The clamor for cannabis reform is growing louder on the continent. Last week, a senior Scottish police commander and the French justice minister came out in support of reviewing and revising the laws against cannabis in their respective countries. They join a growing number of lawmen, politicians and health professionals across the continent in demanding a serious rethinking of the proscriptions on the popular herb.
On January 18, Paddy Tomkins, new Chief Constable of Lothian and Borders Police in Scotland (or in terminology understandable to Americans, the Edinburgh police chief), called for politicians and health experts to debate the cannabis issue, according to a report in the London Daily Telegraph.
Tomkins' remarks came in the context of questions over the possibility of an Amsterdam-style cannabis café opening in Edinburgh. Kevin Williamson, an Edinburgh publisher best known for "Trainspotting," the Irvine Welsh novel about Scottish junkies, had announced late last year that he intended to launch the enterprise once cannabis is reclassified as a Class C drug, a move that is expected to take place sometime this spring.
Tomkins refused to say whether his police force would tolerate a cannabis café, but told the Telegraph an open-minded approach was needed. "My broader view on cannabis and other drugs is that the situation requires a mature and more open debate than we have had to date -- not just police but politicians and health advisers," he said.
Tomkins said that police under his command would enforce current drug laws "with discretion," but added that: "We will work very hard to make sure we disrupt and arrest people who are supplying drugs to the community. The damage that drugs do can hardly be overstated, not just to individuals but to their families. Some surveys show that [about $30,000 a year] is spent by hard users and 80% of that is acquired through crimes like robbery and so on," said the incoming police chief. "We've got to ask why this is and be prepared to examine our existing policies."
Tomkins' remarks are only the latest call for reform from British law enforcement and political figures as that nation undertakes a serious review of drug policy. A similar call from French Justice Minister Marylise Lebranchu may be more politically significant, given France's reputation for a hard line on drug policy. While that reputation is somewhat overstated, Lebranchu is only the third major French political figure to broach the subject.
Responding to a report cited on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) that found some nine million French people -- 16% of the population -- had used cannabis, Lebranchu said that the time had come to consider marijuana decriminalization, she told French Inter Radio on January 17.
"I think starting the debate would not be a bad thing," she said, "because it has never been started properly."
In France, consumption or possession of any drugs, including cannabis, is illegal, although in practice consumption of cannabis is almost never prosecuted and possession prosecuted only in more conservative regions, according to ENCOD, the European NGO Council on Drugs and Development (http://www.encod.org/rap-france.htm).
France has also begun to adopt harm reduction measures, including needle exchange and opiate maintenance programs, as well as allowing the testing of ecstasy and other so-called club drugs at raves and other music venues. In that respect, France is actually ahead of some of its neighbors. On the other hand, the French legal establishment remains firmly committed to prohibition, and has even prosecuted several leaflet-distributors and t-shirt sellers for violating a still-current law against any action that "presents illicit drugs in a favorable way." Last year, French activist Jean-Pierre Galland was sentenced to 150 days in jail or a $15,000 fine for selling pro-marijuana T-shirts at a music festival.
Although ENCOD reports that recent opinion polls show 33% of the French population support outright legalization of cannabis, political pronouncements on the topic have not been frequent. Two summers ago, Education Minister Jack Lang raised the issue of decriminalization and voiced support for ecstasy-testing and other harm reduction (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/143.html#francedebate). Health Minister Bernard Kouchner has long advocated harm reduction policies, and in 1999 voiced support for medical marijuana legalization (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/022.html#france).
As momentum for drug reform gains force in Britain and the French head in droves for Amsterdam each weekend, the first cracks in the wall are appearing in France. If France were to enact reforms, Sweden would be the only hard case left in Europe.