Brits and Drugs

Brits and Drugs

“Tell me about the hash bars.”
“OK, what do you want to know?”
“It’s legal there, right?”
“It’s legal, but it ain’t 100 percent legal.”


“Tell me about the hash bars.”
“OK, what do you want to know?”
“It’s legal there, right?”
“It’s legal, but it ain’t 100 percent legal.”

John Travolta’s Pulp Fiction character made this confusing statement about the Netherlands, but lately he could have been talking about any of a handful of other European countries that have significantly relaxed their drug laws. While marijuana is not “100 percent legal” anywhere, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg have all effectively decriminalized possession in recent years. And on July 10, Great Britain became the newest member of the club, downgrading marijuana possession to essentially a nonarrestable offense.

Until about a year ago, the UK seemed like the one European nation the United States could count on to hold the line against tolerance, a faithful ally in the war on drugs. In 1998, Tony Blair appointed the country’s first drug czar, Keith Hellawell–which was seen as a get-tough move. Hellawell is gone now, having quit in disgust at Home Secretary David Blunkett’s announcement that cannabis (as Brits usually call the substance) will be moved to “Class C,” the least harmful category of illegal drugs in Britain.

Marijuana had been in Class B, a group that includes barbiturates and amphetamines, and that carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment for possession. Under the new classification, most people caught with marijuana will receive a warning and have their drugs seized. Most? That’s right; stoners shouldn’t pack their bags for London quite yet. Not only is Blunkett retaining the Class C maximum penalty of two years’ jail time, but he plans to create a crime of “aggravated possession.” The precise definition of this new offense is still sketchy, but according to British media accounts, infractions could include smoking weed in the presence of children, carrying it near schools or blowing smoke at a police officer. Incarceration will also be a possibility for repeat offenders.

And Blunkett maintained that England is not going soft on those who sell drugs. He has increased the maximum penalty for dealing Class C drugs from five years’ imprisonment to fourteen. In other words, smoking dope is equivalent to a parking violation but the penalty for peddling it is equal to that for manslaughter or aggravated rape.

“I fear that he [Blunkett] may have got the worst of both worlds,” said Peter Lilley, a Conservative MP who has been an outspoken advocate for legalizing cannabis. As Lilley points out, one of the primary arguments for legalization is that it would take marijuana sales out of the hands of hard-drug dealers. If marijuana is a “gateway” drug, as anti-pot advocates argue, the gate swings wide open when dealers who meet customers through marijuana transactions convince them to move up to harder drugs, which carry higher profit margins. The new lenience on users will likely increase demand, at least in the short term, while making no change in the supply system. As any freshman economics student could predict, the sellers–whom the government has targeted–will profit from the change.

As for the supply-side view, London clubbers and university students who are caught with a joint will get off with a warning, but dealers, often African immigrants, could be subjected to the much harsher prison penalty.

Britain is not alone in this apparent hypocrisy. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (the EU’s drug agency), “In the EU, there is an increasingly widespread trend towards differentiating between offenses attributable to personal drug use, whether pathological or pseudo-recreational, and those associated with supplying drugs.” Some states make exceptions for “addict pushers,” but, in general, the trend toward lenience for users is not accompanied by softer sanctions on suppliers. This policy makes perfect sense with hard-core, addictive drugs like heroin, but the placement of cannabis in a similar category is exactly what the British government was trying to avoid. The parliamentary select committee that recommended the declassification to Blunkett wrote, “whether or not cannabis is a gateway drug, we do not believe there is anything to be gained by exaggerating its harmfulness. On the contrary, exaggeration undermines the credibility of messages that we wish to send regarding more harmful drugs.”

Blunkett appears to agree with the committee’s evaluation. “Making a clearer differentiation between drugs that kill and drugs that do not would be scientifically appropriate and educationally valuable,” he said. However, the UK’s laws have lagged behind public opinion and political rhetoric. A particularly egregious example is taking place in Scotland, where a wheelchair-using multiple-sclerosis patient faces a year in prison for sending pot brownies to fellow MS sufferers.

The committee report went further than Blunkett’s announcement on several fronts. He rejected its recommendations to move ecstasy from Class A to Class B and to open safe injecting rooms for heroin users. But perhaps most remarkable is the seriousness with which the committee took the possibility of full legalization. “Finally, many sensible and thoughtful people have argued that we should go a step further and embrace legalisation and regulation of all or most presently illegal drugs. We acknowledge there are some attractive arguments. However, those who urge this course upon us are inviting us to take a step into the unknown. To tread where no other society has yet trod… It may well be that in years to come a future generation will take a different view. Drug policy should not be set in stone. It will evolve like any other.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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