Britain eases laws on use of marijuana

Possession will no longer be an arrestable offense

stops short of legalization


LONDON - Britain, which has one of the highest rates of cannabis use in Europe, said yesterday that it was relaxing its laws on marijuana smoking, keeping the practice theoretically illegal but making private use in discreet amounts no longer subject to arrest.

The decision, announced by Home Secretary David Blunkett in the House of Commons, stirred criticism from the Conservative opposition and some Labor politicians, and prompted a top anti-drugs official to resign because, he said, Britain is "moving further toward decriminalization than any other country in the world."

Blunkett tempered his announcement, which takes effect next July and puts cannabis on a par with antidepressants and steroids, by saying he would also raise the punishment for marijuana dealing and step up drug education and treatment for abusers.

An estimated 5 million people in Britain regularly use marijuana, and government data show that its use has risen sharply in the past 20 years.

A study published last year on drug habits in the European Union showed that 20 percent to 25 percent of adults in Britain used marijuana - about the same rate as shown for Denmark, France, Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain.

The government action followed recommendations of a parliamentary committee, which said in May that a new attitude of tolerance would give drug policy greater credibility among young people and help police direct resources toward heroin and cocaine.

Britain has the most drug-related deaths of any country in the European Union, with heroin cited as the principal cause.

The parliamentary committee also suggested reclassifying the club drug Ecstasy, but Blunkett said he had rejected that advice.

Several other European countries have already relaxed their drug laws. The Netherlands has legalized marijuana, while Luxembourg has ended jail sentences for marijuana possession. Spain and Italy do not jail people caught with drugs meant for personal use. Last year, Portugal adopted a law eliminating jail time for possession of small amounts of any illegal drug.

Under the British reform, possession of marijuana would no longer be considered an arrestable offense. Though this will not take effect for a year, from now on any police action will be limited to issuing a warning and seizing the drug.

Blunkett countered suggestions that Britain was going "soft on drugs" by saying police would retain the right to arrest users in "aggravated" cases such as smoking outside schools or in the presence of children. The Home Office stressed that any marijuana cafes, where the drug is sold and used openly, remained illegal and would be closed.

"It is critical that police can maintain public order," Blunkett said. "Where cannabis possession is linked to aggravated behavior that threatens public order, the police will retain the power of arrest."

Scotland Yard said it welcomed the new reclassification of the drug combined with maintaining a discretionary police power to intervene. A spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, Andy Hayman, said, "The retention of police power of arrest will enable the police to have greater flexibility in dealing with incidents on the street."

Blunkett insisted that yesterday's move did not constitute legalizing marijuana. "All controlled drugs are harmful and will remain illegal," he said. "We must concentrate our efforts on the drugs that cause the most harm, while sending a credible message to young people."

But Keith Hellawell, Prime Minister Tony Blair's one-time anti-drugs chief, said the new policy "would virtually be decriminalization of cannabis, and this is, quite frankly, giving out the wrong message." He coupled the announcement of his resignation with a strong attack on the proposals, saying they would damage communities and lead to more, not less, drug use.

"It's actually a technical adjustment which in the reality of the law doesn't make a great deal of difference," he said, "but it's being bandied about by people as a softening of the law."

He said that there had been an increase in marijuana smoking among young people and that more people were seeking treatment for its effects. "Why on earth, when there are these problems, we change our message and give a softer message, I don't know," he said.

Hellawell had been named the government's first anti-drugs coordinator by Blair in 1997, but he was sidelined by Blunkett last year and made a part-time adviser on the international drug trade control.

The new police tolerance has been in effect on an experimental basis in two London neighborhoods, Lambeth and Brixton. Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith visited the Brixton project Tuesday and told the Commons yesterday that residents had told him that it had led to rampant dealing on their streets. He said Blunkett's plan amounted to "handing over drugs policy to criminals on the street."

Kate Hoey, a Labor member of Parliament who represents one of the affected London areas, said the government could live to regret yesterday's decision because of the increasing strength of marijuana being peddled on the street.

"It is a very strong type of cannabis; it's genetically modified; it is not perhaps like people tried 20 years ago," she said, "and we have no idea of the long-term effects of constant hard smoking that some kids are doing now."

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