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The Lambeth cannabis warning pilot scheme

Report: 17
Date: 26 September 2002
By: Commissioner


This report provides an assessment of the Lambeth Cannabis Warning Pilot Scheme.

A. Recommendations

Members are asked to note the contents of this report.

B. Supporting information

1. Members are aware that on 4 July 2001, the Metropolitan Police Service introduced a pilot scheme within Lambeth Borough whereby persons found in possession of small quantities of cannabis for their personal use were given a warning and the drugs confiscated as opposed to being arrested. At earlier Authority meetings members expressed interest in knowing more about the lessons learn from the experiment.

2. The pilot was known as the Lambeth Cannabis Warning Scheme; it ended on 31 July 2002.

3. Although no formal evaluation criteria was built into the pilot from the outset, as an innovative project, it was subject to considerable evaluation from a number of sources. Attached at Appendix 1 is an assessment of the Scheme that brings together much of the evaluation work that was undertaken as the pilot progressed and the lessons learnt by the MPS. 

C. Equality and diversity implications

Whilst some community leaders expressed concern that there had been a lack of consultation prior to the introduction of the pilot, the Police Foundation Survey revealed that 83% of local residents gave either outright or conditional approval for the scheme. Specific concerns about apparent increased exposure of drugs to young people were taken very seriously. However, further investigation failed to reveal any corroborating evidence to support this assertion. Warnings issued for possession of cannabis will continue to be monitored by Lambeth to ensure appropriateness and proportionality. 

D. Financial implications

The cost of the internal evaluation was met from existing budgets. Otherwise there are no direct financial implications associated with this report.

E. Background papers

  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study 'Times They Are A – Changing, Policing of Cannabis' by Mike Hough, Tiggey May, Hamish Warburton and Paul J. Turnbull South Bank University. Published in March 2002.
  • The Metropolitan Police Service Consultancy Group Evaluation of Lambeth’s Pilot of Warnings for Possession of Cannabis. - Final Report. Produced February 2002.
  • Policing the Possession of Cannabis: Residents’ Views On The Lambeth Experiment. Research conducted by the MORI Social Research Institute and the Police Foundation. Published March 2002. 

F. Contact details

Report authors: DAC Michael Fuller and Inspector Stuart Dark, MPS Drugs Directorate.

For more information contact:

MPA general: 020 7202 0202
Media enquiries: 020 7202 0217/18

Appendix 1

1. Introduction

The purpose of this report is to provide an assessment of the Lambeth Cannabis Warning Pilot Scheme. The report will examine how the scheme was implemented, the issues it highlighted and the lessons that were learned for future pilot schemes. 


On 4 July 2001 the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) introduced a pilot scheme on Lambeth Borough for issuing on the street warnings to people found in possession of small quantities of cannabis for their personal use. Under the scheme, the cannabis was seized and a ‘formal warning’ was given to adults who admitted this offence and an ‘informal warning’ given to those who did not. These warnings were given instead of people being arrested.

It was intended that the pilot scheme would run for a six month period. However, this was extended by a further six months, ending on 31st July 2002. On 1 August 2002 Lambeth officers were again given discretion to arrest people. 

The idea for the scheme originated in May 2000 when the MPS produced a report entitled ‘Clearing the Decks.’ The report suggested ways in which police time could be saved in order to divert resources towards areas of ‘high priority’. It explored alternatives to arrest for a number of minor crimes, including possession of cannabis. However, because of a number of administrative difficulties these ideas were not progressed.

A year later in early 2001, Commander Brian Paddick, the borough commander for Lambeth, carried out a staff consultation exercise. During this consultation officers complained that they spent a considerable amount of time dealing with arrests for possession of cannabis and this detracted from their ability to deal with high priority crime such as street crime, tackle class ‘A’ drugs and respond to emergency calls. They were also concerned that following a recent disciplinary case, they might face disciplinary action if they continued to follow a longstanding unofficial practice of dealing with people found in possession of cannabis by informally warning them and destroying the drugs on the streets. Such warnings did not have official sanction.

At this time, recorded crime offences on Lambeth Borough were rising and the Borough was short of staff. For example, between July and December 2000 there were 24,757 recorded crimes. In the following six months (ending June 2001) this figure rose by 6% to 26,290, with violent crime accounting for over 25% of all crime on the Borough. In the Summer of 2001 Lambeth Borough Operational Command Unit was running at 11% below its budgeted workforce target. This equated to 102 officers below strength. By January 2002 the situation had improved with an additional 43 officers on the Borough, reducing the deficit to 6.3%.

In November 2001 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) visited Lambeth and gave further recognition to the high crime on the Borough. It reported that the Borough was the second busiest in England in terms of emergency calls and had a “phenomenally high crime workload”, which accounted for 12.5% of all street crime and 4.9% of all burglaries within the MPS. Furthermore, in those cases where cannabis offenders were actually prosecuted, they often received derisory penalties such as on average a £50 fine or a conditional discharge.

It was against this backdrop of a shortage of staff, rising crime on the Borough and the need to focus the efforts of his officers on core Borough policing priorities such as violent crime that Commander Paddick sought ways to save his officers time. He began to consult widely about the feasibility of a pilot cannabis warning scheme for Lambeth.

In March 2001 a paper outlining a proposed Cannabis Warning Scheme for Lambeth was submitted to the Assistant Commissioner Territorial Operations. This paper was agreed and presented to the MPS Management Board in April 2001. They approved the pilot scheme and although initially intended to run for 6 months, the scheme was extended for a further 6 months. 

2. Implementation

Prior to the pilot’s introduction, Lambeth officers received guidance and Borough instructions on the warning procedures and how these should be applied. A local communication strategy was devised to inform residents and those likely to enter the Borough of the existence of the pilot and its aims. This took the form of a press release and interviews given by Commander Paddick.

3. Evaluation processes

Steering Group: A steering group consisting of MPS staff, academics within the drugs field and local police consultative group met monthly throughout the pilot scheme and oversaw its running. 

MPS Consultancy Group Evaluation Report : This report examined how well the scheme was implemented, the procedures it adopted, the attitude of officers towards the scheme and how much officer time was saved. It did not seek to judge or evaluate the policy implications or the social impact of the pilot scheme.

Police Foundation Public Attitude Survey: The Police Foundation, a research body that is totally independent of the Police Service, carried out a public attitude survey in respect of the pilot scheme and the policing of cannabis generally. They employed MORI POL to canvass the views of both Lambeth residents and a wider sample of the UK population. 

4. Was the pilot scheme successful in achieving its objective?

Time saved

The objective of the pilot was to give officers more time to deal with the Borough priorities of robbery, burglary, violent crime, class ’A’ drugs and to respond to calls from the public. The pilot scheme did save officers time. The amount quoted in the Consultancy Group evaluation is the equivalent of 1.8 officers per annum. However, increased enforcement activity raises this figure to about 2.75 officers.

The Consultancy Group evaluation estimated that 3 hours of processing time was saved during the arrest and custody procedure stage of each cannabis case and it specifically included the time spent waiting for solicitors as part of this process. However, this figure was based on the premise of an officer working alone. It took no account of the time spent transporting the arrested person to a police station and the time waiting to book them in on arrival, nor did it consider any time saved by the custody officer or gaoler, or indeed other criminal justice agencies such as the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts. Consequently the Consultancy Group evaluation is considered a conservative estimate of time saved. 

It should be noted that even under the pilot scheme the warning process was nevertheless bureacratic. When administering a warning, officers still had to complete a crime report, a stop/search form and possibly a criminal intelligence report. They were also required to complete a form relating to the seizure of the cannabis and make notes of the encounter in an incident report book. Officers were not deterred by these administrative processes and, in fact the scheme saw a 110% increase in the number of interventions for cannabis possession during the pilot period with a total of 1,390 warnings being given, in contrast to the 661 arrests in the preceding year. Each of these warnings has been calculated at a time saving of three hours, which equates to 4,170 hours saved or 2.75 officers per annum. 

The Lambeth Borough Criminal Justice Unit (CJU) staff calculated that they saved 8 hours in respect of each case that was dealt with by means of a warning compared to a case dealt with by an arrest. This equates to 11,120 hours (over 15 days) and constitutes a considerable saving of staff time and consequent costs. No assessment was made of the time that may have been saved through reduced court and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) administration. However, it would be safe to assume that a significant amount of time was saved.

The MPS Consultancy Group evaluation report attempted to identify whether there was a direct correlation between the time saved by police officers giving warnings instead of making arrests, being used to tackle other more serious crime priorities. A questionnaire was circulated to all junior officers on the Borough asking them whether there was any difference in their use of time before the introduction of the pilot and during the scheme. Only 6% (51) of junior officers completed the questionnaire. Of those officers that did respond, the results showed that:

  • 72% felt they were spending less or the same amount of time on cannabis supply issues;
  • 84% felt they were spending the same amount of time on class 'A' drug issues;
  • 80% felt they were spending the same amount of time on non-drug related issues; 
  • 90% felt they were spending the same amount of time on policing priorities 

What the above statistics show is that, although it appears that less time was spent by officers on cannabis supply issues, the majority of the officers who responded did not spend more time on other crime problems. It cannot even be said that less time was spent on dealing with cannabis supply issues because of the way in which the question was phrased, in that there was no distinction between “less” and “the same”. 

The low return rate makes it difficult to draw any conclusions because it could be argued that the views given were not representative of the majority. One local police manager said the low return rate may reflect the fact that officers were not strongly opposed to the scheme, particularly as past experience has shown that higher return rates are achieved when officers feel strongly about an issue. A lesson learned is that the completion of the questionnaire should have been compulsory rather than voluntary.

5. Community support

The MORI public attitude survey carried out on behalf of the Police Foundation was conducted during the first six months of the pilot. No further evaluation of public attitudes was carried out.

The Police Foundation survey revealed that 83% of local residents gave either outright or conditional approval for the scheme and only 8% of local residents dissaproved of it outright. The conditional approval given by 47% of local residents was based on the premise that the time saved would be used to focus on more serious crime. 

There have been mixed views expressed by community leaders and these were also reflected in media coverage of the pilot. The main areas of concern were that there was a lack of consultation before the introduction of the scheme and that:

  • young people were being more exposed to drugs; 
  • misuse of drugs by young people was increasing;
  • people were being attracted to Lambeth both to supply and buy drugs; and,
  • unfair adverse attention was being focused on Lambeth.

These concerns were taken very seriously by the Borough Commander and they led to further survey work of local schools as discussed below. However, many of the fears expressed by members of the community were either based on anecdotal evidence or were not as widespread as first feared. In some cases, such as where instances of open drug dealing were reported to the media, they could not be directly attributed to the introduction of the cannabis pilot scheme.

6. Concerns raised during the pilot scheme

Young people

Concerns were raised by the local community and the media that young people would become more exposed to drugs as a result of the scheme. These fears were not borne out by the survey of local schools conducted by Lambeth police.

The survey attempted to glean a snapshot of the impact of the pilot on local schools. Where possible the Head Teacher or their deputy was spoken to. In those cases where no one was available to give an informed opinion, a nil response was recorded. In all, 75% (50 out of 66) of junior schools and 70% (7 out of 10) of secondary schools responded to the survey.

Junior schools reported no change in incidents relating to cannabis. Secondary schools reported that incidents attributed to cannabis had decreased, with less confiscations taking place (a total of 4 confiscations of cannabis). Both junior and secondary schools reported some dealing in cannabis in the vicinity of schools but no increase. The secondary schools reported 4 exclusions due to cannabis, which was a slight increase.

Focus groups were held by Lambeth police with local youth workers, teachers and educationalists. These revealed that there was a mistaken belief amongst many young people and adults, as a direct result of both the introduction of the pilot scheme and the Home Secretary’s proposals to reclassify cannabis, that cannabis possession either had been or would be legalised. This finding highlighted weaknesses in the manner in which the aims of the pilot were communicated to the community in general and young people in particular.

The statistical findings available over the first 6 months of the pilot period show that very few young people were dealt with by police for cannabis related offences on the streets of Lambeth. There were only 92 warnings issued to juveniles (those under 17 years of age), which accounted for 8.3% of the total warnings given. The average age of juveniles warned was 15.6 years. Only 5 of those warned were under 14 years, one of whom was aged 11 years.

Cannabis tourism

The media reflected local concerns that large numbers of people were being attracted to Lambeth to buy, use and supply controlled drugs as a result of the introduction of the scheme and a public perception that the police would take a soft approach to the use of cannabis. What the available statistical data shows is that the proportions of Lambeth and non-Lambeth residents dealt with by police for possession of cannabis remained the same. However, there was a substantial increase in the overall number of people dealt with by police for cannabis offences.

In the year prior to the pilot scheme (July 2000-June 2001), 57% (454) of those arrested for all cannabis offences were Lambeth residents and 39% (306) were non-Lambeth residents. In the year of the pilot scheme (July 2001-June 2002), 57% (790) of those warned were Lambeth residents and 37% (514) were non-Lambeth residents. There was a small percentage in each case that were of no fixed abode.

7. Impact on other crime

The main reason for the introduction of the pilot was to release officers to spend more time dealing with high priority crimes such as gun crime, street robbery, class A drug enforcement and other serious crime. The performance indicators for Lambeth show that there was improved performance against crime throughout the pilot period. This was particularly evident in respect of street crime, with Lambeth actually experiencing a reduction in February 2002. However, this was also a time of major activity involving the deployment of additional police officers under the ‘Safer Streets’ policing initiative. The successful reduction in street crime could not therefore be directly attributed to the pilot scheme. 

The Consultancy Group report established that there was an increase in police activity in relation to class A drug trafficing enforcement in Lambeth, which increased by 19% (89 in 2000, 106 in 2001), when compared with a 3% decrease on adjoining boroughs. This increased performance against class A trafficking continues to be sustained, particularly against crack cocaine. The total number of drug offences, which denotes arrests, increased from 1367 to 1733 (26%) during the period from April – March 2001-2, when compared with the same period the previous year. Arrests for drug trafficking have also increased from 288 to 344 (16%) during this period. This would indicate that one objective of the pilot scheme has been achieved, which was to release officers’ time to carry out more class A drug enforcement.

8. Additional issues raised by the pilot scheme

Practical problems

The main practical difficulty in enforcing the scheme was that there is no legal definition of what constitutes a ‘small amount’ of cannabis. This created practical difficulties for officers in deciding whether people in possession of small quantities of cannabis were eligible for a warning within the pilot scheme, or, whether the quantity revealed evidence of dealing in cannabis and rendered them liable to arrest. In practice, officers regularly consulted their supervisors when difficult cases arose. Even if a legal definition had been provided, there was a widespread belief amongst many officers that drug dealers would exploit the situation by possessing small quantities and hiding larger quantities nearby.

The Consultancy Group report highlighted the concern raised by some officers that an adverse impact of the scheme would be a reduction in the amount or quality of intelligence gathered. There is no evidence to suggest that this was the case. 

9. Learning points for future pilot schemes


From the outset, press coverage of the pilot was highly positive and there appeared to be little opposition to its introduction. However, as the scheme progressed, there was more critical press comment amid suggestions that there had been insufficient public consultation and that the pilot would cause damage to the community.

Clearly, extensive local consultation on all pilot schemes would be impractical, particularly as the introduction or trial of many items of equipment or procedure will not be controversial. However, where pilot schemes are being considered that are likely to have a high level of media interest or, significant social impact, wider consultation is necessary.

Communication with the community

When the pilot first hit the headlines in July 2001 it became clear that there would be a high level of media interest and that a detailed communication strategy was needed. The MORI survey and the Consultancy Group evaluation both concluded that local people understood very little about the pilot. The MORI survey showed that 41 % of residents had no knowledge of the pilot and only 12% thought they had a good understanding. There was a widespread and mistaken belief that cannabis had been legalised within the Borough. The professional advice received from our Directorate of Public Affairs was that the best way to have addressed this misunderstanding would have been through the use of direct mail and other forms of marketing, which would have been expensive. However, such a large financial investment was not available in Lambeth at the time for what was perceived to be a relatively small-scale local initiative. Although it could not have been anticipated as to how controversial the scheme would have become nationally, with hindsight more should have been done to publicise the aims of the scheme.

Internal Communication

Internal communication about the aims of the pilot scheme was conducted amongst Lambeth officers through the use of team briefings, the internal computer system, noticeboards and personal letters. The Consultancy Group evaluation showed that Lambeth officers felt they had not been adequately briefed. Some officers suggested additional ways in which this could be achieved, such as through team training days.


The evaluation by the Consultancy Group was deliberately restricted on the grounds of cost. The project would have benefited from a more comprehensive and longer term evaluation, which assessed the social impact of the scheme. It would have been helpful if the evaluation could have assessed in greater detail the impact on serious crime. In the event the scope of the evaluation was limited to assessing the time saved by police officers and public attitudes towards the scheme. 

During the pilot scheme, it became clear that the unique policing environment of Lambeth, with its history of tense community and police relations and high levels of violent crime, was not typical of the usual policing situation across London. In order to accurately assess the effectiveness and likely social impact of the policy, it would have been better to have carried out pilot schemes in several different London boroughs. However, it remains the MPS view that a retrospective evaluation this scale would not represent good value for money given the Home Secretarys’ decision to re-classify cannabis.

Exit strategy

It became apparent as the pilot progressed and the debate on reclassification intensified that at some point the pilot would have to end. As this would involve a change of police practice whereby arrests would be made for possession of cannabis, it was recognised that this could create tension between the police and local community. An exit strategy was put into place at relatively short notice. In respect of future pilots it would be advisable for an exit strategy to be devised prior to implementation.

10. Reclassification

On 10 July 2002 the Home Secretary announced that cannabis would be reclassified from a class ‘B’ to a class ‘C’ drug. This will reduce the maximum penalty for possession to 2 years imprisonment. Normally there is no power of arrest for a class ‘C’ drug. However, the Home Secretary has announced that it is intended that police will retain a power of arrest for possession of cannabis when ‘aggravating factors’ apply (examples of these are set out below). This will require primary legislation and will not become law until the Summer of 2003. Any change in the law will be accompanied by national guidelines to be issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO).

Following the Home Secretary’s announcement, the MPS decided that the Lambeth Cannabis Warning Pilot should end. The MPS recognised that it would be advisable to adopt a transitional system in relation to cannabis offences whilst the national guidelines were being prepared and immediately following the end of the Lambeth pilot scheme. This transitional system restricts police officers from making arrests for possession of cannabis except where aggravating circumstances are present. Such a transitional system should reduce confusion as it involves only one change of enforcement policy in a relatively short space of time.

The new policy in Lambeth commenced on 1st August 2002 when the pilot scheme ended. Officers will continue to issue warnings but now also have the discretion to arrest where the offence is ‘aggravated.’ The factors that will lead to an offence being aggravated are:

  1. If the officer fears disorder
    Example: A complaint from local residents of public disorder occurring because cannabis is being used in their neighbourhood.
  2. If the person is openly smoking cannabis in a public place
    Example: If the person blows smoke in the face of an officer;
    Smoking whilst driving;
    Smoking or displaying cannabis in public or on licensed premises, places of public entertainment or cafes.
  3. Young People aged 17 or under found in possession of cannabis
  4. People found in possession of cannabis in or near schools, youth clubs or children’s play areas.

The most controversial element of the pilot scheme has been the question as to how young people found in possession of cannabis should be dealt with. Whilst the ACPO guidelines are awaited, all young people found in possession of cannabis are to be arrested and dealt with in accordance with the standard procedures contained within the Crime and Disorder Act. This reflects national practice and has the benefit of ensuring that the parents of the arrested person are involved at the earliest opportunity and that the young person is given access to drug referral advice and treatment where necessary. 

Publicity strategy in Lambeth

In July 2002 the MPS carried out a high profile publicity campaign in Lambeth to inform both local police officers and members of the public of the end of the pilot scheme and to provide details of changes to the enforcement strategy in respect of cannabis offences. The publicity was designed to send a clear message that cannabis possession and supply remains illegal, that the law will be enforced and outlined the circumstances when a person found in possession of cannabis would be arrested. 


Subject to the views of the MPA, the MPS does not intend to undertake any further formal evaluation. The transitional system will be subject to local monitoring, as part of the current borough inspection and review process. Monitoring will also be carried out to ensure the new system is being applied fairly. 

ACPO national cannabis enforcement scheme

The ACPO Drugs Sub-Committee is considering the guidelines to be given to Chief Officers on the enforcement of cannabis. Proposals are expected to go before the ACPO Council in October. If these are accepted, they will be disseminated to police forces across England and Wales. The MPS anticipates moving towards implementation of these guidelines in late Autumn 2002. A Cannabis Enforcement Working Group has been established within the MPS to deal with the implementation of the national guidelines.

The ACPO guidelines will set out the national enforcement policy for cannabis and the circumstances that will make any arrest for possession of cannabis an ‘aggravated offence.’ It is anticipated that this policy will permit a system of 2 warnings, a formal caution and then prosecution, but the exact details have yet to be finalised. 

11. Conclusion

The Lambeth Cannabis Warning Scheme was an innovative project which achieved its primary objective of saving officers’ time. Police officers at Lambeth Borough are to be commended for the dynamic and sensitive way in which they implemented such a high profile pilot scheme. The fact that the cannabis was seized by police meant that this was not the ‘soft option’ or ‘turning a blind eye’ in the way many have described and the seizure of the drug constituted a financial penalty. The MORI survey showed general public support for the scheme. Time was saved not only by police officers but by Criminal Justice Unit staff and the staff of agencies including the Crown Prosecution Service and the Court Service. The scheme also provided an ethical and proportionate means for officers dealing with people found in possession of cannabis where arrest was not appropriate.

Many lessons were learned during the course of the pilot scheme. These included the need to provide safeguards for young or vulnerable people found in possession of cannabis and to ensure early intervention of parents or carers. The pilot scheme did not provide for parents or carers to be present when warnings were given. Other lessons learned included the need to improve the overall management of future pilot schemes. In particular, the need for good internal and external communication and consultation processes, combined with the need for more than one pilot site and the importance of independent evaluation. There is no doubt that many of the positive elements within the scheme will form the basis for the national cannabis enforcement policy being developed by the Association of Chief Police Officers.

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