As DRCNet has reported for the last two weeks (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/192.html#noarrestplan and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/191.html#londoncannabis), British marijuana prohibition appears terminal, although its death throes may curse British tokers for months or years to come. The degradation of the prohibitionist consensus continued apace this week. As of July 1, the South London borough of Lambeth, which includes the teeming Caribbean community of Brixton, has quit arresting cannabis smokers and possessors. The previous day, the former Labour government drug czar, Mo Mowlem, called for cannabis decrim nationwide. That same day, demoted current drug czar Keith Hellawell renounced his recently acquired belief in the "gateway theory" that marijuana use causes users to move on to harder drugs. And the price of a joint is now hovering around that of a pint of ale.
In Brixton, Sussex resident Chris Baldwin had to work to become the first person cited under the borough's experiment in cannabis decrim. Despite his location in front of the Brixton police station, it still took 20 minutes, two joints and several shouted requests to passing Bobbies before the wheelchair-bound Baldwin became a footnote in the history books at 10:51am, July 1. Finally taken inside to be issued a warning, he became the first person to test the new policy. Ten minutes later, he emerged from the station.
"They asked me if it was cannabis and I said it was and they put it in a little plastic bag and I had to sign and say they had taken it," he told the London Evening-Standard. "They took my name and address and asked if I knew what I was doing was wrong. We agreed to disagree and I accepted their warning."
Brixton police apparently soon tired of symbolic seizures. The next day, a Guardian reporter couldn't get himself arrested doing the same thing, although he did report that Brixton Bobbies were unfailingly courteous, even when refusing to give him a light.
Area marijuana users were pleased. "Man, it's great," Roger [no last name] told a Chicago Tribune reporter, exhaling clouds of smoke in a Brixton market. "I heard on the radio this morning that now you can smoke where you like and the police can't do [anything] about it. It means we can relax, we don't have to hide indoors."
Not quite, Roger, but pretty close. Under the new policy, Lambeth police will not arrest smokers they encounter, but will instead merely seize the marijuana and have the possessor sign a receipt. No criminal record will be incurred, nor will job applicants be required to mention the incident. Nor will police stop and search suspects merely on suspicion of minor cannabis offenses.
Also enthused was Brixton real estate agent Barry Klieff. "Brixton has always had the Bohemian reputation anyway," he told the Tribune as he dreamt of higher housing prices. "If anything, this will give it star appeal. It's only cannabis, loads of people smoke it all over London, and most of them are middle class people."
The Lambeth experiment will run six months. If it is successful -- indicators would be a decrease in heroin and crack cocaine use and street crime because of shifted enforcement priorities -- it "may well" be adopted all across London, Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner Tim Goodwin confirmed to the London Times last week.
"There are definitely some people, more so among the young community who probably don't agree with the drug legislation," said Goodwin. "As a result, some of the Class B drugs [i.e. cannabis] are found very frequently by officers in London and as a result they spend an inordinate amount of time processing these people. We are not sure that should be our priority. Our priority is to make the streets safer. It's about focusing on Class A drugs, the hard drugs, focusing on knives, guns, street robbery and burglary and to maintain our efforts to disrupt that sort of criminality," Goodwin explained.
Although calls are increasing for nationwide decrim, the Labour government of Tony Blair continues to whistle past the graveyard. "We have no plans to decriminalize or declassify cannabis at all," said a Downing Street spokesman.
That position is increasingly isolated. The latest defector was former Blair drug czar Mo Mowlem, who in a July 1 editorial in the London Evening Star, called for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of cannabis. "From my time with the government's drug policy I have come to the conclusion that we must decriminalize cannabis," wrote Mowlem. "It is a view I know many in the police, social workers, and others working with cannabis smokers fully agree with."
Calling present practice "a farce," she wrote that it "would be totally irrational to decriminalize cannabis without looking at the sale of it," adding: "It would be an absurdity to have criminals controlling the market in a substance people can use legally."
Blair's posture of denial suffered yet another blow when Keith Hellawell, head of drug policy until recently "promoted" to Britain's international drug policy team, upchucked the gateway theory he had swallowed whole only months before. Latching onto a small study from New Zealand, Hellawell had at one point claimed marijuana smokers were 60 times as likely as non-smokers to go on to other drugs, thus proving the gateway theory.
But now, says Hellawell, "I do not believe it's a gateway drug." The New Zealand study notwithstanding, "That does not mean that everybody who smokes 50 joints a year will automatically be involved in hard drugs," he told the London Sunday Times.
The Blair government's prohibitionist pot policy appears to be collapsing as fast as the price of a joint in London. It is now at a record low in Great Britain, according to the Drug Monitoring Unit, a private drug research company. According to reports from Brixton, joints go for now $1.50, about the same as a pint of ale.