The Belgian government last Friday moved to decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. In so doing, it joined a number of other European Union countries where the use and possession of marijuana is de facto tolerated, including the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.
Part of a broader cabinet white paper on all aspects of drug policy -- from alcohol and tobacco to the pharmaceutical industry -- the marijuana move represents the governing coalition's recognition of marijuana's broad acceptance in Belgium (http://dossiers.lesoir.be/drogues/TousLesArticles/A_011116.asp for those who speak French). The coalition of the left-liberal Liberal Reform Party and Agalev, the Belgian Greens, defeated the conservative Social Christian Party in the wake of recent dioxin scares, and the new official attitude toward marijuana reflects that political realignment.
Government ministers described the marijuana measure as increasing the sphere of freedom. At a packed press conference announcing the policy shift, Health Minister Magda Aelvoet said the change came out of the government's recognition that personal marijuana use did not merit the concern of the judiciary.
"The criminal judge won't interfere any more in the lives of people who use cannabis on a personal basis and who do not create harm or do not become dependent," said the Health Minister. "We want to create an extra space of liberty, but we want to do it in a controlled manner."
There are exceptions. Marijuana use or possession deemed "problematic" to the user or a "public nuisance" could still be prosecuted, with an eye toward guiding the offender toward "drug aid," or treatment, according to the white paper.
And unlike neighboring Holland, famed worldwide for tolerating marijuana sales in "coffee houses," Belgium will not allow open sales. Health Ministry spokesman Paul Geerts told Reuters that Dutch-style coffee houses "would go too far." Instead, said Geerts, Belgians who want marijuana will have two choices: "You can grow it yourself, or most people in Belgium know where you can buy it in the Netherlands."
The new law does not say what amount of marijuana is okay. The law's crafters could not reach agreement on a set amount, with conservatives arguing for a five-gram limit, while Belgian Greens argued for a 15-gram limit. That does not bother Health Minister Aelvoet, who told the press conference the police are experienced enough to know how much constitutes possession for personal as opposed to commercial use.
Similarly, Aelvoet noted that there will be some flexibility in interpreting the "problematic use" or "public nuisance" exceptions to the law. Such terms could be interpreted differently in a rural village than in Brussels, she said.
Belgian journalist Alain Lallemand, writing in Le Soir (Brussels), laid out the likely scenario in more down to earth terms. "Cannabis is not 'formally depenalised,' it is to an even lesser extent 'legalised,'" he explained.
If the police notice cannabis and decide it is for personal use, if the possessor is an adult, and if there is no "problematic use," then "there is no process [arrest or citation] at all and no seizure of ganja."
"It is legitimate to state that the Belgian state is overseeing a limited depenalization of the right to cannabis," writes Lallemand," and as the ministerial directive will soon become a law, the consumer will be able to defend himself in court by referring to that law. Usage is entirely depenalised and possession of a small quantity of [cannabis] for personal use is protected conditionally (for example, on condition of being an adult) by a written law."
"To add the icing to the cake," Lalleland concludes, "importation of small quantities is permitted (Belgium shares a border with Holland), although exportation is not. Growing and traveling with cannabis are also protected."
Some Belgian reformers are not so sanguine. Antoine Boucher, of Chez Infor Drogues, a Brussels drug reform center, told Le Soir that the law needed and lacked "absolute clarity," and that the provisions for "problematic use" and "social nuisance" merited caution.
Infor Drogues director Phillippe Bastin told Le Soir the law was "imprecise, contradictory, and resembles, at worst, a 'poisoned gift.'"
"Under the cover of the 'public health,'" said Bastin, "is a plan with repressive accents. On the one hand, it creates a space for the personal use of cannabis, but on the other, it creates a state of uncertainty before the law."
And while you can possess cannabis, Bastin exclaimed, "the sale remains prohibited in Belgium. It's nonsense!"
Under the Belgian system, the new law will not formally take effect until a royal decree is issued and parliament approves the cabinet's legislative proposal. But at last Friday's news conference, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said the decree will go out soon and it will instruct prosecutors not to pursue marijuana possession cases while waiting for parliamentary approval of the cabinet proposal.
Such approval is a foregone conclusion, according to Belgian embassy spokeswoman Cathy Buggenhout. "We have a coalition government," she told DRCNet, "and the cabinet represents the parties in the parliamentary coalition. This will be automatically backed in the parliament," she said.