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Europe: Europe Loosens its Pot Laws

Gregory Katz, Rob Story, Jason Cohn

Rolling Stone (US)

Thursday 20 Jun 2002


From England To Italy, Politicians And Cops Are Getting More Tolerant Of
Marijuana Users

At the end of May, the Senior Judge of England's highest court, Lord
Bingham, publicly declared his country's marijuana prohibition "stupid" and
said he "absolutely" supported legalization. This sent a shock wave through
the nation's political establishment. While many leaders have recently
called for relaxing England's pot laws, including the chief prison
inspector and several prominent police chiefs, Bingham, known as a
modernizer of England's tradition-bound judiciary, is one of the country's
most influential judges. With so many officials calling for reform,
England's politicians are scrambling to respond. Prime Minister Tony Blair
has refused to take a stand, except to say that the War on Drugs is not
working. But Home Secretary David Blunkett has announced plans to
reclassify marijuana so that casual users will not face prison.

Bucking the American pot-prohibition orthodoxy has become a trend in
advanced, industrialized nations (see "New Pot World Order," below).
Portugal has moved closest to outright decriminalization, with Switzerland
close behind. In Portugal, criminal penalties have been removed for the use
of small amounts of all formerly illicit drugs, including heroin, cocaine,
Ecstasy and marijuana. Only three European nations -- Sweden, Finland and
Norway -- still strictly hew to the U.S., model of strong police action
against small-time drug users. "There has been a revolution in the laws
throughout Europe because there is a widespread recognition that drug
prohibition is not working," says British Parliament member Paul Flynn.
"The most dangerous way to treat marijuana is to prohibit it and leave its
marketing to a dangerous criminal. There has been a stream of misinformaton
from America about this."

In England, the move toward decriminalizing marijuana has been led by
several crusading police chiefs and commanders, such as Brian Paddick. For
a trial period, Paddick instructed his officers in the London neighborhood
of Brixton to warn, rather than arrest, those caught with small amounts of
pot. Scotland Yard then issued a report that determined that the project
had saved 2,500 police hours over six months. Scotland Yard Deputy
Assistant Commissioner Mike Fuller concludes, "Initial findings have shown
that officers' time saved in completeing arrest formalities and preparing
court papers can be put to more crime-fighting use."

One of the first officials to call for decriminalization was north Wales
Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom, who says, "Recent research shows that
cannabis is much less harmful than nicotine, so it's impossible to defend
banning cannabis and allowing tobacco -- the law becomes, in British
parlance, an ass."

The movement has received support form politicians of all stripes,
including Conservative Party lawmakers. Marijuana-law reformers would like
to go even further and legalize cannabis, which would then be regulated and
taxed much as alcohol is. "Obviously we feel with reclassification people
will get less punishment, whch is a good thing," says Alun Buffry, national
coordinator of Britain's Legalize Cannabis Alliance, "but it's a long way
from satisfactory. There will be more people selling bad-quality stuff,
some of it not cannabis at all." A series of United Nations treaties that
require member nations to ban the drug block drastic change; nonetheless
the Swiss government -- which has not signed these treaties -- is at least
studying the idea of legalizing marijuana.

In the United States, advocates of marijuana-law reform are extremely
pleased by the developments in Europe, but pessimistic about a potential
domino effect. "The pivotal thing to understand," says Ethan Nadelmann,
executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, "is that in the
United States there is a radical anti-drug element for whom marijuana is a
complete bugaboo. There are fanatical anti-drug organizations that are
trying to reinforce the demonization of marijuana."

Indeed, George W. Bush's White House equates marijuana with hard drugs. Tom
Riley, a spokesman for Bush's Office of National Drug Control Policy says
pointedly that the European trend does not mesh with the U.S. approach.
"There's a widespread misunderstanding that marijuana is the harmless
drug," says Riley, "but the number of people with clinically defined
dependence on marijuana is going up in the U.S. -- you're talking hundreds
of thousands, if not millions, of people." According to Riley, up to 2
million Americans are effectively addicted to marijuana. (An estimated 50
million are addicted to cigarettes.)

The hard-line American approach is viewed as ridiculous by many European
health officials, who say it is not backed up by any scientific evidence.
"If you look at the figures, you will see that cannabis consumption in
Holland is lower than in the U.S.A., even after the U.S.A. has had this
famous War on Drugs for twenty-five years, and we've had a liberal policy
for twenty-five years," says Bob Keizer, senior drug-policy adviser to the
Dutch minister of health. "And if you look at hard-drug addicts, our rate
is stable, considerably lower than other countries. And so, all of the
countries surrounding us are gradually following our example."


New Pot World Order

While the U.S. continues to arrest more than 700,000 pot users per year,
many of our allies in the Western coalition have sharply reduced penalties
for marijuana use. Here's a country-by-country survey:

CANADA -- Pot possession remains illegal, but there's substantial regional
variation in prosecutors' zest for punishing those found with small
amounts. British Columbia, and Vancouver in particular, is perceived by
many to be more tolerant.

AUSTRALIA -- Possession remains illegal, but in some states and
territories, possession of small quantities may be treated as a civil, not
criminal, offense.

GREAT BRITAIN -- The government has announced plans to downgrade marijuana
so that it's not classified with drugs such as Ecstacy. Possession for
small quantities will no longer be grounds for arrest.

PORTUGAL -- Possession of small amounts of marijuana, defined as ten daily
doses or less, has been decriminalized. People found with the drug may face
fines, but not criminal prosecution.

THE NETHERLANDS -- Marijuana can be purchased in government-licensed
"coffee shops" and smoked on the premises.

SPAIN, ITALY -- Penalties for marijuana use have been sharply lowered.

SWITZERLAND -- Cannabis cafes and stores operate openly, without government
interference, and the government is studying proposals to legalize marijuana.

FRANCE -- Pot remains illegal and arrests are common, but some prosecutors
and judges have declined to go forward with cases against individuals using
small amounts.

GERMANY -- Pot is still illegal, but police and prosecutors in many regions
have become more tolerant of small-quantity users.


The High Peaks of Europe

On The Ground In The New Stoned Switzerland

At Growland, a two-story marijuana emporium in the up-scale shopping
arcades of Bern, Switzerland, the product is remarkably inexpensive.
Growland is one of fifteen stores here in the nation's capital that openly
sell marijuana, and one of 250 nationwide. While it is technically not
legal to deal pot in Switzerland, it is also not illegal. Store manager
Peter Zysset has been in business for nine years and has only been visited
by the cops once.

Whatever the Deadhead on your gift list wants, Growland sells, including
ten sticky strains of marijuana -- all grown in Switzerland, according to
Zysett. "The product is 100 percent Swiss, mostly grown outdoors," he says.
"Already some former vineyards here have turned to growing pot."

The pragmatic Swiss clearly recognize the senselessness of banning a
naturally occurring plant that has never killed anyone. In 1999, the Swiss
Federal Commission for Drug Issues put out a report proposing a formal
policy of cannabis decriminalization. And Department of Health Director
Thomas Zeltner has said that "the consumption of cannabis can't be avoided
through prohibition" and admitted that "cannabis does relatively little
damage to health."

In 2001, the States Council (Switzerland's version of the U.S. Senate)
unanimously passed a revision of the Narcotics Law, calling for cannabis
possession to be decriminalized. The lower house of Switzerland's congress
still must ratify the revision; in the meantime, many of the country's
twenty-six states (called cantons) have effectively decriminalized weed for
anyone over eighteen. Buyers are legally required to supply Swiss ID, but
vendors only sporadically ask for it, and sometimes accept long-range train
passes as proof of residency.

Switzerland's leniency has turned legendary ski towns like Verbier --
located about 100 miles south of Bern -- into magnets for the international
burnout set. Verbier reports that in the last two years, the number of
young North Americans streaming to its slopes has picked up by about five
percent. Perhaps Steve Klassen, a Mammoth Lake, California, snowboarder who
traveled to Verbier in April for a competition, says it best: "Verbier is
the best venue in the world for extreme snowboarding. I go right from
kind-bud Cali to Sativa Switzerland -- do not go to jail, do not pay $200."


The LAPD Guts D.A.R.E.

In Los Angeles, the city where the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program
began in 1983, the civilian Police Commission and the Los Angeles Police
Department have agreed to slash the budgeted number of D.A.R.E. officers
from 119 to 44 for the 722,000-student L.A. school district. Says Police
Commission President Rick Caruso, "I don't think anybody can point to any
studies and say that D.A.R.E. is preventing young kids from either violence
or drugs."

The LAPD fought to keep the program intact in part for its value as a
recruitment tool. "What we want to do is recruit good people for the
community and help cultivate them, and we do that through the D.A.R.E.
program," says Commanding Officer Mark R. Perez, who heads LAPD's D.A.R.E.
division. But Perez concedes that police departments are closely monitoring
what happens there, noting, "They know that if we fold it up, then a lot of
other folks will, too."




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