The political rumblings began after a Conservative conference on October 5th, when the party's hard-line crime spokesperson, Anne Widdicome, announced proposals for on-the-spot fines, a permanent criminal record, and even blood tests for cannabis smokers.
Now, however, Conservatives wish they had turned a blind eye to Widdicome. Within days, London tabloids found eight of her fellow Conservative "shadow cabinet" members who confessed to past marijuana use; one even "enjoyed" it. After three weeks of uproar, her proposal has been shelved by party leaders, her party has been thrown into disarray, and the whole affair has become a boost for Britain's growing legalization movement.
Social service and police organizations, including the prestigious Police Superintendents' Association, immediately attacked Widdicome's plan as draconian, unworkable, and "a backward step."
"I have spent years fighting the drugs trade at Heathrow and on the streets of London and my direct experience has convinced me that legalization, not prohibition, is the only viable option," former Scotland Yard drug squad chief Edward Ellison told Reuters.
Another former police superintendent, Francis Wilkinson of Gwent, seconded that opinion. "Cannabis needs to be moved across to the legal drugs side and leave things like crack cocaine and heroin on the other side... so cannabis is not a gateway through the same suppliers into harder and more dangerous drugs," he told BBC Radio.
The Tories also left an opening for the Liberal Party, the country's third strongest political force. Within days, party leader Charles Kennedy took the occasion of a nationally broadcast interview on ITV to announce that he favored decriminalizing cannabis. Kennedy becomes the first head of a major British party to take such a position.
The Conservative misfire appears to have blown out of the water any attempt at imposing a hard-line approach to cannabis on the estimated six million Britons who have tried it. It has also provoked strong, but hitherto silent voices from within the ranks of the police, the press, and the political class to stand for decriminalization or even outright legalization:
In what in hindsight was a political miscalculation of epic proportions, the Tories let the genie of cannabis decriminalization out of the bottle. But now it is the governing Labor Party of Tony Blair that is feeling the pressure.
Last weekend Blair reiterated his opposition to any change in the cannabis laws, and Home Secretary Jack Straw, the cabinet officer in charge of criminal justice, also remains adamantly opposed. On October 17th, his spokesman told reporters, "The Government has a 10-year anti-drugs plan. We have a report out soon and our policy on cannabis remains the same. It is illegal and a criminal offense."
Straw has, however, only inflamed opponents with arguments seemingly derived from "Reefer Madness."
"The long term effects include a very severe exacerbation of mental illness and also include cancer," he told the Guardian Weekly. "It is reckoned that cannabis is between two and four times more carcinogenic as tobacco."
Those remarks sparked a heated denunciation from Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired the Police Foundation's investigation into drug law reform last year, and whose March recommendations for decriminalization of cannabis were promptly ignored by the Blair government.
Runciman insisted that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and used her commission's report as ammunition. "The acute toxicity level of cannabinoids is extremely low; they are very safe drugs and no deaths have been directly attributed to their recreational or therapeutic use," she quoted.
Even as Straw was defending his science, opposition emerged within the cabinet, and Prime Minister Blair seemed to wobble with some offhand remarks on being out of touch.
The Mirror (London) quoted Labor parliamentarian and lawyer Helena Kennedy as supporting cannabis decriminalization. "There are a lot of people in the cabinet who take the same view as myself," she said.
Blair's confused comments came on October 15th, when a BBC Radio 4 interviewer asked whether he would prefer his children to "get drunk" or have "the odd spliff."
Blair replied: "I really would prefer my children to have nothing to do with drugs at all and I think most -- maybe, I don't know, I am wrong in this and other parents feel differently -- but that is how I feel."
In the same interview, Blair downplayed past cannabis use by cabinet members or opposition shadow cabinet members. "I think what is important is not what happened on some university campus years ago in respect of particular ministers or opposition spokesmen."
Blair seems to be feeling the heat, and there is more to come. The House of Commons home affairs select committee has ordered Home Office ministers to testify about their rejection of the Police Foundation report recommending decriminalization.
In responding to Blair's comments, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers rejected softening the cannabis laws. "We do not believe there is any need to change the current legal framework," he told the Sunday Times. "We are not persuaded of any need to change matters."
In Great Britain these days, that is an increasingly isolated position.