Pot users relax with new law

SUN JOURNAL

Britain: A pilot program that eased marijuana penalties in a London neighborhood is set to go national.

July 14, 2002|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - His eyes narrowed to slits and his mouth widened in a half-moon grin, Michael Anderson is ready to tell anybody who asks that, "Yes, my friend, I been smoking the weed."

He will tell even the police about his high from the marijuana. Last week, as he has done for months, he leaned back on a park bench and blew marijuana smoke toward two constables in the south London neighborhood of Brixton. As announced last week by the government, lovers of "weed" or cannabis, as it is known here, will be free to smoke it in Britain almost wherever and whenever they want.

The laboratory for the new policy was Anderson's home of Brixton.

For months, police have been largely ignoring him and others toking in storefronts and back alleys, in the public squares and on private porches. The results, according to Scotland Yard, include an increase in arrests of people using hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine and a decrease in property and violent crime because constables are freed up.

What will happen outside of Brixton, though, is anybody's guess. The district is hardly typical of Britain.

A neighborhood populated largely by Brits of Caribbean descent, it is like another country. In an outdoor food market, whole goats and chickens, skinned and plucked, hang by their legs. Jamaican music bounces off storefronts lining narrow streets. Accents are thickly Caribbean.

And then there is the drug use. Finding marijuana in Brixton is as easy as finding apples on Electric Avenue, the street made famous by the song of the same name by Eddy Grant: "We gonna rock down to Electric Avenue / And then we'll take it higher."

Although many residents here, from the Caribbean and elsewhere, have little tolerance for drugs, marijuana has long been part of the culture for many others, particularly those of Jamaican descent. One of the reasons Brixton was chosen for the drug experiment was simply the amount of time police were spending rounding up people smoking marijuana while users of crack cocaine were causing havoc elsewhere in the area.

"It was crazy with the police," says Anderson, slumped on a bench in Brixton Oval, the town's central park. "They come, you hide; they go, you smoke. People smoke crack, they are crazy. People smoke the weed, they relax. Fight the crack. Why fight the cannabis?"

That, in street talk, was the argument last week from Prime Minister Tony Blair and Home Secretary David Blunkett, who explained to the House of Commons that marijuana possession would no longer be an arrestable offense as long as it was used discreetly, meaning not around children. Dealing will still be outlawed, and, in a move to defuse criticism over the new policy, prison terms will be increased to 14 years from five for those supplying the drug.

Technically, marijuana remains illegal, downgraded from a category of drug that included Ecstasy to one that includes barbiturates. The new policy, which localities are to begin implementing before it formally takes effect next year, still allows for two-year sentences for users, but police have been instructed merely to issue warnings.

"Cannabis is a potential harmful drug and should remain illegal," Blunkett told the House of Commons. "However, it is not comparable with crack, heroin or Ecstasy. A greater differentiation between drugs which kill and drugs that cause harm is both scientifically justified and educationally sensible."

Relaxing the drug laws, though, has been met with as much shouting in Britain as might be expected if the same proposals were made by a major political party in the United States. While criticism of the decision was predictable from the Conservative Party, the change in law was also met with the resignation of a government adviser who once served as the prime minister's anti-drug chief.

And although Anderson and his fellow tokers may like the new policy, many people in Brixton - and elsewhere in the country - do not.

"It only opens the door for people to get their next drugs, the more dangerous ones," says Ann Almond, 35, as she weighed fruit at her stand on Electric Avenue, marijuana smokers less than 30 yards from her. "What are we supposed to tell the children? Cannabis is bad for you, it's illegal, but go ahead and smoke it wherever you want?"

Even with the change, Britain's drug laws remain less liberal than those of some other countries of the European Union. Germany and Italy, for example, have legalized "shooting galleries" for heroin addicts; the Netherlands allows the sale of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms in designated bars and coffee shops.

Officially, Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police support the new policy, but many constables do not. Of six who were interviewed about it last week, comments from Constables David Church and Sally Wilkinson were typical. Walking their beat near the Brixton subway stop, they spotted a man who they seemed certain was dealing marijuana. When they stopped him, though, he had only a small amount of the drug on him.

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