In Britain, Seismic Shift Toward Cannabis Decrim Shakes Blair's Anti-Reform Policies 10/27/00

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The political rumblings began after a Conservative conference on October 5th, when the party's hard-line crime spokesperson, Anne Widdicome, announced proposals for on-the-spot fines, a permanent criminal record, and even blood tests for cannabis smokers.

Now, however, Conservatives wish they had turned a blind eye to Widdicome. Within days, London tabloids found eight of her fellow Conservative "shadow cabinet" members who confessed to past marijuana use; one even "enjoyed" it. After three weeks of uproar, her proposal has been shelved by party leaders, her party has been thrown into disarray, and the whole affair has become a boost for Britain's growing legalization movement.

Social service and police organizations, including the prestigious Police Superintendents' Association, immediately attacked Widdicome's plan as draconian, unworkable, and "a backward step."

"I have spent years fighting the drugs trade at Heathrow and on the streets of London and my direct experience has convinced me that legalization, not prohibition, is the only viable option," former Scotland Yard drug squad chief Edward Ellison told Reuters.

Another former police superintendent, Francis Wilkinson of Gwent, seconded that opinion. "Cannabis needs to be moved across to the legal drugs side and leave things like crack cocaine and heroin on the other side... so cannabis is not a gateway through the same suppliers into harder and more dangerous drugs," he told BBC Radio.

The Tories also left an opening for the Liberal Party, the country's third strongest political force. Within days, party leader Charles Kennedy took the occasion of a nationally broadcast interview on ITV to announce that he favored decriminalizing cannabis. Kennedy becomes the first head of a major British party to take such a position.

The Conservative misfire appears to have blown out of the water any attempt at imposing a hard-line approach to cannabis on the estimated six million Britons who have tried it. It has also provoked strong, but hitherto silent voices from within the ranks of the police, the press, and the political class to stand for decriminalization or even outright legalization:

  • Public Health Minister Yvette Cooper became the third minister of the Blair cabinet to confess to having used cannabis, joining Mo Mowlam and Charles Clarke.
  • Professor Toby Moffat, chief scientist of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS), predicted that medical marijuana would be approved within two years and that total legalization would soon follow. His remarks came as he reviewed the results of the first British clinical trials of cannabis, which found that "there were no safety concerns" about the drug's use. The clinical trials, conducted by GW Pharmaceuticals and monitored by the RPS, are testing cannabis' efficacy as a pain reliever and in treating multiple sclerosis. A preliminary report said that cannabis was "well-tolerated" by volunteers.
  • Dr. Leslie Iversen of the Oxford University Department of Pharmacology, published the results of his cannabis research in "The Science of Marijuana." Iversen, a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society, found cannabis to be an inherently "safe drug," with an impressive record compared to heroin, cocaine, alcohol, and tobacco. Iversen wrote that "alarming claims about long-term exposure to marijuana" should be "put to rest." The story appeared under newspaper headlines such as, "Taking Cannabis 'Safer Than Aspirin.'"
  • A revitalized Legalise Cannabis Alliance announced it would run candidates for at least two parliament seats.
  • Professor Donald Macleod, principal of the Free Church College in Edinburgh and one of Britain's most well-known and controversial churchmen, joined the chorus of decriminalizers. "A lot of police time is being wasted on enforcing the current law on the drug. I would decriminalize cannabis now and I would not rule anything out -- including legalization -- in the future, once the experience of decriminalization has been monitored," he wrote in the West Highland Free Press.
  • The European Union drug survey showed 10% of adult Britons had smoked in the last year, and that the country had the highest rates of teen use in all Europe.
  • The most recent public opinion poll, conducted for the Guardian (London) last week, found that 73% thought smoking cannabis should not be a criminal act, with a record high 43% calling for outright legalization. Fewer than one in five voters thought possession should remain a crime. Citing "a far higher proportion than previously recorded on Guardian/ICM opinion polls" in favor of legalization, the Guardian wrote that "the findings confirm the view that a change has taken place in British public opinion about the future legal status of cannabis."
  • Accountancy Age magazine published a survey of chief financial officers of British corporations in which one third admitted to having used cannabis and a majority said the Tory "zero tolerance" policy was unenforceable. Eager tabloids ran headlines such as "Yes, We've Smoked Cannabis, Say Third of Financial Bosses."
Ruth Lea, head of policy for the executives' organization, told the magazine, "It is clear from this and other surveys that current policy on cannabis is unworkable."

In what in hindsight was a political miscalculation of epic proportions, the Tories let the genie of cannabis decriminalization out of the bottle. But now it is the governing Labor Party of Tony Blair that is feeling the pressure.

Last weekend Blair reiterated his opposition to any change in the cannabis laws, and Home Secretary Jack Straw, the cabinet officer in charge of criminal justice, also remains adamantly opposed. On October 17th, his spokesman told reporters, "The Government has a 10-year anti-drugs plan. We have a report out soon and our policy on cannabis remains the same. It is illegal and a criminal offense."

Straw has, however, only inflamed opponents with arguments seemingly derived from "Reefer Madness."

"The long term effects include a very severe exacerbation of mental illness and also include cancer," he told the Guardian Weekly. "It is reckoned that cannabis is between two and four times more carcinogenic as tobacco."

Those remarks sparked a heated denunciation from Dame Ruth Runciman, who chaired the Police Foundation's investigation into drug law reform last year, and whose March recommendations for decriminalization of cannabis were promptly ignored by the Blair government.

Runciman insisted that cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco, and used her commission's report as ammunition. "The acute toxicity level of cannabinoids is extremely low; they are very safe drugs and no deaths have been directly attributed to their recreational or therapeutic use," she quoted.

Even as Straw was defending his science, opposition emerged within the cabinet, and Prime Minister Blair seemed to wobble with some offhand remarks on being out of touch.

The Mirror (London) quoted Labor parliamentarian and lawyer Helena Kennedy as supporting cannabis decriminalization. "There are a lot of people in the cabinet who take the same view as myself," she said.

Blair's confused comments came on October 15th, when a BBC Radio 4 interviewer asked whether he would prefer his children to "get drunk" or have "the odd spliff."

Blair replied: "I really would prefer my children to have nothing to do with drugs at all and I think most -- maybe, I don't know, I am wrong in this and other parents feel differently -- but that is how I feel."

In the same interview, Blair downplayed past cannabis use by cabinet members or opposition shadow cabinet members. "I think what is important is not what happened on some university campus years ago in respect of particular ministers or opposition spokesmen."

Blair seems to be feeling the heat, and there is more to come. The House of Commons home affairs select committee has ordered Home Office ministers to testify about their rejection of the Police Foundation report recommending decriminalization.

In responding to Blair's comments, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers rejected softening the cannabis laws. "We do not believe there is any need to change the current legal framework," he told the Sunday Times. "We are not persuaded of any need to change matters."

In Great Britain these days, that is an increasingly isolated position.

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Issue #157, 10/27/00 War on Drugs: Coming to a Bookstore Near You | One Down, Who's Next? AP Bolivia Correspondent Resigns Following Exposé | In Britain, Seismic Shift Toward Cannabis Decrim Shakes Blair's Anti-Reform Policies | Drug War Oakland-Style: Rogue Cops Nailed, Car Seizures Okayed | Richmond, Virginia Police Chief Calls for New Drug Policies | Student HEA Reform Campaign Garners First Endorsements of Semester | New Proposition 36 Television Ad Now Viewable Online | Report Deems Oregon Medical Marijuana Patient Directory Successful | The Reformer's Calendar

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