As DRCNet has reported recently (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/192.html#noarrestplan and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/191.html#londoncannabis and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/193.html#britainreform), Great Britain is now nearly a month into an explosive national discussion of cannabis law reform. And it just keeps getting better. In the last week, Home Secretary [the equivalent of Attorney General] David Blunkett conceded that the cannabis laws should be debated, Conservative Party luminary Peter Lilley called for the legal, licensed sale of cannabis, outgoing chief inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham joined the chorus calling for the legalization of all drugs, and high British police officials announced they would no longer initiate investigations into smuggling operations trafficking only cannabis. Oh, and Brixton, the London neighborhood where police quit arresting cannabis users on July 1, remains standing, which is more than can be said for neighborhoods in a number of British cities hit by rioting and ethnic street-fighting this summer.
But Prime Minister Tony Blair stands firm despite the rising clamor for change. On Monday, less than a day after Blair's Home Secretary, David Blunkett, called for "adult, intelligent debate" on the subject, a Downing Street spokesman told reporters Blair was satisfied with current policy. Under existing British law, cannabis possession may be punished by up to five years in prison. British police arrested 96,000 people last year on cannabis charges.
Blunkett had appeared on Sky TV the previous day to signal a slight loosening of Labor's strict opposition to cannabis decriminalization and to acknowledge the growing clamor to revisit the cannabis laws. "There is room for an adult, intelligent debate but it isn't 'are you for or against?' It's let's think, let's consider, let's not be pushed by articles in newspapers or hysteria." But, lest this be confused for a signal of a policy change, he added: "I have no intention of making a change in government policy out of the blue, and if I have anything further to say on the issue I will do so in a considered fashion in my own time."
He then retreated into prohibitionist boilerplate. "It doesn't matter whether one drug is less dangerous than another," he said. "The clear message that we have to send out to young people is that drugs are bad for you and you shouldn't take them. That applies obviously to class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, but it is equally true of others. Unless we put that message up front we will mislead our young people into believing that there is some easy way forward on the drug issue. There isn't."
"Of course there is always room for different debates in any democracy," clarified a spokesman for Blair. "We are perfectly relaxed about that. But often when people say they are calling for a debate, that's shorthand for saying they want to legalize cannabis. But the government's policy remains. There are no plans to decriminalize cannabis. The drug laws as drawn up are right."
Blair may have no plans to free the weed, but the debate raging in the British press and among the political class is inspiring policy prescriptions more radical than legal reefers. Retiring chief inspector of prisons Sir David Ramsbotham became the second prominent British figure in two weeks to call for outright legalization of all drugs. He joins former British ambassador to Colombia Sir Keith Morris, who blasted drug prohibition as futile and called mere decriminalization "an unsatisfactory halfway house."
Ramsbotham told a BBC Radio audience: "The more I think about it and the more I look at what's happening, the more I can see the logic of legalizing drugs, because the misery that is caused by the people who are making criminal profit is so appalling, and the sums are so great that are being made illegally that I think there is merit in legalizing and prescribing, or whatever, so people don't have to go and find an illegal way of doing it. I've come a very long way through exposure to what the drug culture has done to the people I am seeing in prison, their families and the community from which they come."
While Ramsbotham made the appeal for universal legalization, Peter Lilley, the former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, unveiled a concrete plan for cannabis legalization. In an opinion piece published in the London Daily Telegraph on July 6, Lilley said small amounts of cannabis should be sold with health warnings to anyone over the age of 18 through a system of licensed outlets.
"The present laws have palpably failed," the Tory right-winger told BBC Radio. "Nearly half of young people try cannabis and more than a million people flout the law every month." He told the BBC he had never tried cannabis: "No, I never have. I'm rather boring in that respect. I don't want to encourage people to take it, but I don't want to put them in jail for taking it."
Lilley has raised the stakes for his protégé, Tory leader hopeful Tony Portillo, who, along with other Tory leadership candidates has called for debate on cannabis decrim, but has so far failed to take the next step. Lilley is an influential backer of Portillo's candidacy. Now Portillo will be identified with Lilley's pot-shop proposal.
Two other influential Tories, former Home Secretaries Baker and Waddington, now sitting in the House of Lords, have also jumped on the decrim bandwagon. Baker told the Times of London he opposed legalization of cannabis, but could support decrim: "I think that's quite a good position. To fill our prisons with people who are cannabis users is a bum use of the prisons."
Waddington, a staunch hardliner as Home Secretary from 1989 to 1990, also opposed legalization and offered some antique views on cannabis' effects. "Cannabis has an unfortunate effect on the personality," he told the Times. "I saw it in Bermuda [where he served as governor] where there are many habitual users. It destroys motivation. It can precipitate schizophrenia and do lasting brain damage." Still, when asked if could support decrim, he replied: "There may be a case for that."
And if Tony Blair is resistant to pressure from the Tories, he might want to listen to Lord Jenkins, a Labour Party Home Secretary from 1965 to 1967. Described by the Times as "an important mentor to Tony Blair on key Labour reforms," Jenkins has now changed his tune from the days when he supervised the prosecution of Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on marijuana charges. "It is quite firmly my view that the time for a change in the law has come," said Jenkins. And that change would be? "To decriminalize, certainly."
But if Blair continues the charade of cannabis prohibition in public, official British police policy is helping to create new facts on the ground. In a switch that could have more real world impact than all the words expended in the last few weeks, the Blair government has told law enforcement officials, including Customs, to ignore cannabis and dedicate resources to hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine.
According to reports in the Observer (London), the Cabinet Office Committee, Concerted Inter-Agency Drugs Action (CIDA), which consists of the heads of MI6 and MI5 (the intelligence services), Customs, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, the police National Crime Squad, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and the under-secretaries of the Home Office, Foreign Office, and Defense Ministry, has instructed police to undertake large-scale cannabis seizures and investigations only as a byproduct of investigations into hard drug trafficking.
"It's not that we plan to stop seizing cannabis when we come across it," the Observer quoted one high-ranking police official as saying. "However, the need to focus on Class A drugs means cannabis seizures will now take place as a by-product, not as an end in themselves."
They must be smiling in Amsterdam.
"Overall, the government strategy is about reducing harm," another unnamed police official told the Observer. "That has to mean placing a priority on reducing the supply of Class A drugs."
Police officials were moved to act, the paper said, after new studies showed that Britons are consuming twice as much cocaine as previous official estimates for all of Western Europe. The Home Office research project estimated that Brits snorted 35,000-40,000 kilos of coke last year.
British cannabis activists are watching with a mixture of amazement and skepticism. Alun Buffry of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance (http://www.lca-uk.org) told DRCNet Tony Blair remained the biggest obstacle to legalization, and that he worried that Britain could end up with a halfway decriminalization.
"The trouble with 'effective decriminalization' is that is meaningless," wrote Buffry, who as an LCA candidate in the past elections takes some small credit for energizing the debate. "Decrim is really a matter of policy rather than law. Various police authorities have for some time been turning a blind eye to cannabis use, or at least not targeting users. The chances of being busted for smoking varies dramatically across the UK -- somewhere like London or Northampton the chances are much slimmer than say the Norfolk Coast. Whilst people in Brixton can smoke in public fearing only confiscation, people in Ipswich were raided by 14 police for 1.5 grams last Friday night and have been taken to court." Decriminalization could also "take a lot of the wind out of the sails of legalization, as it has done in the Netherlands," Buffry noted.
Another British activist who spoke with DRCNet turned a leery eye toward the sudden Conservative interest in cannabis. "They have lost two elections in a row and they're trying out different ideas to see what will make them popular again," he wrote. "Portillo's latest speeches do seem consistent with him thinking legalization is a vote winner. If this is true, then legalization in the UK may happen sooner than we thought, as Tories will do anything for votes." But, he cautioned, "It's worth noting that the Tories haven't elected their new leader yet and are in an unstable state. They could easily return to their old prohibitionist ways."
If British reform activists seem a bit bemused, who can blame them? The situation is fluid, chaotic and confusing. Here are two London newspaper headlines from Tuesday. "Labour Considers Loosening Stance on Marijuana," the Financial Times told its readers. "There is No Plan to Change Law, Says Downing Street," said the Times of London. Are they both right?