HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html European Governments Soften Line On Cannabis
Pubdate: Mon,  9 Oct 2000
Source: (US Web)
Copyright: 2000 Cable News Network, Inc.
Author: Craig Francis, writer


LONDON, England (CNN) -- Many European governments are shifting from harsh 
soft-drug penalties towards a more tolerant approach to drugs such as cannabis.

The most dramatic change in policy is likely to come from Portugal, where 
hard and soft drugs alike are expected to be decriminalised within weeks.

Earlier this month, the Swiss government came out in favour of legalising 
cannabis and is expected to put its recommendations to parliament next year.

The legal framework borrowed from -- and still predominant in -- the U.S. 
that aimed to prevent soft drug usage through strong criminal deterrents 
has made way for a system focused on the social and medical implications of 
regular drug use.

As the Conservative opposition in the UK waded into a controversy over 
plans to introduce a "zero tolerance" policy targeting all drugs users, 
Portugal, Switzerland and Luxembourg were poised to take lengthy strides in 
the opposite direction.

Earlier this month, the Swiss government came out in favour of legalising 
cannabis and is expected to put its recommendations to parliament next year.

Wary of the influx of tourists lured to the liberal-minded Netherlands' and 
its cannabis cafes, the Swiss government said its proposals would include 
measures to protect young people and to ensure that Switzerland is not 
flooded with drug tourists.

According to the legal advisor to Lisbon-based European Monitoring Centre 
for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), Danilo Ballotta, these measures 
typify a broader European shift towards a softer legal stance on cannabis 

"There is a patchwork quilt of policies across Europe but it is fair to say 
that there is a trend towards a more pragmatic approach to soft drugs that 
aims to redress the social and medical problems associated with addiction, 
as opposed to punishing occasional users," Ballotta told

"The hard-line approach was borrowed from the U.S. but over the past two 
decades we have seen European countries beginning to think differently, 
removing the issue from the criminal domain and looking at it as a medical 
issue," he said.

The EMCDDA, a European Union drugs research agency, estimates that more 
than 40 million Europeans have tried cannabis at least once -- on average, 
one in five 15-16-year-olds and at least one in four 15-34-year-olds.

"Belgium and France are two more countries that have taken to issuing 
cautions for first-time cannabis use offenders, perceiving cannabis use as 
normal or mundane rather than deviant," said Ballotta.

The move towards greater tolerance of drugs has not, however, swept through 
all of Europe.

The zero-tolerance policy in place in Sweden has broad cross-party 
political support. Voices arguing for the legalisation of marijuana are 
limited to non-parliamentary groups, with their debating forum centring 
around underground graffiti in the major cities.

Huge Demand

An EMCDDA report on pan-European drug usage stated that the softly-softly 
approach towards cannabis was largely a response to huge supply and demand, 
with even hard drugs such as heroin being "ordered as easily as pizza."

While the EMCDDA does not draw conclusions about the effectiveness of 
different government policies, there appears little correlation between the 
severity of legal penalties and frequency of drug use.

Cannabis use rose in most EU countries throughout the 1990s, levelling out 
in latter years among high-use nations and increasing more sharply in 
low-prevalence countries.

Three countries with the strictest rules in the EU -- Sweden, Finland and 
Greece -- have had markedly different results in the battle against drugs.

Drug use is relatively low in the Scandinavian countries whereas Greece is 
confronting high levels of heroin addiction.

When it comes to schoolchildren, the results are similarly unpredictable in 
terms of the law acting as a deterrent to drug use.

In Portugal and Finland, with their respective open and zero-tolerance 
policies, lifetime use of cannabis among 15-16-year-olds is comparable at 
about five percent.

In the moderately strict Ireland and the UK, where subsequent offenders can 
expect to attract a fine, far more young people -- 40 percent -- develop 
cannabis habits.

According to Ballotta, the law is far more likely to punish people 
according to specific local attitudes, rather than broader national laws.

"There are not just two sides to the legal debate, there are many sides. 
Generally, a person from a rural community is much more likely to incur a 
stronger penalty than a person on a similar charge in the city - where soft 
drugs are usually not as high profile a problem," he said.

Invariably, the wording of anti-cannabis law is more threatening than the 
reality at street level.

Cannabis-related offences are often punishable by prison sentences or hefty 
fines but these punishments are rarely meted out by the courts -- if they 
reach the courtroom at all.

Swedish pot-smokers are theoretically liable to jail sentences of up to six 
months for minor possession offences. More usual is a small fine, which 
itself is not payable if the offender decides to undertake counselling.

The UK's laws are more Draconian, with possession of small quantities of 
marijuana punishable by up to five years' imprisonment.

But offences relating to cannabis possession are routinely dismissed with a 
caution, or at the most a small fine.

 >From Europe
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