Pubdate: Fri, 31 Oct 2003
Source: Drug War Chronicle (US Web)
Author: Phillip S. Smith, Editor
Note: Thanks to the UK Cannabis Internet Activists the 
cannabis debate is on line at and


House of Commons Passes Cannabis Rescheduling Bill

The British House of Commons Wednesday approved a government-sponsored
bill that will reschedule cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug,
putting marijuana in the category of least serious drugs, along with
steroids and some anti-depressants. By an overwhelming vote of
316-160, British parliamentarians approved the measure that will
effectively decriminalize marijuana use and possession on January 29.
By rescheduling cannabis, lawmakers have removed the police power to
arrest marijuana users -- except in special circumstances. Now, in
most cases, pot possession law violators will be subject solely to a
ticket and fine and loss of their stashes.

But the bill also increases penalties for cannabis sales, leading some
critics to call it a half-measure that will not address harms
resulting from the herb's black market status.

European Parliament member Chris Davies, a staunch anti-prohibitionist
campaigner who got himself arrested for cannabis possession in an act
of civil disobedience in 2001, welcomed the improvements in the law,
but said they did not go far enough. "Hundreds, indeed millions, of
people have been arrested, fined or even imprisoned for the possession
of cannabis, and these new guidelines show that it has all been a
complete folly -- using up police resources and wrecking the lives of
many cannabis users who have done no harm to anyone other than
themselves," said Davies in a statement greeting the vote.

But the government's decision to double the penalties for cannabis
sales from seven years to 14 years will only create more problems,
said Davies. "This change in the law is a significant step forward,
but the Home Secretary David Blunkett is about to take two steps backwards.

If dealers are going to face 14 years in prison for the supply of
cannabis, there is no incentive not to sell other drugs as well.
Cannabis users may be pushed into the hands of heroin dealers.

Instead the Government should be working to break the link between
soft and hard drugs.

Experience in Holland of separating the supply of soft and hard drugs
has helped achieve a situation where the average age of a heroin
addict in the Netherlands is forty and rising and in Britain it is
twenty-one and falling," he added.

"The change, when it comes into law, will make very little
difference," complained the UK Cannabis Internet Activists
( web site, home of Britain's Legalize Cannabis
campaigns. "The original proposal which Blunkett took to the Home
Affairs Select committee was simply to move cannabis from Class B to
Class C, which would have lowered penalties and removed the power of
arrest for possession. However, the penalties for dealing class C
drugs are now to be increased to a maximum of 14 years, so there's no
change there.

The power of arrest is to be retained for cannabis, although, as was
announced in the speech, other class C drugs will remain un-arrestable
offences, so there's no change there either," said UKCIA. "The new
regime will do nothing to separate the markets for class A drugs; it's
a worthless and possibly dangerous step."

The British Home Office modified its original bill under pressure from
the Association of Chief Police Officers, which successfully argued
that police needed to maintain the power of arrest in certain
circumstances. "Aggravating" circumstances could include smoking in
front of a school, causing a public disturbance, or having been cited
previously for marijuana possession, according to ACPO guidelines.
Currently, British police arrest about 80,000 people per year on
marijuana use or possession charges.

Even under the ACPO guidelines allowing arrest under some
circumstances, that number is expected to shrink to a fraction of its
current level.

Danny Kushlick, director of Transform (,
a leading British nonprofit campaigning for drug law reform, told the
BBC News that the bill didn't go far enough and that illegal
production was less safe than if it were regulated. "The only way to
ensure that cannabis users are aware of the strength, purity and
potential dangers of cannabis is to legalize, regulate and control its
production and supply," Kushlick said.

Things looked a little different from the other side of the Atlantic.
US reform group the Marijuana Policy Project ( saw
the vote as an indication of increasing US isolation on marijuana
policy. "Even our closest ally in the world -- the nation that marched
side-by-side with the US into Baghdad when much of Europe would not --
can no longer join America in its failed war on marijuana users," said
MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "Britain deserves congratulations
for doing what the US government refuses to do: base policies on
science rather than fear. The complete failure of our government's
hysterical exaggerations of the dangers of marijuana is shown by the
recent national PRIDE survey documenting a sharp rise in teen drug use
after wave upon wave of government anti-marijuana ads," Kampia jabbed.

Debate in the House lasted only 90 minutes before a largely empty
chamber. With Home Secretary Blunkett absent, the charge for the bill
was led by Home Office Junior Minister Caroline Flint, who argued that
rescheduling was not the same as legalizing cannabis and that it would
free police resources to concentrate on harder drugs. "This Labor
government is absolutely right to focus on the most dangerous drugs,
to intervene most vigorously in the most damaged communities and to
seek to break the link between addiction and the crime that feeds it,"
she told the House of Commons. "And to reduce harm that drugs cause by
addressing the chaotic lifestyles of those users who are harming
themselves and harming others."

Tory shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin responded by calling the Tony
Blair government's drug policy "a dreadful muddle" and "a halfway
measure." The bill was aimed at short-term popularity, said Letwin,
rather than at arriving at a coherent policy.

Either outright decrim a la the Netherlands or a harder, Swedish-style
prohibitionist line would be preferable to the mixed message coming
from the government, he said.

Junior Minister Flint replied that the rescheduling was necessary
because of "postal code enforcement," or the differential enforcement
of cannabis laws by police in different jurisdictions. "Individual
police forces have developed disparate policies on the policing of
cannabis possession based on their own view of the relative
seriousness of the offence, leading to inconsistency and a lack of
proper political accountability," she explained. "The policing regime
will ensure that action is properly taken by police against someone
who is causing a problem or needs help whilst avoiding needlessly
charging large numbers of young people," Flint added. And the new
14-year sentences for cannabis sales will send "a very strong message"
to dealers, she maintained.

Old school drug warriors, from Labor as well as the Tories, brought up
their standard arguments, but they fell on deaf ears. Labor MP Martin
Salter said the cannabis reclassification was "a grave disservice" to
young people because it would confuse them, while Tory MP Graham Brady
claimed the cannabis of today is not your father's weed and it would
be "perverse" to downgrade the herb. Tory Ann Winterton insisted that
the British are too stupid to understand the differences between
drugs, maintaining that "sophisticated measures do not wash," while
her compatriot Angela Watkinson warned of the dreaded "gateway" effect.

In the end, the doomsayers were outvoted by a margin of nearly
two-to-one. Britain will now boldly take one step forward and one step
back in the struggle for cannabis law reform.

No word yet from drug czar John Walters on whether it will be
necessary to slow traffic between the US and Britain in order to keep
this nation safe from the British weed menace. 
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