Pubdate: Fri, 13 Jul 2001
Source: Dallas Morning News (TX)
Copyright: 2001 The Dallas Morning News
Author: Gregory Katz, The Dallas Morning News
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


Surprise groundswell mirrors officials' opposition to law.

A sudden and unexpected movement to loosen controls on marijuana use 
is sweeping Britain, gaining bipartisan support each day and setting 
the stage for a possible decriminalization of the drug, which is 
extremely popular here.

Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has promised a hard-line approach to 
drug abuse, has not spoken out, but senior figures in his Labor Party 
have called for the use of small amounts of marijuana to go 
unpunished. Surprisingly, some leaders in the Conservative Party have 
agreed that the time has come to change the law.

Newly appointed Home Secretary David Blunkett called this week for an 
"adult, rational debate" on the subject, showing far more openness 
than his predecessor, Jack Straw, who frequently ruled out any easing 
of laws governing "soft drug" use.

Mr. Blunkett spoke out after two former home secretaries -- including 
one who is a longtime mentor to the prime minister -- called for an 
end to criminal sanctions for marijuana use.

Michael Portillo, the leading candidate in the race to become 
Conservative Party leader, joined the chorus this week by suggesting 
that a "strong enough case" for legalization of marijuana has been 
made. Some politicians have suggested that marijuana be sold in 
licensed stores and taxed, much as it is in the Netherlands, which 
has Europe's most liberal drug policy.

The epicenter of change, at least for the moment, is the 
predominantly African and Caribbean neighborhood of Brixton, where 
police have announced a six-month experiment. During that time, they 
will not charge people found to be smoking or carrying marijuana with 
any criminal offense if the quantity involved is small.

Instead of being formally charged, pot smokers will have to surrender 
their drugs and will receive a warning that carries no criminal 

The sudden announcement of a no-prosecution zone has delighted 
Brixton's many Rastafarians, who trace their family roots to Jamaica. 
Many of them regard marijuana use as part of their religious activity 
and use the drug daily.

Now they can light up without fear, said David Clarke, who wears the 
traditional Rastafarian dreadlocks.

Turning a Blind Eye

"It's safer than alcohol and cigarettes," he said. "It makes sense to 
change the law. They should change the law in the whole country."

Mr. Clarke said Brixton police have for several years turned a blind 
eye on casual marijuana use in the neighborhood and concentrated 
instead on dealers of hard drugs. He said the new policy makes 
official -- at least for six months -- the unstated policy that was 
already in place.

"It's been happening for a long time with no molestation from the 
police," he said. "It hasn't been enforced lately, if it's a small 
amount. It depends on the amount."

The pot-tolerant policy angers some people in Brixton, particularly 
shopkeepers who say they have found a rise in street crime to be 
associated with the widespread drug use in the crowded downtown area. 
Blacks who own small businesses in downtown Brixton said they 
resented the way their neighborhood had been chosen for the pilot 

"It's not a good idea," said Kwaku Nyami, who runs a small food shop 
near the Brixton market, where drugs are openly sold, often by 
dealers perched in late-model German sedans. "Some people use it 
excessively, and it gives them mental problems. It's a crazy idea to 
try it here. They should try it somewhere else. We already have a lot 
of drug-related problems."

He said it was unfair to start the new policy in a poor, largely 
black community that is susceptible to drug abuse.

"I'm not aware of the police asking anyone in the community about 
it," he said. "At the end of the day, it's their decision, but I 
don't support it."

Others worried that the Brixton area would become a lure for 
drug-using youths from other parts of Britain and the rest of Europe. 
This phenomenon of so-called "drug tourists" has caused some problems 
in the Netherlands, where border towns have become a magnet for 
marijuana users from Germany, France and other countries.

Some local businessmen said they are untroubled by the policy shift, 
and they say it simply recognizes the reality that the police do not 
have the manpower to shut down the marijuana dealers and should 
instead concentrate on those selling heroin and crack cocaine.

Shoe salesman Errol Brady said the police can put the ubiquitous 
marijuana dealers out of business for several hours but not for an 
entire day.

'The Drug Money Helps'

"They can't stop it," he said. "Not much has changed with this 
policy. They were leaning that way, anyway. I don't feel one way or 
the other about it. I think the drug money helps Brixton, actually. I 
get a lot of it here, you can tell. People come in and buy expensive 
shoes with a lot of small bills and coins." The decision not to 
enforce marijuana laws in Brixton contrasts with the rest of Britain, 
where marijuana is still listed as a Class B drug, with anyone found 
possessing it facing up to five years in prison. Many now call for it 
to be reclassified as a Class C drug, which would mean that someone 
found carrying a small amount would not face criminal charges.

In the past two weeks, the current policy has been denounced by a 
wide variety of public figures and newspaper writers. Among those 
calling for modification are Lord Jenkins, a former home secretary 
from the Labor Party who is close to the current prime minister, and 
Lord Baker, who served as home secretary from the Conservative Party 
in the 1990s.

Lord Baker said the policy no longer makes sense. "To fill our 
prisons with marijuana users is a bum use of prisons," he said.

These influential elder statesmen were joined by Sir David 
Ramsbotham, the outgoing chief inspector of prisons, who this week 
called for decriminalization of drug use as a step toward helping 
drug users and their families.

Some trace the movement toward a loosening of marijuana laws to a 
call this spring by Anne Widdecombe, a hard-line Conservative Party 
leader, for an intensification of the police campaign against 
marijuana users.

Almost Alone In Stance

Ms. Widdecombe expected approval for her tough stance, but found 
instead that virtually no one in the public agreed with her, said 
Bruce Anderson, a columnist for The Independent newspaper. A shift in 
public attitude was also revealed when the British public failed to 
react to disclosures by a number of Conservative Party leaders that 
they had used marijuana in the past, he said.

This allowed senior politicians who had privately felt that marijuana 
laws no longer made sense to speak out on the matter without fear of 
public censure, opening the way for reform, he said. As a result, he 
said, British laws against marijuana use had begun "to crumble."

The growing acceptance of marijuana may also be related to the fact 
that the 1960s generation that celebrated the drug is now in 
positions of authority throughout British society, as exemplified by 
former Beatle Paul McCartney, an avowed heavy user of marijuana who 
has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his charitable works.

And Mr. Blair, the youthful prime minister, has made no secret of his 
lifelong devotion to the Rolling Stones, a band whose members were 
repeatedly arrested on drugs charges in the 1960s and '70s.
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MAP posted-by: Josh Sutcliffe