Pubdate: Thu, 16 Aug 2001
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2001 News World Communications, Inc.
Author: J.D. Tuccille
Note: J.D. Tuccille is a senior editor of the Henry Hazlitt Foundation's 
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


What does it mean when a former top-level conservative politician comes out 
in favor of legalizing marijuana - and then is promptly trumped by the head 
of the prison system, who says all drugs should be legal?

Well, it means you've woken up in Britain, for one thing. That's where 
one-time Conservative Party Deputy Leader Peter Lilley publicly described 
laws against marijuana as "unenforceable and indefensible." He wants 
licensed outlets to be able to sell the popular herb to users over the age 
of 18. Rather than exiling himself to the political wilderness with his 
comments, Mr. Lilley sparked a discussion in which other members of his own 
party, as well as senior members of the ruling Labor Party, allowed that it 
was time to debate changes to the law.

Just days later, Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons in 
England and Wales, called for all drugs to be legalized "so people do not 
have to go and find an illegal way of doing it."

That's mighty surprising talk for people accustomed to the unwavering 
prohibitionist line at the higher levels of American politics, but it's not 
so strange overseas.

Europeans have never been quite so fanatical as Americans on the drug 
issue, and they are more readily admitting the inability of police to force 
people to stop taking substances that make them feel good. After decades of 
harsh laws, full prisons and plenty of public finger- wagging, drugs remain 
as available - and profitable - in the Old World as ever. Rather than 
continue with more of the same, many politicians and much of the public are 
ready to try something new. As a result, drug laws have been loosening up 
all over Europe.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws summarized 
recent reforms in a 1999 study, saying: "A major part of the European model 
of drug policy is to treat drug use not as a criminal activity that must be 
stamped out completely, but rather a part of human nature that should best 
be handled in a manner that minimizes adverse effects to both the 
individual and society as a whole."

An example of the differences between United States and Europe can be found 
in Switzerland. That country's somewhat stodgy image has long been belied 
by a surprisingly tolerant attitude toward marijuana. While the plant can't 
be sold for intoxicating purposes, it's widely marketed as potpourri, 
though nobody seems to be fooled. What purchasers do with the stuff once 
they get home is their own business.

Now authorities in the mountainous republic are considering legalizing the 
open production and sale of the stuff without the nudge and wink factor. 
Even if they don't go that far, members of the ruling coalition have voiced 
support for a Dutch-style solution, under which prohibition laws remain on 
the books without being enforced.

For their part, the Portuguese have joined Spain and Italy in looking 
beyond the relatively easy debate over marijuana and tackling the thornier 
controversy over disfavored intoxicants in general. Portugal recently 
decriminalized the use of all recreational drugs, including cocaine and 
heroin. Users no longer face imprisonment if caught with small amounts.

That's not to say Portugal has taken the full step to legalization. 
Instead, Portugal has adopted the trappings of the therapeutic state. 
According to the BBC, marijuana smokers must "meet a commission of 
psychologists and social workers, who try to convince them to change their 

Users of harder drugs are obliged to seek treatment for a vice that is now 
officially considered an ailment. Still, a dose of psychobabble is a 
definite improvement over Lisbon's version of the pokey.

Even Canada, so like the United States in many ways, has made major 
advances toward reining in the excesses of the drug war. Prime Minister 
Jean Chretien recently felt obliged to announce that he wouldn't consider 
legalizing marijuana for recreational use. This came after members of all 
five parliamentary parties agreed to convene a special committee to examine 
the country's drug laws, and as a legislator from the conservative Canadian 
Alliance proposed replacing criminal penalties for marijuana possession 
with fines.

As it is, Canada has legalized marijuana for medical use and commissioned a 
private company to grow an official crop. Legalization advocates committed 
to civil disobedience have been pushed to the point of promising to sell a 
better quality product than that available from the authorities.

As if to emphasize the United States' growing isolation on the drug issue, 
President Vicente Fox of Mexico, a Bush buddy and fellow conservative, has 
added his voice to the international chorus suggesting that drugs can best 
be dealt with in an open market.

Of course, proposing an end to prohibitionistic drug laws isn't completely 
taboo in the United States. Libertarians, liberals and some conservatives 
have made waves by suggesting just that. A few maverick politicians, such 
as Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, 
have survived the fallout from their pro- legalization ideas.

In terms of real policy, medical marijuana laws have been passed by popular 
referendum in many U.S. states (though they have mostly been blocked by 
federal authorities). And Portugal's drug decriminalization largely 
resembles a policy adopted last year by California.

So the continuing hard-line rhetoric from drug policy-makers in Washington 
sounds almost anachronistic, like the last stand of true- believing foes of 
alcohol in the early 1930s.

Whatever the pleasures and dangers to be found in using many intoxicating 
drugs, U.S. officials stand increasingly isolated in their insistence that 
the force of the law can prevent people from making their own decisions on 
the matter.
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MAP posted-by: Terry Liittschwager