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British Call for Massive Reform, But Reject Legalization -- for Now

The latest addition to the ever-growing debate over British drug policy came this week as the parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee studying current policy released its long-awaited report, "The Government's Drugs Policy: Is It Working?" The Members of Parliament (MPs) on the committee undertook 10 months of hearings before issuing its report on Wednesday. While the MPs recommended significant drug policy reforms across-the-board and called for "a major shake-up," they balked at going the extra step and calling for legalization -- even of cannabis.

In all, the report makes 24 specific recommendations for change, among the most notable of which are:

Reclassification of cannabis and ecstasy: "We believe that drugs policy should primarily be addressed to dealing with the 250,000 problematic drug users. We support... the Home Secretary's proposal to reclassify cannabis from class B to class C. We... recommend that ecstasy is reclassified as a class B drug." Heroin: "We recommend that the Government substantially increases the funding for treatment for heroin addicts and ensure that methadone treatments and complementary therapies are universally available to those who need them. We recommend that appropriate treatment forms a mandatory part of custodial sentences and that offenders have access to consistent treatment approaches within the prison estate as well as outside it. This should include strictly supervised methadone treatment in the first instance. We recommend that a proper evaluation is conducted of diamorphine [medical heroin] prescribing for heroin addiction in the UK... as compared with methadone prescribing regimes. We recommend that the guidance and training provided to practitioners prescribing diamorphine to heroin addicts is strengthened." Cocaine: "We recommend that the number of treatment places for cocaine users is substantially increased. We recommend that resources are channeled into researching and piloting innovative treatment interventions. We consider that the risks posed by cocaine to the user and to other people merit it remaining a class A drug. We recommend that more treatment places are created for crack users and that resources be channeled into researching and piloting more effective treatments. We further recommend that in the meantime efforts are redoubled to extinguish supply of crack cocaine. Where crack is concerned we see no prospect for compromise." Safe Injection Sites: "We recommend that an evaluated pilot programme of safe injecting houses for heroin users is established without delay and that if... this is successful, the programme is extended across the country. We conclude that the Dutch and Swiss evidence provides a strong basis on which to conduct a pilot here in Britain of highly structured heroin prescribing to addicts." Drug Education: "We believe that all drugs education material should be based on the premise that any drug use can be harmful, and should be discouraged. We conclude that general practitioners are, for the most part, inadequately trained to deal with drug misuse. We recommend that training in substance misuse is embedded in the undergraduate medical curriculum and postgraduate general practice curriculum." Social Dealing: "We recommend that a new offence is created of 'supply for gain,' which would be used to prosecute large-scale commercial suppliers. We are not persuaded that an intent to supply should be presumed on the basis of amounts of drugs found; we therefore recommend that the offences of simple possession and possession with intent to supply should be retained." Harm Reduction Workers and the Law: "We recommend that the Government reviews Section 9A of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, with a view to repealing it, to allow for the provision of drugs paraphernalia which reduces the harm caused by drugs. We recommend that Section 8 of the Act is amended to ensure that drugs agencies can conduct harm reduction work and provide safe injecting areas for users without fear of being prosecuted. We recommend that the Home Office and Department of Health urgently review the current legal framework on the dispensation of controlled drugs by community pharmacists. We recommend that Drug Abstinence Orders are amended to carry the requirement of access to treatment." Legalization: "While acknowledging that there may come a day when the balance may tip in favour of legalising and regulating some types of presently illegal drugs, we decline to recommend this drastic step. We accept that to decriminalise possession of drugs for personal use would send the wrong message to the majority of young people... and that it would inevitably lead to an increase in drug abuse. We, therefore, reject decriminalisation. We recommend that the Government initiates a discussion within the [United Nations] Commission on Narcotic Drugs of alternative ways -- including the possibility of legalisation and regulation -- to tackle the global drugs dilemma."

While the committee's recommendations have frightened anti-drug activists, they have also received scorn from some prominent legalizers. Former Cabinet Minister Mo Mowlam, for example, told the BBC News that the committee's proposed "halfway measures do nothing." Ministers should "have the guts to go all the way" and legalize cannabis and ecstasy, she said.

"The ecstasy move, to bring it down a class, what does that do? It makes it more available," she said. "But it doesn't deal with the underlying problems of making sure it's clean, making sure people know how much and that water is available and how much water to drink."

But if the committee was criticized for timidity on one side, the Labor government of Tony Blair was quick to reject some of its recommendations as too much, too soon. Home Secretary David Blunkett quickly rejected the committee's ecstasy downgrade proposal, which would move the drug from Class A (heroin, cocaine) to Class B (barbiturates, amphetamines). In a statement issued Wednesday evening, Blunkett said: "Reclassification of ecstasy is not on the government's agenda. Ecstasy can and does kill unpredictably and there is no such thing as a safe dose."

British observers report that roughly a half-million Britons use ecstasy each weekend. About 15 Britons die from ecstasy each year.

Likewise, Blunkett said the Blair government had "no plans for injecting rooms."

But on cannabis reclassification, which would make marijuana a Class C drug regulated like steroids or Valium, Blunkett and the committee were in sync. As a result, cannabis reclassification will be implemented in June, said Blunkett. While both Blunkett and the committee rejected "decriminalization," the reclassification of cannabis will result in the de facto decriminalization of simple possession. Police encountering someone in possession of Class C drugs typically write a citation rather than arrest the person.

While the committee hesitated to embrace legalization, which it called "a step into the unknown," its report acknowledged that legalization advocates were "sensible and thoughtful people." And the committee did urge that Britain initiate a debate at the United Nations over alternative means of regulating the global drug supply. "It may well be that a future generation will take a different view. Drug policy should not be set in stone," said the report.

In a related story, Ananova Press reported on Thursday evening that former Lord Chief Justice Bingham of Cornhill called for cannabis legalization, telling The Spectator magazine that current marijuana laws are "stupid." Cornhill is believed to be the most senior British judge to call for legalization while still in office.

The Home Affairs Select Committee report can be read online at www.publications.parliament.uk.

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