The British government has asked Parliament to ease pot penalties, changing the law so that police will no longer be required to arrest people possessing small quantities of cannabis.
Home Secretary David Blunkett announced July 10 that he would ask to have cannabis moved from Class B to Class C of the UK's drug laws, effective next July.
The proposal has the endorsement of the governing Labour Party, but passage "is not certain," says Labour Member of Parliament Paul Flynn, a leading drug-law-reform advocate. "There has been a backlash from the tabloids that is irrational and hysterical," he says. "Nevertheless, their influence does spread to millions of people and might well pressurize MPs to change their minds." He expects about 14 Labour and Conservative MPs will try to block the move.
The change to Class C will not bar police from arresting pot-smokers. It merely leaves it up to the discretion of the local government and the individual officer. In theory, most people caught with small amounts will get their stash confiscated and a warning. But they will be arrested--and face up to two years in prison--if there are "aggravating factors" such as smoking near children, threats to public order or "flagrant disregard" for the law. Smoking in public would be considered "aggravated possession," says Chris Sanders of the London-based Cannabis Coalition.
"Cannabis is a harmful substance that still requires strict controls to be maintained," Secretary Blunkett told the press, vowing that the government would not decriminalize or legalize it. The change also won't reduce penalties for dealing pot, now a 14-year maximum.
"This is Class C for confusion, it's so muddled--Blunkett has flunked it!" exclaims Sanders. "A huge number of people think it's been legalized, but the struggle hasn't by any means been won."
Flynn says "the practical effect of the change will be de facto decriminalization." But local police interpretations will almost certainly vary, he adds; in some parts of the country now, "the likelihood of being arrested for possessing cannabis is 70 times higher than in other areas."
So while snarling "Oi, filth" at a police officer while waving a spliff in their face would obviously be "flagrant disregard," will dreadlocks, scruffy clothes or dark skin count as "aggravating factors"? Will cannabis-smokers be relatively safe in Edinburgh and London's Brixton and Lambeth neighborhoods, where similar policies are already in effect, but still get banged up in less tolerant areas? Police officials gave mixed responses to the British press.
"I've spoken to police, criminal defense lawyers, politicians and journalists, and none of them have a clue how it will work in practice in Scotland!" Edinburgh activist Kevin Williamson told HIGH TIMES. "But despite that, the signs are there that cannabis users will no longer be arrested, which is a small but important first step in breaking with US-sponsored prohibition policies."
The move does represent a significant change for Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, which until recently echoed US-style policies and rhetoric. "It is the first evidence of a Government Minister changing his mind in the face of testimony from bereaved parents," says Flynn.
Former "drugs tsar" Keith Hellawell, whose post was downgraded by Blunkett last year, resigned in protest, charging that the new policy would "virtually be decriminalization of cannabis and this is giving out the wrong message."
But former Labour cabinet minister Mo Mowlam, a medical-marijuana user, told the Daily Mirror that "the government's position is ridiculous... [it] is trying to go in two directions at once." Cannabis "should be legal, sold by legitimate dealers, and taxed," she added.
The day when British tokers can amble into Barney's-on-the-Thames and order a bit of skunk as easily and legally as they can get a pint of beer is still a ways off. In the last year, about a half-dozen Dutch-style coffeehouses have tried to open in Britain, and police have shut all of them down. Colin Davies, whose Dutch Experience shop in a Manchester suburb was perhaps the most persistent of the lot, was jailed in early July for violating his bail conditions.
Kevin Williamson says he still plans to open a coffeeshop in Edinburgh. "For myself and most others who have tried to take a rational and unhypocritical perspective on the subject, nothing less than parity with alcohol regulations will suffice," he wrote on his Website. "This means licensing the sale of cannabis, taxation at point of sale, allowing the right to grow it for personal and medical use, and the right to use it without hassle."