Britain's Drug War Continues to Crumble 11/16/01

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When last DRCNet reported on Great Britain, the Lambeth area of London was months into its experiment with cannabis decrim, Labor Home Secretary David Blunkett had just announced that marijuana would be rescheduled from Class B to Class C, along with steroids and anti-depressants, and cannabis possession would no longer be an arrestable offense come springtime, and government officials were discussing rescheduling ecstasy as well. Activists in Brixton were agitating for the opening of cannabis cafes there, and were gaining broad support for doing so. But Colin Davies' September attempt to open the country's first cannabis cafe, far from Brixton in nondescript suburban Manchester, had been raided and shut down by police almost immediately after opening.

It's two months since the raid, and in yet another sign that things have changed in Britain, Davies' "Dutch Experience" Amsterdam-style coffee house is doing a thriving business while local elected and police officials look the other way. According to last Sunday's British newspaper the Observer, Dutch Experience "is packed with people rolling joints, inhaling deeply and grinning peacefully. By lunchtime last Wednesday there were at least 50 people in its two rooms, by evening over a hundred. No one bothered to hide this illegal activity. It's all totally open," the paper reported.

And why not? No one is coming after it. The local town council told the Observer it had received no complaints and its leader, Fred Ridley, said, "This is not a matter for the council, but for the police. If someone wants to test the law -- and that's the way the law has been changed before -- they must accept the consequences if the law of the land is enforced."

The Manchester police, for their part, also graciously bowed out, saying in a statement: "We recognize there is ongoing debate and research into the medical benefits or otherwise of cannabis. The police, in appropriate cases, exercise discretion and judgment."

And the local Member of Parliament, Chris Davies, who has visited twice, openly supports the Dutch Experience. "I applaud it," he told the Observer. "It seems an excellent way of meeting people's desire to try things other than alcohol without leading them on to harder things."

"I've created a monster," Colin Davies laughingly told the Observer. "They're coming here from all over the country -- the closest coffee shop is in Holland." But they're not just coming to get high; some customers are medical marijuana patients, a cause with which Davies has been associated for the past five years, and one that recreational sales at the Experience support. Profits from sales to healthy tokers subsidize an at-cost price for medical marijuana users. "People in wheelchairs shouldn't have to pay for their medicine -- they should get it free, and that's what we're doing," said Davies.

They could be doing it across Britain soon if the Labor government of Tony Blair listens to the criminal justice professionals. According to a survey of 300 British police forces, courts, probation offices, and drug care workers found that 81% of the organizations said cannabis should be sold at licensed outlets, such as pubs, cafes, and coffee houses and that a system of regulated distribution of cannabis should be put into place as soon as possible. The survey, conducted by the respected British drug policy group DrugScope (http://www.drugscope.org.uk), was presented this week to the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee studying drug policy, where the Blair government has already come under fire for its timidity on cannabis law reform.

Former Conservative Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley told the committee on Monday that the government's moves to reclassify cannabis do not go far enough and restated his call for marijuana to be sold through licensed outlets, which did not sell alcohol or tobacco, which carried health warnings and which must be closed if there were any suspicion of selling hard drugs.

But Blair also came under attack from within his own party. Former Sports Minister Tony Banks blamed Blair for the government's slow pace on drug reform. "I don't feel the government is going anywhere near far enough. I think they are still trying to hold the line. I believe it is probably the reluctance of the Prime Minister," he told the committee. "I don't know what Mr. Blair did at university. But he clearly didn't get up to any naughty things whatsoever and we're all glad for that." Banks added that he welcomed Home Secretary Blunkett's softer line on cannabis possession, but described it as "a small and timid step" and urged ministers to go further.

But if Blunkett is taking some hits for halfway measures on marijuana policy, he is also on the verge on making dramatic positive moves on heroin. According to British press reports, Blunkett is weighing a proposal to increase five-fold the number of British heroin users being provided free prescription heroin. At present, some 300 Britons receive free prescription heroin.

But Blunkett's proposed position on expanded heroin maintenance is rapidly being overtaken by calls for even deeper change. In a report authored by former Gwent chief constable Frances Wilkinson and endorsed by Sir David Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, the government was urged to provide free heroin nationwide as a crime reduction measure.

Published by the Liberal Democrat think tank the Centre for Reform and entitled "Heroin: The Failure of Prohibition and What To Do Now," the report calls for heroin on demand for those in need. According to Wilkinson, Britain has the most rampant heroin problem in the western world -- 270,000 users compared with only 1,000 registered addicts in 1971 -- and more heroin-related crime than the US.

"The only way to reduce the problem... is to supply heroin officially to users in a way that will minimise the leakage of those supplies," wrote Wilkinson. The British heroin trade is worth $5 billion a year to drug gangs, wrote Wilkinson, and moving to a regulated supply would both dry up those illicit profits and drive down the crime rate by 20%. Wilkinson proposed a two-year pilot project funded and monitored by the Home Office, in which the heroin supply would be part of a comprehensive approach that included medical assistance, counseling and supervision.

And if Wilkinson made Blunkett look timid, committee members also heard even more radical advocacy. Roger Warren Evans, co-author of the pro-legalization Angel Declaration (http://www.ccguide.org.uk/angel01.html) argued that it is not heroin itself that is harmful, but its illegal production and distribution, which causes poor quality, high prices, and high crime, and endangers lives. "The issue is the harm, not the supply," he said.

It seems as if the Labor government's solemn vow to block drug reforms is crumbling faster than the Taliban.

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Issue #211, 11/16/01 Editorial: Federal Fanatics | Medical Marijuana Proponents Prepare to Fight Back After Ashcroft Raids | Talkin' About the New Generation: SSDP Goes to Washington | Britain's Drug War Continues to Crumble | Oregon Update: Federal Judge Blocks Ashcroft/DEA Effort to Overturn Assisted Suicide Law, At Least for Now | Treatment Complex Aims to Use "Social Marketing" to Create Demand | Bolivia: Security Forces Beat Human Rights Worker and Fire at Permanent Human Rights Assembly Building in Coca-Growing Region | Abstracts Available from International Medical Marijuana Conference | NYC Election Correction | Alerts: HEA Drug Provision, Drug Czar Nomination, DEA Hemp Ban, Ecstasy Bill, Mandatory Minimums, Medical Marijuana | The Reformer's Calendar
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