Authorities in England's largest city are slowly ceding ground on marijuana policy as popular practice and attitudes outpace efforts to contain the plant. On June 15th, Scotland Yard announced it would ease up on pot smokers and possessors in one south London neighborhood. The following day, legalization activists drew 30,000 spectators in a driving rain in Brixton. The same day, a King's Cross health food store operator announced he had been operating a medical marijuana dispensary -- with police knowledge.
While parliament, with the exception of a handful of members, has been loath to address marijuana decriminalization, public opinion is solidly in favor. According to a poll commissioned by the Guardian (London) last October, 80% of Britons support decriminalization, with two-thirds of young adults (18-34) seeing smoking a joint as no worse than downing a pint (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/157.html#britain).
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens told reporters last Friday that, as part of a crime-fighting initiative in the Lamberth neighborhood, police will no longer arrest persons caught with small amounts of marijuana. "We are not turning a blind eye to crime," said Stevens, "but we have to prioritize. Possession and use of cannabis is not a priority."
Under the program, whose start-up date is not yet set, instead of arresting pot smokers, Bobbies will give them verbal warnings and require them to sign a receipt for the seized weed, thus leading to an administrative -- if not a criminal -- record. "The officer will seize the cannabis and it will be signed for by the suspect," Scotland Yard spokesman Commander Brian Paddick told Reuters. "It will be sealed and disposed of. The person in possession has to accept the warning, otherwise they will be arrested," said Paddick, who concocted the scheme.
Under current law, police can arrest and courts can jail small-scale marijuana offenders, but the Scotland Yard officials said it wasn't worth it. Commissioner Stevens told reporters each marijuana arrest could take an officer off the streets for up to six hours. Commander Paddick agreed, saying police could focus on more serious crimes. "I've never met anyone who had to commit crimes to fund a cannabis habit," he told the Guardian," but crack cocaine users commit robbery, burglary, and car crime."
The program could be expanded to the rest of the city if successful, Scotland Yard said.
The following day, tens of thousands of Londoners voted with their feet, tramping to south London's Brixton neighborhood undeterred by pouring rain to attend the Cannabis Freedom Festival. Participants listened to bands from Europe, Africa and South America, pondered the pentameters of "poets for pot," and checked out stalls offering hemp ice cream and hemp clothing, as well as hearing speaker after speaker call for the legalization of cannabis. "We're very pleased with the turnout," festival coordinator Andy Cornwell told the Times of London. "There's growing support from all walks of life."
Police did not interfere. No arrests were made, according to the Times.
That same day, another brick fell from the wall when Tony Taylor, proprietor of Tony's Hemp Corner (http://www.schmoo.co.uk/thc/) in London's red light district went public with his medical marijuana business. He told the Guardian he has around 250 customers, including doctors and lawyers, and he added that police turn a blind eye to his dispensary. Taylor, who was arrested in 1998 for growing and supplying medical marijuana, said the attitude of Islington police now was "really cool."
"The council and police know exactly what's going on and the police think what I'm doing is really good," Taylor told the Guardian. "They come around sometimes and say, 'How are you doing, are there any problems?' We've obviously been granted grace because there are so many other problems in King's Cross."
The police, however, seemed a bit taken aback by Taylor's tale and denied being aware that he was distributing medical marijuana. "We weren't aware that he was prescribing drugs for patients with [doctors'] letters," Detective Chief Inspector Robin Hopes told the Guardian. "We'd like to get around a table with him and work out if what he's doing is legal or illegal."
British law currently makes no provision for medical marijuana use.
Taylor's 250 patients must have a doctor's letter, fill out a form with the club, and undergo a 20-minute interview before being approved for the program. They may then purchase marijuana at below-market prices, Taylor said. He doesn't sell to recreational users, he added.