The British House of Commons Wednesday approved a government-sponsored bill that will reschedule cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug, putting marijuana in the category of least serious drugs, along with steroids and some anti-depressants. By an overwhelming vote of 316-160, British parliamentarians approved the measure that will effectively decriminalize marijuana use and possession on January 29. By rescheduling cannabis, lawmakers have removed the police power to arrest marijuana users -- except in special circumstances. Now, in most cases, pot possession law violators will be subject solely to a ticket and fine and loss of their stashes. But the bill also increases penalties for cannabis sales, leading some critics to call it a half-measure that will not address harms resulting from the herb's black market status.
European Parliament member Chris Davies, a staunch anti-prohibitionist campaigner who got himself arrested for cannabis possession in an act of civil disobedience in 2001, welcomed the improvements in the law, but said they did not go far enough. "Hundreds, indeed millions, of people have been arrested, fined or even imprisoned for the possession of cannabis, and these new guidelines show that it has all been a complete folly -- using up police resources and wrecking the lives of many cannabis users who have done no harm to anyone other than themselves," said Davies in a statement greeting the vote.
But the government's decision to double the penalties for cannabis sales from seven years to 14 years will only create more problems, said Davies. "This change in the law is a significant step forward, but the Home Secretary David Blunkett is about to take two steps backwards. If dealers are going to face 14 years in prison for the supply of cannabis, there is no incentive not to sell other drugs as well. Cannabis users may be pushed into the hands of heroin dealers. Instead the Government should be working to break the link between soft and hard drugs. Experience in Holland of separating the supply of soft and hard drugs has helped achieve a situation where the average age of a heroin addict in the Netherlands is forty and rising and in Britain it is twenty-one and falling," he added.
"The change, when it comes into law, will make very little difference," complained the UK Cannabis Internet Activists (http://www.ukcia.org) web site, home of Britain's Legalize Cannabis campaigns. "The original proposal which Blunkett took to the Home Affairs Select committee was simply to move cannabis from Class B to Class C, which would have lowered penalties and removed the power of arrest for possession. However, the penalties for dealing class C drugs are now to be increased to a maximum of 14 years, so there's no change there. The power of arrest is to be retained for cannabis, although, as was announced in the speech, other class C drugs will remain un-arrestable offences, so there's no change there either," said UKCIA. "The new regime will do nothing to separate the markets for class A drugs; it's a worthless and possibly dangerous step."
The British Home Office modified its original bill under pressure from the Association of Chief Police Officers, which successfully argued that police needed to maintain the power of arrest in certain circumstances. "Aggravating" circumstances could include smoking in front of a school, causing a public disturbance, or having been cited previously for marijuana possession, according to ACPO guidelines. Currently, British police arrest about 80,000 people per year on marijuana use or possession charges. Even under the ACPO guidelines allowing arrest under some circumstances, that number is expected to shrink to a fraction of its current level.
Danny Kushlick, director of Transform (http://www.transform-drugs.org.uk), a leading British nonprofit campaigning for drug law reform, told the BBC News that the bill didn't go far enough and that illegal production was less safe than if it were regulated. "The only way to ensure that cannabis users are aware of the strength, purity and potential dangers of cannabis is to legalize, regulate and control its production and supply," Kushlick said.
Things looked a little different from the other side of the Atlantic. US reform group the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) saw the vote as an indication of increasing US isolation on marijuana policy. "Even our closest ally in the world -- the nation that marched side-by-side with the US into Baghdad when much of Europe would not -- can no longer join America in its failed war on marijuana users," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "Britain deserves congratulations for doing what the US government refuses to do: base policies on science rather than fear. The complete failure of our government's hysterical exaggerations of the dangers of marijuana is shown by the recent national PRIDE survey documenting a sharp rise in teen drug use after wave upon wave of government anti-marijuana ads," Kampia jabbed.
Debate in the House lasted only 90 minutes before a largely empty chamber. With Home Secretary Blunkett absent, the charge for the bill was led by Home Office Junior Minister Caroline Flint, who argued that rescheduling was not the same as legalizing cannabis and that it would free police resources to concentrate on harder drugs. "This Labor government is absolutely right to focus on the most dangerous drugs, to intervene most vigorously in the most damaged communities and to seek to break the link between addiction and the crime that feeds it," she told the House of Commons. "And to reduce harm that drugs cause by addressing the chaotic lifestyles of those users who are harming themselves and harming others."
Tory shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin responded by calling the Tony Blair government's drug policy "a dreadful muddle" and "a halfway measure." The bill was aimed at short-term popularity, said Letwin, rather than at arriving at a coherent policy. Either outright decrim a la the Netherlands or a harder, Swedish-style prohibitionist line would be preferable to the mixed message coming from the government, he said.
Junior Minister Flint replied that the rescheduling was necessary because of "postal code enforcement," or the differential enforcement of cannabis laws by police in different jurisdictions. "Individual police forces have developed disparate policies on the policing of cannabis possession based on their own view of the relative seriousness of the offence, leading to inconsistency and a lack of proper political accountability," she explained. "The policing regime will ensure that action is properly taken by police against someone who is causing a problem or needs help whilst avoiding needlessly charging large numbers of young people," Flint added. And the new 14-year sentences for cannabis sales will send "a very strong message" to dealers, she maintained.
Old school drug warriors, from Labor as well as the Tories, brought up their standard arguments, but they fell on deaf ears. Labor MP Martin Salter said the cannabis reclassification was "a grave disservice" to young people because it would confuse them, while Tory MP Graham Brady claimed the cannabis of today is not your father's weed and it would be "perverse" to downgrade the herb. Tory Ann Winterton insisted that the British are too stupid to understand the differences between drugs, maintaining that "sophisticated measures do not wash," while her compatriot Angela Watkinson warned of the dreaded "gateway" effect.
In the end, the doomsayers were outvoted by a margin of nearly two-to-one. Britain will now boldly take one step forward and one step back in the struggle for cannabis law reform. No word yet from drug czar John Walters on whether it will be necessary to slow traffic between the US and Britain in order to keep this nation safe from the British weed menace.