Britain Continues Brisk March to Drug Reform

Britain's move away from US-style drug policies took on added momentum this week, with three developments heralding change for the better.
Britain's move away from US-style drug policies took on added momentum this week, with three developments heralding change for the better. First, cannabis decriminalization is now only a signature away from becoming reality, as Home Secretary David Blunkett's drug policy advisers have officially recommended that he downgrade the weed from a Class B to a Class C drug, the least serious drug classification.

Second, the Labour government Home Office has released a new strategy for club drugs, particularly ecstasy (MDMA), that recognizes that ecstasy use is pandemic and calls for a harm reduction -- not a law enforcement -- response to ecstasy users.

And the Liberal Democratic Party, Britain's third political force behind Labour and the Tories, meeting over the weekend in Manchester for its annual convention, endorsed the most radical drug reforms ever embraced by a mainstream political party.

While it has been six months since Home Secretary Blunkett first announced he was prepared to downgrade cannabis, effectively decriminalizing the drug, it appears that D-Day is now only a matter of weeks away. Blunkett's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) recommended this week that Blunkett take his own advice and reschedule cannabis.

According to an unnamed Blunkett spokesman, he will do just that. "He [the Home Secretary] has a mind to do it [reclassify cannabis]," the anonymous informant told the Independent (London) on Sunday. "He will make a final decision when all the information is in front of him," he added.

But while the ACMD recommended the downgrading and, as the Independent noted, "it would be unusual" for Blunkett to ignore the recommendation, chances are that he will not act until next month at the earliest, when four more studies on cannabis enforcement will be completed. All are expected to bolster the case for decrim. One, by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, will reveal that British police spend about $75 million per year enforcing cannabis prohibition, the Independent reported. And both the Metropolitan Police and the Police Foundation are working on reports on the success or failure of the Lambeth experiment, where police quit arresting cannabis users beginning last July. Originally set for six months, the experiment was extended after senior officers declared it successful. The two reports are expected to follow the conclusions of senior police officials. Finally, the Home Affairs Select Committee in Parliament, which is studying a broad range of drug policy issues, will present its report to the government next month.

If that weren't enough pressure on Blunkett, the Liberal Democrats have provided more. Britain's third political force, the Liberals control 52 seats in the 659-member House of Commons. In a dramatic series of votes that went beyond the moderate reforms hoped for by the party leadership, the Lib Dems called for an end to arrests of cannabis users. Not stopping there, the party also voted for an amendment to the leadership proposal. The amendment calls for an effort to amend the UN Conventions on drugs so that cannabis may be completely legalized in Britain.

Party members also voted to end imprisonment for the possession of any illicit drug, called for ecstasy to be downgraded from Class A to Class B, and endorsed the expansion of existing heroin maintenance programs. "We are not naïve about the dangers of drugs in our society," said party shadow Home Secretary Simon Hughes as he presented the party's position paper in Manchester. "Our liberal philosophical tradition does mean that we believe that government should only seek use coercion against the individual to prevent harm to others or society as a whole. This paper is consistent with that philosophy," he told gathered party members. "But this is not a paper which is philosophically motivated. This is not a debate motivated by some simplistic libertarian notion that anything goes. It is motivated by the real and pressing need for a more effective policy to reduce the widespread harm and destruction caused by drugs."

Despite concerns expressed by some party members and political observers that the Liberals' radical move on drug policy could damage its ability to siphon voters from the socially conservative Tory base, Hughes called the platform "responsible, realistic and progressive." Labour Party spokesmen disagreed, saying that the Liberals "had lost touch with the real world" on drug policy. "Abolishing jail sentences for drugs like cocaine and heroin would lead to more drug use and more drug-related crime," a Labour spokesman told BBC News. "Ecstasy is a dangerous drug that kills and downgrading it from Class A to Class B would be foolhardy and irresponsible," he added.

But in a sign that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, at the same time Labour spokesmen were denouncing the Liberals' position on ecstasy, the Labour Home Office was promulgating new guidelines on the popular club drug that called for police to ignore its personal use by clubbers and demanded that club owners undertake harm reduction measures to protect their drug-using patrons.

The Labour government was merely recognizing reality, it said. "We have to recognize that some clubbers will continue to ignore the risks and carry on taking dangerous drugs," said junior Home Affairs Minister Bob Ainsworth. "If we cannot stop them from taking drugs, then we must be prepared to take steps to reduce the harm they may cause themselves. We are not asking club owners to condone the use of drugs on their premises," he added. "What we are asking them to do is accept that we're not going to be successful in the entirety in keeping drugs out of the club scene."

In a new guide to dealing with club drugs called Safer Clubbing, the government bluntly recognized the prevalence of drug use in Britain, the guide states, "[c]ontrolled drug use has become a large part of youth culture and is, for many young people, an integral part of a night out." The guide prescribes a set of common-sense harm reduction measures for club owners to undertake, including the provision of free cold water, adequate air-conditioning and "chill out" rooms. The Home Office could have been blindsided by the results of a survey undertaken as part of its study of the extent of the problem. After questioning more than 2,000 club goers in the Manchester region, the Home Office found that 87% had smoked cannabis in the last three months, 77% had used amphetamines, 67% had taken ecstasy, 52% had used LSD and 45% had used cocaine.

Not one of the 2,057 clubbers questioned reported zero drug use in the last three months.

The relevant portions of the conference agenda may be viewed at: //www.libdems.org.uk/index.cfm/page.agenda/section.conference/body....
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