The streets don't care what class drugs are
Upgrading cannabis and downgrading Ecstasy will make no difference to policing their misuse
Cannabis was reclassified yesterday from C to B. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is preparing to give its recommendation to the Home Secretary soon that Ecstasy be downgraded from A to B.
I'm never sure which is more arbitrary - the fashion for uppers or downers that changes wildly with each generation of drug-users, or the fashion in policy-making circles for downgrading one year and upgrading the next. We need to scrap the whole classification process - it is outdated, not understood by the public and utterly irrelevant to life on the streets.
I used to serve on the council in my capacity as the leading police officer on drugs policy. By the end of my stint I felt that its detachment from grassroots reality had eroded its credibility. Its purpose seemed to be to generate endless rounds of meetings and glossy reports to send to ministers.
Up to 70 members - made up of representatives from all sorts of government and voluntary bodies - attended the unwieldy full meetings, which were supported by a plethora of smaller working groups and sub-committees. I was always struck by how the experience of those living in the thick of the drugs problem got lost among the grey suits having highbrow technical and medical discussions. Although street-workers are represented, the actual men and women who work closely with dependent users do not attend.
The council would be horrified to learn that its recommendations on drugs classification are not taken seriously. But that is the case. The public either don't understand the process or are not interested in it. For the police, the advisory council is a sideshow; officers prefer to apply their professional discretion on whether to caution or arrest suspects.
Put bluntly, how a drug is classified doesn't help police officers in their day-to-day duties. The first thought of an officer confronted by a user of an illegal drug is to weigh up whether the possession warrants anything more than a caution. To make an arrest and charge doesn't guarantee a prosecution so it may be simpler to deal with it on the street. That decision is made regardless of the classification of the drug involved.
For the courts, categorising a drug does help to provide a tariff for punishment. But even that idea has become dated as the Crown Prosecution Service now tends to apply its own prosecution guidelines. In practice, the classification of a drug does not significantly change how the courts or police deal with drug offenders.
This is well illustrated by the moves to reclassify cannabis and Ecstasy. The upgrading of cannabis is presumably intended to trigger a tougher enforcement policy towards its users and dealers.
Conversely, the downgrading of Ecstasy sends a message to encourage a more relaxed approach. But past evidence suggests that life on the streets and in the courts will not change.
Cannabis is so prevalent that how it is policed is dictated by manpower and resources - there is simply not enough time for the police or the courts to push high numbers of offenders through the system. Regardless of the advisory council's rulings, the police and courts take a more lenient view towards users of cannabis because they deem it as less harmful than other drugs. I expect those same people will judge Ecstasy to still be a dangerous drug. Reclassification will change nothing
It is time to abandon any form of categorisation - regardless of their classifications, they are all illegal drugs and the powers of the police to deal with each type hardly differ. To varying degrees each category carries the power to arrest and search a suspect or premises. If the minor differences were ironed out and police were given the same powers to deal with all drug offences this would be a simple message to convey to the public.
Setting the tariffs for punishment is even simpler. The courts already apply their own criteria for sentencing across a range of drug offences. Each case is considered on its own merits, aligning the crime with the punishment. If the courts required help in setting a tariff, a medical guide could be provided. This does not require the protracted and expensive classification process conducted by a large committee working at public expense.
After all, no equivalent body to the advisory council meets to provide technical advice to the courts for other types of criminal offending.
The classification of drugs matters only to the council and politicians - it is an irrelevance to the police and to other drug agencies. The decison by Jacqui Smith, the present Home Secretary, to reverse David Blunkett's downgrading of cannabis hints more of a political ping-pong match than anything more serious. More effort is directed towards debating how a drug should be classified than to trying to stem the misuse of drugs.
Rather than soldiering on trying to make a classification process that was designed in 1971 work in 2009, we should drop the pretence that classification matters.
Andy Hayman was Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations at Scotland Yard
January 27, 2009