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One Step Forward, One Step Sideways, One Step Back

Caught between a clamor for an end to cannabis prohibition and the grumblings of reactionaries on the other, David Blunkett is making a mess of what was supposed to be a straightforward move to decriminalize marijuana possession in Great Britain.
 
 
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British Home Secretary David Blunkett is finding himself in a bit of a pickle these days. Caught between a rising clamor for an end to cannabis prohibition on one hand and the grumblings of the forces of reaction on the other, Blunkett is busily making a fine muddle of what was supposed to be a straightforward move to effectively decriminalize marijuana possession in Great Britain. On Wednesday, Blunkett appeared before the House of Commons to lay out Labour's new drug strategy, and while he did announce that the Tony Blair government will reschedule cannabis from a Class B drug (amphetamines, barbiturates) to a Class C (steroids, tranquilizers), the announcement was so wrapped up in caveats, cross-currents and contradictions that cannabis decrim is arriving in Britain not with a bang but with a whimper.

Saying that the Blair government wished to distinguish "between drugs which kill and drugs that cause harm," Blunkett told the House of Commons that "cannabis possession remains a criminal offense," but then added that in most cases users would not be arrested. The move would effectively extend the so-called "Lambeth experiment," where police in the south London borough do not arrest but merely cite cannabis offenders, to the entire nation.

Bowing to pressure from social conservatives from within the Labour Party as well as the Tories, however, Blunkett told the House users could be arrested in certain circumstances. "They will be able to arrest for possession where public order is threatened or where children are at risk," he said. He also announced new measures that would heighten penalties for some cannabis offenses. And to add insult to injury, he also announced that because the changes he announced would require enabling legislation from Parliament, they would not go into effect until July 2003.

In a nutshell, the new Labour drug policy:

Reclassifies cannabis as a less serious Class C drug with users and possessors usually not subject to arrest, only citation. Gives police arrest powers for simple use or possession in cases where a so far ill-defined threat to public order or children exists. Increases maximum prison sentences for cannabis dealing from 10 years to 14 years. Will create a new criminal offense of supplying drugs to children. Has no provision for legal cannabis sales. Rejects the reclassification of ecstasy (MDMA) from a Class A to a Class B drug. Rejects plans for safe injection sites for heroin users. Acknowledges a role for heroin by prescription and on-premises injection for a limited number of Britain's estimated 200,000 heroin addicts.

Nobody is particularly happy. Former drug czar Keith Hellawell, who was sidelined last fall and sent into internal exile as an "international consultant," took Blunkett's pronouncement as a chance to resign with some notice. "This would virtually be the decriminalization of cannabis and this is, quite frankly, giving out the wrong message," he said in a press release. "Cannabis is simply not a sensible substance to take."

The Home Office pronounced itself "bemused" by Hellawell's sudden aversion to cannabis rescheduling, telling London newspapers Hellawell had been well aware of plans to do so and had not raised objections.

Conservative Party shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin also blasted the move toward decrim, warning Members of Parliament (MPs) of the "prospect of social disaster." Claiming the new Labour policy would send out "deeply confusing moral messages," he said it would give effective "control over cannabis to the drugs dealers with the police turning away." Letwin did not say who now controls cannabis. Perhaps hinting at the possibility of more fundamental reform, though, he said, "[t]here are two logical approaches -- and the home secretary has adopted neither."

Drug reformers and members of the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee, who had issued a report calling for cannabis decrim, ecstasy down-scheduling, and safe injection sites, also had sharp criticisms for the Labour pronouncement. Roger Howard, head of the non-profit group DrugScope told the Independent (London) that the Blair government had "missed a golden opportunity." Howard described the Labour package as ranging from the "impressively forward-looking to the dangerously short-sighted." People could still be jailed for up to two years for cannabis possession, he pointed out.

MP Chris Mullins, head of the select committee, was more diplomatic, saying that cannabis reclassification was "plain common sense." He did not comment on Blunkett's failure to accept the committee's recommendations on safe injection sites and ecstasy reclassification, but is already moving to open a new parliamentary review of British drug policy. Mullin, who resigned from the government to chair the powerful Home Affairs Committee, will head a review of the possible formal decriminalization of cannabis, as well as investigating how well current policies are working.

Last week, BBC World at One polled 116 Labour MPs and found a substantial majority favored a serious, in-depth look at cannabis laws. The poll came on the heels of Conservative Party deputy leader Peter Lilley's call for outright legalization, much to the dismay of his traditionalist rank-and-file. Lilley called for cannabis sales to take place through licensed outlets.

With the chorus for cannabis legalization or decrim growing larger by the day, what was being touted as Britain's most important drug reform in decades is in danger of being left in the dust before it is even implemented. With the Blair government refusing to tackle legalization, its half-measure reforms have failed to satisfy anyone.