Britain seeks to downgrade marijuana, reduce penalties for most users

Thursday, July 11th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ The British government wants to downgrade marijuana's status as a drug, putting it on par with steroids rather than heroin or Ecstasy _ a move that would let most users off with a warning.

On Wednesday Prime Minister Tony Blair's government outlined a proposal to the House of Commons that would relax marijuana laws, stopping short of legalization. The goal is to let police focus their enforcement efforts on harder drugs.

Blair's Labor Party has a large majority in Parliament and the proposal is virtually certain to pass.

Under the plan, marijuana would be downgraded from a Class B to a Class C drug, making its use and possession less serious crimes, Home Secretary David Blunkett said in outlining the plan to the House of Commons. Police would retain the authority to arrest those caught with marijuana, but in most cases would simply confiscate the drug and issue a warning.

``The message to young people and families must be open, honest and believable,'' Blunkett said. ``Cannabis is a potentially harmful drug and should remain illegal. However, it is not comparable with crack, heroin and Ecstasy.''

Blair said the proposal did not amount to decriminalization and had wide support among the police because it would allow them to spend more time fighting more serious drugs.

The opposition Conservative Party criticized the proposal as potentially dangerous to the public, and a government adviser resigned in protest.

In the United States, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws praised the British policy shift. ``Great Britain's reclassification of cannabis is an honest and common-sense approach to refocus drug policy on those substances that cause the most harm,'' said the group's founder and executive director, Keith Stroup.

Laws differ among individual U.S. states. But eight states have taken some kind of step toward permitting marijuana for medicinal use: California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and Colorado.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled last year that there was no exception in federal law for people to use marijuana, so even those with tolerant state laws could face arrest if they do.

In Britain, possession of a Class B drug currently carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail.

Possession of a Class C drug carries a maximum sentence of two years, but the Home Office said that penalty is rarely invoked for first-time offenders, who normally receive only a ticket.

Blunkett said that in most marijuana possession cases police would simply confiscate the drug and issue a warning to the offender.

But, he said, the proposed rules would give officers the power to arrest those possessing small amounts of marijuana if public order is threatened or children are put at risk.

Blunkett said he hoped to have the reclassification in place by July 2003.

In London, though, the change could come more quickly.

Blunkett said the Metropolitan Police would, over the next several months, expand to the entire city a pilot project launched in the Brixton neighborhood to experiment with ticketing marijuana users instead of arresting them.

Oliver Letwin, the Conservative Party spokesman on law and order issues, called the proposal ``muddled and dangerous,'' saying Blunkett had failed to choose between legalizing marijuana and getting serious about arresting those who use it.

``You need to explain how, with a policy that consists of deeply confusing mixed messages, you can conceivably expect to reduce drug dependency and criminality in this country,'' he said.

Blunkett said the proposed downgrade would be accompanied by a beefed-up anti-drug education campaign, teaching young people that all drugs can harm them and hard drugs can kill.

His announcement followed recommendations from a House of Commons committee and an independent advisory group. He rejected recommendations that Ecstasy be downgraded from Class A to Class B and that ``shooting galleries'' be set up for addicts to use drugs in controlled conditions.

Blunkett had said last fall that he was inclined to downgrade marijuana, but would wait to hear from the two panels and watch the Brixton experiment before making a final decision.

He said Wednesday that police in Brixton had arrested 10 percent more hard drug dealers since they stopped apprehending marijuana users.

Blunkett's announcement came several hours after a top anti-drug official said he was resigning to protest the reclassification.

Keith Hellawell, a government adviser who previously served as Britain's drug czar, said marijuana was dangerous and led some users to try harder drugs.

``It is a softening of the law and it's giving the wrong message,'' he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The Home Office said Hellawell told Blunkett last year that he supported the proposal to reclassify marijuana, and that he had submitted his resignation last month, effective in August, but asked that it not be announced immediately.