 28.8 percent in 1998 and 25.8 percent in 2003. Most of the latest reporting period was before the reclassification.