British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced yesterday that he wants the U.K. to substantially reform its policy on cannabis, making possession of the drug a non-arrestable offense.
The change, which will place Britain in the majority of Western European nations in easing marijuana laws, will be achieved by re-classifying cannabis from a class "B" to a class "C" drug. Instead of arrest - and possibly prison - a person found in possession of marijuana by police in the U.K. will be given a warning, a caution or a summons to court.
The British reclassification follows the recommendations of a Police Foundation report released last year, which concluded that the penalties for marijuana possession in Britain - the harshest in Europe - do more damage than the drug itself, by wasting police resources and saddling otherwise law-abiding citizens with a criminal record.
The news was cheered by American drug policy reformers, who have long advocated a similar change in U.S. law.
"One can only hope Britain's decision to follow in the footsteps of other European countries on this issue - and to turn away from the U.S. model -- will send a clear message to American politicians," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center - Drug Policy Foundation. "U.S. public opinion increasingly favors cannabis decriminalization, but political leadership has so far been sorely lacking."
In the U.S, marijuana, along with heroin and LSD, is classified as a "Schedule I" drug, despite substantial evidence that it is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. The Federal Bureau of Investigation 2000 Uniform Crime Report reveals that an estimated 734,498 persons were arrested for marijuana violations in 2000, with almost 88% arrested for possession alone. More Americans were arrested for marijuana in 2000 than all violent crimes combined.
All but four European Union countries - Sweden, France, Finland and Greece - have eliminated criminal penalties for marijuana possession, consumption, or both. In The Netherlands, sale of small quantities of marijuana is permitted in "coffee shops." Switzerland has proposed a law that allows for the regulated sale and production of marijuana, putting the country on the cutting edge of reform in Europe.
Like the U.S., Britain divides most illegal drugs into three categories. Class A, including heroin and cocaine, carry the stiffest penalties for possession and trafficking. Class B, which carry a maximum penalty of two years for possession and five years for trafficking, include amphetamine, barbiturates and - until the change is enacted - marijuana. The lowest class of drugs, class C, include diet aids and anti-depressants. Maximum penalties for class C drugs, which are illegal to give or sell for non-medical use, are two years for possession and five for trafficking.
Home Secretary Blunkett has expressed a desire to concentrate on the more pressing drug-related problems, which are associated with heroin and crack, not marijuana.
"To have credible policy in treatment and harm minimisation and above all consistency in law enforcement and policing, we believe it is right to look at the re-categorisation of cannabis," Blunkett told British legislators.