America's Closest Ally Declares End to War on Marijuana Users
US Arrests Top 700,000 Annually -- 88% For Possession Alone
British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced yesterday in the House of Commons that the U.K. will substantially reform its policy on cannabis, making possession of the drug a non-arrestable offense.
The news was cheered by American drug policy reform advocates, who say it is time that the U.S. followed the lead of the U.K. and the increasing number of other countries that have substantially reformed their marijuana laws in recent years.
"As our closest allies start to recover from the failure of cannabis prohibition, we look more and more like a friend in serious denial," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The war on American marijuana users is clearly harming us as a nation - wasting countless lives and dollars - but so far the Bush Administration has simply escalated it."
The Federal Bureau of Investigation 2000 Uniform Crime Report (the last year for which data is available) 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.
The legal 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 jail - 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 government action followed recommendations of a parliamentary committee in May, and a report by the Police Foundation last year, which concluded that the penalties for marijuana possession in Britain - the harshest in Europe - did more damage than the drug itself, by wasting police resources and saddling otherwise law-abiding citizens with a criminal record.
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.
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 in May.