Scots police chiefs force Home Secretary to ditch new drug laws
By Liam McDougall, Home Affairs Editor
THE Home Secretary is set to abandon controversial changes to UK drug laws after warnings by Scottish police chiefs that they would give street dealers a “licence to operate”.
The proposals, unveiled by Charles Clarke in November, aimed for the first time to set a threshold on the quantity of drugs that an individual can claim is for their own use. Over that amount, courts and juries would be invited to assume that there was an intention to deal.
However, in what will be a major embarrassment to Clarke, Scotland’s most senior police officers and drug squad teams are to write to the Home Secretary this month to warn that he risks letting dealers off the hook.
The wealth of opposition by police and drug experts north and south of the Border now looks certain to force a rethink of the plans.
Under proposals drawn up by the Home Office, Clarke’s plans would allow individuals caught with up to 7g of heroin – enough for around 70 “tenner bags” – to claim in court that it was for their own use.
Anyone found in possession of up to 10 “wraps” of heroin would also be able to say the drugs were for personal use. The threshold for cocaine and crack cocaine would also be 7g or 10 wraps, with 10 tablets the limit for ecstasy. The amphetamine threshold would be 14g, and drug users caught with 113g of cannabis resin – enough to roll about 500 light joints – would be able to argue it was their own supply.
The introduction of threshold limits would signal a massive change to the way drug offences are prosecuted in Scotland. Currently, even if an individual is caught with a quantity of drugs that is much less than the amounts outlined by the Home Office, he or she can be prosecuted for intent to supply.
To make the case, police can call on specialist drug squad officers from their Statement of Opinion (Stop) units. They examine the drugs haul and the background of the individual to give expert evidence in court about why they are believed to be a dealer.
It is feared that with the introduction of thresholds, dealers would exploit the system to stay just within the law, while those with small amounts over the limits would be punished as traffickers.
Detective Sergeant Kenny Simpson, a drug squad officer with Strathclyde Police who is co-ordinating the force response, said that he did not believe the levels proposed were realistic.
He said: “With cocaine, that’s quite a low figure and we would be prepared to go slightly higher. But with crack cocaine, if someone is allowed 10 wraps, my concern is that this would be a licence for street dealers to operate. The level for cannabis is a fantastically large amount.”
In the case of heroin, Scotland’s most problematic drug, Simpson said the levels for personal use set down by the Home Office could let suppliers escape the most stringent sentences. He added: “It’s my hope that this will give us a clear opportunity to target them for lower amounts. But it’s also about making sure that the legislation is catching the right people, to stop the dealing, and making sure that users who need help are not wrongly accused of being suppliers.”
Detective Superintendent Jill Wood, of the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency, which will respond on behalf of Scotland’s eight chief constables, said: “[The thresholds] are creating a difficulty rather than addressing a difficulty.”
The latest controversy over drugs comes after Clarke’s decision to keep cannabis at the lower class C legal status. Campaigners had argued that the drug should be moved back to class B because of mounting concerns about its links to mental illness in users.
Clarke has also launched a complete overhaul of the 30-year-old system of classifying illegal drugs into three levels of danger and criminality.
A Home Office spokesman said: “It’s normal in the consultation process to have different opinions. We will be responding in due course.”