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Outcry as police let cannabis offenders off with a warning

Michael Blackley, Edinburgh Evening News, 3rd September 2006

POLICE in the Lothians are among the first in Scotland to ditch prosecutions for possessing cannabis in favour of handing out warnings.

A pilot project has reportedly already seen 23 warnings issued to people over the age of 16 caught with the drug in West Lothian.

The cautions are handed out if individuals are caught with less than £15 worth of cannabis. If they are caught again, they face court.

The scheme has been launched despite reassurances from police chiefs that their stance would not change when the drug was downgraded to a class C substance in 2004. The move has angered anti-drugs campaigners, who are concerned that it will send out the wrong message to youngsters and add to the existing confusion over the legal status of the drug.

A spokesman for Lothian and Borders Police was reported to have said today: "West Lothian is the only division where they use adult warnings. There is a pilot project agreed with procurators fiscal."

The move is also being piloted in Fife, where officers have issued 40 warnings for possession, with only two of the individuals being caught reoffending.

The scheme follows on from a decision by all of Scotland's police forces to introduce adult warnings for minor first-time offences such as urinating in public or low-level breaches of the peace, in a bid to lighten the load on courts and prosecutors.

But campaigners never expected drug offences to be included. Alistair Ramsay, of the educational consultancy Drugwise, said: "If this sends out the wrong message, compounded by the poor information about the reclassification, leading to young people believing that cannabis' legal status has changed, then it is entirely wrong."

And Professor Neil McKeganey, from Glasgow University's centre for drug misuse research, said: "Most members of the public are unclear as to the legal situation in relation to cannabis and that is why this is all the more dangerous."

The apparent change in policy comes as new figures show a huge increase in the number of people detained in Lothian hospitals with mental and behavioural problems attributed to cannabis.

Statistics from the Scottish Executive earlier this year showed that cannabis-related casualties more than trebled, from 45 in 2002-03 to 136 in 2004-05.

The figures followed claims by anti-drugs groups that reclassification would lead to increased usage of the drug. It was also claimed that cannabis could lead to lung damage, depression, anxiety and even psychotic episodes in people with schizophrenia

A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland was quoted as saying: "The police service in Scotland continues to take a robust stance on anybody caught in possession of drugs. The projects in place in Fife and Lothian and Borders are in agreement with local procurators fiscal and in the spirit of the criminal justice reform process."

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