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 hero

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 drug policy."

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 is over."


Adam J. Smith is former associate director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, where he was founding editor of The Week Online.

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