Drug War Retreat
England moves to decriminalize narcotics
by Adam J. Smith
In these Times magazine, January 2002
For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, there might never be
a more opportune moment to stand down from a war that has grown
increasingly unpopular at home.
It may only have been a matter of time, but Britain, which
has enthusiastically assumed a co-leadership role in the "first
war of the 21st century," the War on Terror, has chosen this
moment to quietly but unmistakably begin a cessation of hostilities
in the last and longest war of the 20th: the war on drugs.
In late October, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that
the government would soon stop arresting or even cautioning people
for marijuana possession. Blunkett also indicated that the Labour
Party is ready to discuss expanding the legal distribution of
in to addicts and reclassifying the drug ecstasy-thought to
be used by as many as half a million Britons each weekend-as a
"soft" drug, with accompanying reductions in penalties
for its manufacture, sale and possession.
"The drug war, in Europe at least, is essentially over,"
says Paul Flynn, a Labour MP from Wales. "Our course is irreversibly
moving toward a more pragmatic approach to substance abuse generally
throughout Europe. Aside from Sweden, the British are the last
nation of the European Union to move away from criminally enforced
prohibition as front-line drug abuse prevention."
In the mid-'70s, the Dutch were the first Europeans to back
away from the U.S.-led drug war, with positive results. "After
30 years under some of the harshest drug policies in the European
Union, Britain's drug problem is among the worst in Europe. And
after 25 years of intelligent, pragmatic policies, drugs in the
Netherlands seem to cause the least harm to individuals and society,"
notes Flynn, who also sits on the Health Committee for the Council
of Europe, an advisory body that makes policy recommendations
to its 43 member nations.
Over the past five years, much of Western Europe has begun
to move toward decriminalization of drugs, at least as far as
personal possession and use is concerned. Spain and Germany are
no longer arresting people for possession of soft drugs, such
as cannabis or psychedelic mushrooms, and Portugal essentially
has decriminalized drug possession altogether. Portuguese law
now requires those caught with up to 10 "daily doses"
of any substance to appear before a non-punitive commission, if
they are cited at all.
Britain's next step could be to expand its system of legal
distribution of heroin to addicts. Under "opiate maintenance,"
registered addicts receive legal, measured doses of heroin along
with other health and social services. The programs are designed
to help users stabilize their lives, reduce crime and increase
their chances of getting clean. After a three-year trial that
yielded impressive results, Switzerland has installed heroin maintenance
programs as part of its overall health policy. The Netherlands
has initiated clinical trials of its own, and Spain, Germany and
Denmark are expected to follow suit this year.
But as drug reform pushes forward in Europe, there are limits
to how far it can go. A 1961 U.N. treaty currently mandates global
drug prohibition. Although many believe that some nation, most
likely the Swiss, will soon attempt to overtly legalize their
domestic cannabis market, legal, regulated markets probably cannot
be widely instituted while that treaty is in effect.
The United States, for its part, has strongly opposed programs
like opiate maintenance, and the presence of three hard-line prohibitionists-John
Ashcroft as attorney general, Asa Hutchinson as DEA chief and
John Walters as drug czar-in the Bush administration means that
position is unlikely to change, internationally or domestically.
"At the moment, Europe, at least at the highest political
levels, is still afraid to stand in the way of the United States,"
says Joep Oomen, director of the European NGO Council on Drugs
and Development. "It is clear that Europe will only be able
to act independently if it stands together behind what it has
learned. Today, in every major city in Western Europe, municipal
authorities have come to the same pragmatic conclusions about
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation,
says that Americans and Europeans look at the issue differently.
"In Europe, the drug problem is viewed as a collection of
consequences-AIDS, crime, addiction- which must be dealt with,"
he says. "Not so here, where we tend to look at drug use
and intoxication as a moral issue. We justify the most destructive
and least effective of our drug policies as somehow sending an
important message to our children. That makes it difficult to
import even the most successful European policy initiatives."
Whatever Congress thinks about the wholesale rejection of
drug war orthodoxy taking place across the Atlantic, it doesn't
seem as if it will be able to do much about it. Some in Europe
still call for "zero tolerance," but their numbers and
their influence are shrinking. "We have come to the point,"
Flynn says, "where Parliament will either reform Britain's
drug policy, or the people will do it, and Parliament will be
irrelevant. The assumption inside the country is that the war
Adam J. Smith is former associate director of the Drug Reform
Coordination Network, where he was founding editor of The Week