De Facto Decriminalization

Britain's third political force, the Liberal Democrat Party, is moving to put its policy where its platform is with a plan which would effectively decriminalize hard drug possession in the London borough of Southwick.
Britain's third political force, the Liberal Democrat Party, is moving to put its policy where its platform is. In the party's March convention, delegates outpaced the party leadership by adopting a platform calling for the legalization of cannabis, the decriminalization of hard drug possession and an effort to repeal the United Nations drug treaties that effectively bar outright legalization of the drug trade. Now, a London borough council dominated by Lib Dems is ready to order police to stop arresting hard drug users in possession of small amounts of cocaine and heroin. Under the plan, small time drug offenders would be issued a caution, or ticket, and their drugs confiscated. The plan would effectively decriminalize hard drug possession in the London borough of Southwick.

According to Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes, the policy of non-arrest would be extended to the 14 other local councils controlled by the party if it proved successful in Southwark. The borough of Southwark is home to the Camberwell Green neighborhood, one of the five communities across England and Wales designated a crime "hot-spot" subject to special police effortsin March by Home Secretary David Blunkett of the ruling Labor Party. To its immediate west is the borough of Lambeth, where a similar ticketing scheme for cannabis has resulted in the virtual decriminalization of the weed for a year now. Both boroughs have significant minority populations and sometimes tense relations with police.

The Southwark decrim plan is based on the Lambeth experiment, Hughes told the Independent (London), and the Southwark pilot project will be discussed at a national meeting of newly elected Liberal Democrat council leaders later this month. Hughes told the Independent that under the decrim plan, police would concentrate on drug dealers and persons possessing weapons. The borough would have "zero tolerance" for arms, he said. "We will ask the police not to pursue anyone for drugs, but to have zero tolerance for guns and knives," he said. "I hope Southwark will lead the way in trying to persuade the police to take a tough line on dealers and people with weapons and step back from chasing drug users," he added.

The proposal has drawn support from public health officials and drug organizations, but got a decidely cold shoulder from the Tony Blair government. But getting the project underway probably relies more on the attitude of local police commanders than the Blair Home Office and the police may be receptive. Last month, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) issued its new drug policy, which called for hard drug users to offered treatment instead of being arrested. While the Southwark plan does not envision mandatory treatment, high police officials, faced with rising crime and quickly spreading crack cocaine use, may see the move as a means to free up street officers to fight violent crime.

That concern was articulated by Southwark community safety and support officer Richard Porter. He told the Independent punishing drug users was a waste of resources. "As a paramedic, I rarely come across people who have had a bad time on drugs, but I frequently have to treat the victims of knife attacks," he said. "I don't believe recreational drug users are criminals. The police are already under-resourced," he said.

The move gained the support of drug charity DrugScope. "This is in line with what we recommended to the Home Affairs Select Committee," chief executive Roger Howard told the Independent. "We would support the non-arrest for possession of small amounts of any drug for personal use," he said. "Dealers must be targeted."

But a Home Office spokesman disagreed, telling the Independent the idea was "barmy" (British for "balmy").
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