Tough-on-drugs Britain softens its line on marijuana

The decision Wednesday to ease penalties for marijuana use stirs debate on whether Britain will legalize drugs.

For Lauren Ringwood, Britain's debate over drug laws hits close to home.

At her local bus stop in Brixton, a neighborhood where police have experimented for a year with relaxed enforcement of marijuana laws, the dealers are growing more brazen – peddling bags of "skunk" to commuters during the day.

"It's frightening," she says. You never know if they have a knife or a gun."

On Wednesday Britain said that – though marijuana is still technically illegal – it would soften enforcement nationwide so that private use of marijuana in small amounts will no longer be subject to arrest.

The announcement by Home Secretary David Blunkett in the House of Commons is sparking a media furor here, with some newspapers accusing the government of "gambling with our children." Opposed by Conservatives and some Labour members of Parliament, the decision has some critics charging that Britain is moving toward decriminalization of drugs.

But supporters say the change will allow police to focus on more serious drug crimes. Within the European Union, Britain has the most drug-related deaths, with heroin the most frequent cause.

In announcing the change, which puts marijuana in the same category as antidepressants and steroids, Mr. Blunkett said that the sentence for marijuana dealing would be increased to a 14-year maximum.

The plan also includes increased funding for treatment of abusers – to $283 million over the next three years – and for antidrug education programs.

Regional trend

Several European countries have recently eased drug laws. Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands, and Spain and Italy do not jail users of small amounts of drugs intended for personal consumption. Portugal has gone the furthest toward decriminalization of drug use, ordering treatment rather than jail time in cases of possession of small amounts of any illegal drug.

Though it will be July 2003 before Britain's decision becomes law, the Metropolitan Police said its officers would adopt the policy from October this year, with other forces likely to follow. Police can now let users off with a warning and confiscate the drug, but they retain the right to arrest those who endanger public order with "aggravated behavior."

Until the much-heralded "Softly, Softly" experiment in Brixton, Britain had taken a tougher approach to cannabis possession than had any other European country, endorsing a five-year jail sentence for possession.

According to a study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Abuse, Britain has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe.

"Our research nationwide showed that over 50 percent of young people in Britain had taken cannabis, but that very few had gone on to hard drugs," says Sir Michael Rawlins, the chairman of the medical think tank that advises the Home Office on drug issues.

"We felt that the five-year penalty in place was quite out of proportion to the act.

"But we are not saying that cannabis is harmless," he adds. "I have always said that anyone who takes cannabis is a fool. It is unquestionably harmful, it affects concentration, decisionmaking, and it can aggravate health problems like heart conditions. However, it has been inappropriately positioned beside such drugs as amphetamines, which are much more dangerous. This decision announced [Wednesday] is a very sensible move."

A drug czar's protest

Keith Hellawell, a former chief constable who has worked as a drug strategy adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair, criticized the government's decision. "Reclassifying cannabis ... gives a mixed message to the public and to young people. We will now see an increased use of cannabis." Hellawell, who was dubbed Britain's "drugs czar" by the media, last month resigned from his post as Britain's ambassador on drugs strategy to the EU in protest at Britain's softening line on drug policy.

During a heated debate in the House of Commons, Labour MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey, whose constituency includes Brixton, warned that Britain would one day come to regret its decision.

A local doctor at a clinic serving families in the Brixton area, who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the work, warned of marijuana's increasing toxicity.

"The cannabis of today ... has 10 times the strength of the cannabis on the market in the '80s.... The use of cannabis, holding it in the mouth, inhaling it deeply, greatly increases the risk of mouth, throat, and lung cancer. It is absolutely vital that we hold public education debates to bring this information to the public."

But the group of neighborhood residents who worked with police in introducing and monitoring the Brixton experiment welcomed the government's decision.

"It will allow more police attention to the real problems of hard drugs in our community," spokesman Paul Andell says. "It will keep youngsters out of the criminal-justice system, and relieve some of the community tensions we experience here."

Andell says it was the previous policy of "stop and search" which led to violent riots in the area in 1981: "Black youths increasingly resented what they saw as victimization."

He added that a poll conducted last year, surveying 2,000 area residents, showed that 81 percent thought "formal warnings" about cannabis use were more appropriate than arrest."

All this is cold comfort for Lauren Ringwood and her mother Ann, who see the decision as compounding their community's drug troubles.

"Neither I, or my daughter would dream of going out alone at night," says Ann.

"The problem is definitely getting worse. There were five of us walking down Coldharbour Lane a few days ago [a well-known busy Brixton street, but notorious as a haven for dealers] and we were approached half-a-dozen times."

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