In years past, people caught smoking marijuana in the south London neighborhood of Brixton could expect to be arrested. But now, police are giving them a warning, confiscating the drug, and sending them on their way.
Britain, which has long had the strictest policies in West Europe on narcotics use, is showing signs of a possible relaxation inofficial attitudes toward marijuana.
While Britons remain divided on whether cannabis should be legalized, the six-month experiment with lenient enforcement in Brixton has some wondering whether Britain may eventually follow other Western European countries in relaxing attitudes toward so-called 'soft' drugs. The new policy experiment reflects a trend in British society toward acceptance of marijuana consumption - and an acknowledgement that the punitive approach taken over the past few decades may have been misguided.
Politicians are no longer shy about the topic. Home Secretary David Blunkett gave the clearest signal yet that the government might be prepared to soften its stance on drugs when he described the Brixton policy as "interesting," and last month called for an "adult, intelligent debate on the subject." At the same time, however, Mr. Blunkett stressed that the government must send a clear antidrugs message, especially to young people. And he said that there would be no swift decision on decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.
Blunkett's comments followed calls by conservative Peter Lilley, former deputy Tory leader and a loyal Thatcherite minister, for marijuana to be sold (and taxed) in licensed outlets.
Lower down the political ranks, an overwhelming majority of the Labour MPs that currently dominate Parliament are prepared to vote to decriminalize cannabis, according to a BBC survey. David Winnick, a Labour member of the cross-party Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which will be studying the topic, says he believes the drug will be decriminalized by the next general election.
The change in tenor does not extend to harder drugs, such as heroin and crack cocaine, widely seen as fueling violence, theft, and social marginalization.
British Customs officers have been told to switch efforts away from marijuana interdiction to seizing hard drugs, which flow in increasing quantities into the UK.
Commander Brian Paddick, in charge of policing in Lambeth, the borough where Brixton is located, says freeing resources to fight harder drugs like crack cocaine is part of the rationale for his officers' new tolerant line on marijuana. He stresses that the move does not legalize marijuana possession in the borough. The lenient enforcement applies only to small amounts of the drug for personal use. "The officer will seize the cannabis, which then must be signed for by the suspect. It will then be sealed and disposed of."
Some efforts to legalize marijuana are in the works, however. Jon Owen Jones, a Labour MP for Cardiff, says he will make the first British attempt to have marijuana fully legalized for recreational use when Parliament returns from its summer recess in October. However, this appears to be moving faster than the official consensus, and is likely to fail.
Debate still rages. Conservative newspapers like the largest selling broadsheet, Daily Telegraph, and the No. 2 tabloid, Daily Mail, are strongly against marijuana smoking. Britain's 'drug czar,' ex-policeman Keith Hellawell, also opposes treating marijuana more leniently than other drugs, maintaining that this would make little difference to criminals' currently lucrative situation. In a statement earlier this month, he said: "The only way you would take the whole thing out of the criminal justice system is to actually say we will legalize everything and make it available to everybody."
There are also academics to the left, such as Robin Bunton, of the University of Teesside, who see liberalization as a 'neo-liberal' move that would give market forces sway in an area where the state previously had responsibility for citizens' welfare.
More surprising is the extent to which acceptance and use of soft drugs has apparently spread through various agencies of the government. The chief inspector of prisons. Sir David Ramsbotham, has added his name to those of a number of senior policemen calling for consideration of decriminalization of marijuana.
A recent study shows that within the police force itself, there is growing drug consumption, especially by younger officers taking cannabis and ecstasy. The study's author, David Wilson, professor of criminal justice at the University of Central England, Birmingham, says: "When you consider how many 20-year-olds take drugs, it is not surprising that some of the people who join the police are also drug users."
In the Brixton experiment, which extends through early January, Britain is following a pan-European trend.
The trail toward greater tolerance was blazed by the Dutch, where, since 1976, officially tolerated cafés have served marijuana as well as coffee. Experience in the Netherlands seems to refute the idea of marijuana working as an automatic 'gateway' to harder drugs - Dutch rates of heroin addiction are lower than those in the UK, whose anti-marijuana laws have until now been the stiffest in Western Europe. Survey figures also indicate that only 14 percent of Dutch 15-16 year-olds smoke marijuana, compared to 16 percent of their British counterparts.
The past two years have seen Belgium, Switzerland and Germany all follow the Dutch lead by decriminalizing marijuana sale and consumption to varying extents. French health minister Kouchner added to the movement this month by himself admitting to smoking the drug and stating that he thinks it should be legal in France.
In July, Portugal decriminalized use of all drugs as part of a new public-health strategy. The focus is on treatment and rehabilitation of users, rather than on criminal punishment. Only Swedish and Greek authorities remain at least nominally fixed on the goal of a drug-free society.
One reason for Britain's changing official attitude toward cannabis may be a realization that the drug has become popular across a spectrum of society. Back in Brixton in the mid-1980s, smoking by the neighborhood's large Caribbean minority stoked conflict with a largely white police force, which contributed to urban riots. Last month the 'Big Chill' music festival, 200 miles west of London in Wiltshire, occurred under a haze of marijuana smoke. Most of the thousands who paid £100 ($145) to attend were white professionals.