A blue-ribbon study commissioned by Britain's Police Foundation, an independent think tank, has concluded that criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana and other drugs should be lowered drastically, but government spokesmen were quick to announce they had no intention of following the report's suggestions.
"Drugs and the Law," released this week after two years of research, found that the problems associated with marijuana's illegal status outweighed its relative health risks, especially when those risks were compared to the legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. The report recommends that marijuana be downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, carrying no jail sentence and a maximum fine of UKP500 for possession.
The report also recommends that LSD and Ecstasy, currently Class A drugs along with heroin and cocaine, be downgraded to Class B, and that the penalty for their possession be a fine no greater than UKP1000. As for heroin and cocaine, the report suggests that the possession or use of these drugs be punishable by no more than one year in jail; currently, persons convicted of possessing Class A drugs face jail terms as long as seven years. Penalties should be raised for higher-level drug dealing, providing children with drugs and drug-related violence.
Ultimately, the study concluded that law enforcement resources are better focused on the investigation and prosecution of drug dealers, not users, and that the drug policy pursued by the UK since the passage of the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act had resulted in greater harms from drug abuse and the criminalization of unacceptably large numbers of people.
In effect, "Imprisonment is neither a proportionate response to the vast majority of possession offences nor an effective response," the report reads. The report cited the success of the Netherlands in that country's pursuit of decriminalization and harm reduction strategies as one possible model.
The panel commissioned for the report by the Police Foundation, which is headed by Prince Charles, included top representatives from Britain's law enforcement, legal, and academic communities.
But the report's recommendations drew immediate resistance from the government. A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair told The Independent newspaper that Blair believes "it would send the worst possible signal if we were to soften our laws in the way being suggested." Blair's "Drug Czar" Keith Hellawell and the Home Office echoed those sentiments, and assured that no steps would be taken to revise or reduce the drug laws.
Paul Flynn, a Labour MP who serves as joint-vice-chair on Parliament's Drugs Misuse all party group, gave The Week Online one explanation for the government's dismissal of the report. "The Government are hooked on the belief that there is a harvest of votes in the election in appearing to be 'tough' not 'soft'" on drugs, Flynn said via e-mail this week. However, he said, "The report is very good news and has been warmly received by the press. It will be extremely difficult in future for the Government to misrepresent what has happened in the Netherlands."
Flynn said the report's recommendations are worded similarly to a bill coming up for a second reading in Parliament on June 9.