London (CNSNews.com) - British police chiefs Wednesday announced details of a new nationwide policy on cannabis, unveiling a "three-joints-and-you're-out" rule that will go into effect next year.
In July, the British government said it would declassify cannabis from Class B to Class C, a move that will put it in the same category as steroids and anti-depressants, starting next summer.
Government officials have since been consulting with police officers to decide how the new cannabis policy would be enforced.
If there are no aggravating circumstances, suspects will be given a formal warning, but won't be arrested, for possession of less than three grams (about an eighth of an ounce) of marijuana. The drugs will also be confiscated. People warned three times will be arrested.
Aggravating circumstances will include threatening a police officer, refusing to hand over the drugs or ostentatiously smoking marijuana in public.
After an exhaustive parliamentary review of drug policy, British officials decided not to entirely decriminalize the drug and to boost penalties for dealing marijuana. Pending legislation, the maximum sentence for dealing any Class C drug will rise from five to 14 years.
A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has been instrumental in developing the new guidelines, said the rules against marijuana possession announced Tuesday would clear up confusion caused by the drug policy overhaul in July.
"This will clarify and standardize the situation across the country," he said. "This is something we've been talking about and considering for quite some time."
The spokesman said each warning will be formally logged with a police station and the identities of each person warned will be checked out to ensure adequate enforcement of the new laws.
Both the police chiefs and government officials say the cannabis rules will allow officers to concentrate on the most dangerous drugs, Class A substances such as heroin and cocaine.
"Under the new classification, cannabis possession will be policed in a way which is not resource-intensive," said Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth.
"In most cases a warning will be sufficient, together with confiscation of the drug. But where there are aggravating factors the police will retain the power of arrest," he said.
Ainsworth said that he was confident that the police chiefs "will find the right balance between maintaining public confidence in the enforcement of the drugs laws and showing a clear distinction between the approach to cannabis and the Class A drugs that do most harm."
However, rank-and-file police officers represented by the Police Federation of England and Wales aren't happy with the cannabis downgrade.
A spokeswoman said the federation hadn't developed a policy on the new policing guidelines, but were opposed in principal to any loosening of drugs punishments.
"We don't think cannabis should have been downgraded in the first place," she said.
A Police Federation policy document says that the downgrade will send the wrong message to young people and notes that cannabis has been shown to have adverse health effects.
The new cannabis enforcement policy was announced at the ACPO Drugs conference, where Ainsworth also revealed government plans to test suspects arrested in several high-crime areas and push users of Class A drugs into treatment programs.
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