A police force will not prioritise people who grow small amounts of cannabis for themselves, in a move drugs reform campaigners hope will trigger "a much needed debate" about criminalising "countless young people" for possession.
Officers in County Durham are far more likely to simply destroy the plants and seek to place their owner in recovery than prosecute them or take them through the courts, according to the elected official in charge of the force.
Ron Hogg, a former officer who is now County Durham's Police and Crime Commissioner, told The Telegraph: "In low level cases we say it is better to work with them and put them in a position where they can recover.
"In these cases the most likely way of dealing with them would be with a caution and by taking the plants away and disposing of them. It is unlikely that a case like that would be brought before a court.
"Of course it is up to the government to change the law but I trying to open up a debate about drugs and drugs policy."
A spokesman for drugs reform campaigners Release said the move would "hopefully spark a much needed national debate over the country’s drug laws".
He told HuffPost UK: "The de-prioritisation of policing possession for personal use and growing a small number of cannabis plants does not constitute decriminalisation, though certainly appears to be a step in that direction which is welcome.
"Release’s research into over 20 jurisdictions around the world has shown that the decriminalisation of personal possession and use does not lead to an increase in prevalence as some fear it will.
"In the UK, we are handing out criminal records to countless numbers of young people for simple possession offences, something which is hugely detrimental to their future employment and education opportunities. This needs to stop."
He added: "In their own report last October the Home Office admitted that there is no link between the harshness of a country’s drug laws and the levels of drug use, yet has steadfastly refused to address the futility of the UK’s drug law policing. We hope the Durham initiative will prompt progressive action to be taken on this issue at a national level.”
Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst at drug reform campaigners Transform, told HuffPost UK: "The move [by Durham police] is a purely pragmatic and eminently sensible one. They've witnessed the futility of attempts to control supply of cannabis over many decades, and know that it simply doesn't work.
"The best they can achieve is to displace the market or temporarily disrupt it - but whilst demand and profit opportunity remains, illicit supply always finds a way.
"Police know they are wasting resources on chasing and criminalising small time cannabis users and growers. Given the pressures on their budgets and demand for resources to deal with other serious and socially harmful crimes, ones with actual victims - deprioritising small time cannabis markets is just common sense."
He added: "If Durham's public position on this encourages some more reasonable political debate then that's an added bonus."
Mr Hogg said officers would still act if cannabis use were "blatant" but said "it is not the top of our list to go out and try to pick up people smoking joints on street corners”.
He added: “We are taking an approach which reduces harm – by focusing on stopping people from using drugs, and tackling the organised gangs who are the source of the supply.
"This means where people are addicted, we help them into recovery. And where people are using small amounts of drugs like cannabis, we deal with them in a fair and measured way. Durham Constabulary has issued over 300 cannabis warnings in the last 12 months."
He added that officers would still "proactively seek out" small scale cannabis growers.
Mike Barton, the chief constable who is in operational charge of the force, is also an advocate of drugs reform.
He wrote that drug addicts should not be prosecuted but treated and supported in recovery a blog for HuffPost UK in February.
"The continuing description of drug addicts as criminals rather than people who are unhealthy or sick prevents them getting well and consigns their family to years of misery and often destitution," he wrote.
"Addicts should be treated and supported into recovery. Their entrapment in criminal justice is a waste of police time, a waste of the state's money and dissuades addicts from revealing themselves for treatment for fear of the criminal consequences."
Mr Barton went public with his advocacy of reform in 2013, something Mr Hogg supported.
At the time, Mr Hogg told the BBC: "Mike and I are totally at one on this. We've had a number of discussions about drugs and whether we should decriminalise and take control.
"Our current view is quite simple: that the current drugs strategy legislation has not succeeded."
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