Pubdate: 19 Nov 1998 
Source: L'Express (French Weekly)
Page: 76-77
Copyright: L'Express 1998 
Authors: Dominique Lagarde, with M. Audusseau in Barcelona; Aike de
Belimond in Stockhohm; Vanja Luksk in Rome; Blandie Milcent in Berlin, and
Virginie Thanh in London 
Translator: Pat Dolan (from the French)


Legislation. Ought cannabis to be depenalised? In Germany, the debate has
been engaged anew. The question is raised in most EU countries.

Will it soon be possible to smoke, perhaps even to sell, small quantities
of cannabis in Germany? Questioned by the German magazine ‘Der Spiegel,’
Otto Schilly, Social-Democrat Minister of the Interior, said that the
question ‘is being studied’, a formula which is making waves beyond the
Rhine. So much the more since the Greens, who were hoping to have the
depenalisation of soft drugs placed on the agenda of the "pink-green"
coalition government, had not as yet obtained the agreement of the SPD on
this point.

Should one distinguish between the different drugs?

Should cannabis use be tolerated? Or should the simple fact of smoking it
be subject to sanction? In most european countries this question is the
subject of open debate. In Italy, a dozen different proposals aimed at
depenalising the use of cannabis have been placed on the order papers of
the House or Senate. 

One of these, which has the support of the Greens and all left-wing
parties, foresees even the cultivation of cannabis, so long as it is for
personal use. 

In Spain, a hundred magistrates are asking for greater tolerance. In the
United Kingdom, it is The Independent on Sunday which has taken the lead in
the fight for depenalisation. More than ten thousand demonstrated in the
streets of London last Spring, responding to the call put out by this
newspaper and by a few celebrities such as ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and
Virgin’s No. 1, Richard Branson. 

A Law Applied Without Undue Severity

The degree of tolerance differs greatly from one state to the next. The
most liberal is, without doubt, the Netherlands. It was the first (1976) to
establish a distinction between soft and hard drugs. It is legal there to
purchase up to 5 grammes of the herb cannabis, or of hashish, in any of the
country’s 2,500 coffee shops. If, however, police apprehend anyone selling
hard drugs within a 200 metre radius of one of these establishments, they
can close it down. 

Since the beginning of the 80s, Spain had likewise depenalised individual
drug consumption. A backward step was taken 10 years later when sanctions
were reintroduced against individual drug consumption in public places. The
sanctions were essentially of an administrative nature, such as a fine, or
the suspension of one’s driving license, and were imposed by the minister
of the interior rather than by the justice department.

Managers of bars, discotheques and concert halls are also susceptible to
fines of up to 250,000 francs, if they are found to be overly lax in their
attitude to drug use by their clientele. The law is not applied very
rigorously, however, and it is not uncommon to see young people light up a
joint in bars or discotheques. 

Italy has laws similar to those of Spain: severe punishment for traffickers
- - up to 20 years - but simple fines when it’s a question of drugs for
‘personal use’.

In Germany, possession of drugs, even for personal use, can, in principle,
bring penalties of 3 to 5 years in prison. However, in 1994 the federal
government ordered the provinces to cease prosecuting individuals for
possession of small quantities of hashish or marihuana. Practically
speaking, therefore, the system has become relatively liberal. However,
Germans are not all guests of the same hotel: since the federal document
fails to define a "small quantity," each province defines it according to
its own interpretation. In Schleswig-Holstein or in Hesse, it’s 30 grams,
in North-Rhine Westphalia, 10, and in Bavaria, less than 6 grams.

Amongst the less tolerant countries, one finds Great Britain and the
countries of the North. Tony Blair’s government is categorically opposed to
depenalisation, even of soft drugs. The only reform envisaged concerns the
prescription of medical marihuana, provided the measure is supported by
tests currently under way. Slightly more than one third of young people in
Britain have admitted smoking marihuana. Included, is the son of Jack
Straw, Home Secretary, recently apprehended reselling hashish.

Sweden, Norway and Denmark all fail to distinguish between hard and soft
drugs. Possession of drugs for personal use, no matter what kind, renders
the individual liable to a term of imprisonment. But in Sweden, where
judges have the right to impose detoxification, the clinic is preferred to
the penitentiary. In addition, in these three countries, the accent is
placed on education and prevention.
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Checked-by: Richard Lake