Pubdate: Thu, 05 Jul 2001
Source: Associated Press (Wire)
Copyright: 2001 Associated Press
Author: Ed Johnson, Associated Press Writer


Chris Baldwin, a paraplegic who says he uses marijuana to control
muscle spasms, lit up a joint in front of a police station in south
London to see what would happen.

It took the 51-year-old Baldwin 20 minutes, two marijuana cigarettes
and "several shouted requests to passing patrols" before officers
confiscated his marijuana, according to media reports.

Baldwin was testing a pilot program launched this week in London's
crime-ridden borough of Lambeth in which anyone caught with a small
amount of marijuana is let off with a verbal warning, as part of an
effort to free officers to tackle crack cocaine, heroin and other crimes.

Authorities in Lambeth say the program, which began Monday and will
last for six months, is not about leniency, but about freeing officers
from paperwork so they can address the area's more pressing needs.

"Local people have said that the things that most concern them are
crack cocaine, heroin and street robbery, so I want to focus scarce
police resources on those priorities," said Brian Paddick, commander
of Lambeth police.

According to Paddick, it takes two officers several hours to process a
marijuana smoker, who usually ends up paying a fine of less than $70.
Officers will now spend a few minutes to confiscate the drug and give
a verbal warning.

Others besides Baldwin, including a reporter from The Guardian
newspaper, were pointedly ignored by officers as they smoked marijuana

Lambeth is a hard-bitten borough plagued by violent crime,
prostitution and hard drugs. Shootings are commonplace, particularly
among the so-called Yardie gangs - Jamaican gangsters.

Drug dealers are a common sight on street corners, particularly in
Brixton - an increasingly fashionable town in the borough despite its
high crime rate and the stigma of the race riots that tore it apart in
the early 1980s.

John Whelan, head of Lambeth Council's Conservative group,
acknowledges its hard crime problem, but believes the program will
compound problems.

"One respects and acknowledges that policing should be flexible. But
why run up a white flag and say, 'That's our policy, come and do it
here?"' he said.

Britain's Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 makes it illegal to grow,
produce, possess or supply marijuana to another person. Possession
carries a maximum five years imprisonment.

The government insists the Lambeth plan is a police resources issue,
not the first step toward legalization. Nevertheless, the move has
intensified the public debate about the drug.

One in 10 British adults has used marijuana in the last 12 months,
double the European average, according to the European Union Drugs
Agency. Almost half of all teens have tried marijuana - more commonly
called cannabis in Britain - by the time they leave school.

The governing Labor Party treads gingerly around the issue and has
avoided a debate on legalizing marijuana.

Conservative lawmaker Ann Widdecombe said the experiment is the wrong
solution to the real problem - too few policemen.

In Brixton, residents are unfazed by the program.

"Cannabis is so widely accepted here, it is not going to make any
difference," said 23-year-old carpenter Harry Joe.
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