Britain’s Slide into Wider Drug Use

Laws on Marijuana Ease, Just as Reports Point Up New Dangers

LONDON, JULY 13, 2002 ( British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced this week to the House of Commons that marijuana would be reclassified from a Class B to a Class C drug, reported BBC on Wednesday. Blunkett also announced that a controversial marijuana experiment in London’s Brixton area would be extended across the entire metropolis.

The changes will come about in a year’s time and mean the drug will be on the same level as anti-depressants and steroids. Possession of small amounts will no longer be considered an arrestable offense. Blunkett said the changes mean police would be free to concentrate their efforts against hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin.

The Home Secretary rejected suggestions that he was going soft on drugs by saying police could still arrest marijuana users in certain “aggravated” cases, such as when the drug is smoked near children. He also raised the maximum sentence for dealers of class B and C drugs to 14 years from five years.

“We will not legalize or decriminalize any drugs, nor do we envisage a time when this will be appropriate,” stated Blunkett. He also informed Parliament that the legal status of the party drug ecstasy would not change. In past months a parliamentary report called for ecstasy to be changed from class A to B. Blunkett also rejected the possibility of introducing injecting rooms where heroin addicts could inject themselves without being arrested.

In the Commons, Blunkett was accused by Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, of landing the government with a “massive liability” and the country’s communities with “the prospect of social disaster,” the Independent reported Thursday. Letwin told Parliament that the policy would send out “deeply confusing mixed messages” and would in effect “give control over cannabis to the drugs dealers with the police turning away.”

Fueling the controversy was the resignation the same day of a government drug adviser, Keith Hellawell, in protest at the relaxation of the marijuana law. “It is a softening of the law and it’s giving the wrong message,” he said, according to a Guardian newspaper report Wednesday. Hellawell had been a chief constable before Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed him to address international drugs issues.

Pressure in favor of relaxation

Many newspaper editorials welcomed the decision to relax laws on marijuana use. The papers have also published numerous recent articles favoring the changes. On May 2, for example, the Times reported that Britain’s chief constables called for heroin and cocaine users to be sent for treatment rather than prosecuted. The paper also reported that the police intended to take a much more relaxed attitude toward people caught with small amounts of marijuana.

In the Observer on May 19, philosopher A.C. Grayling stated, “I believe that heroin, cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and cognates of these should be legal and available in exactly the same way as nicotine and alcohol.” He founded his belief on the principle that in the area of civil liberties “there is no justification in a good society for policing behavior unless, in the form of rape, murder, theft, riot or fraud, it is intrinsically damaging to the social fabric, and involves harm to unwilling third parties.”

Brixton’s problems

Opposition to the changes in drug laws has been strengthened by the experience of what has happened in Brixton, in South London. There, users found with small amounts of marijuana just had their drugs confiscated and were let off with a warning. According to the Times on May 11, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mike Fuller, head of Scotland Yard’s drugs directorate, said that the experiment risked encouraging children into drug use.

Fuller said that one vicar in Brixton has complained to police that children were arriving at school in the morning “stoned” on marijuana, and parents were concerned that liberalization would lead to the use of hard drugs.

And according to the Observer of June 23, hard-drug use is soaring in Brixton. One year into the experiment, the center of Brixton is “a 24-hour crack supermarket,” with a £12 million ($18.6 million) annual market in crack.

Locals have reported that children as young as 10 are using marijuana, the Observer said. Some dealers have employed their own children as couriers and rewarded them with the drug, the paper added. Heroin use, meanwhile, has soared in Brixton, the Observer added.

Another experiment in relaxing laws on marijuana use, in the state of South Australia, has resulted in failure, according to a Jan. 19 article in the Sydney Morning Herald. Late last year the government’s 14-year experiment with marijuana decriminalization was almost totally abandoned.

“The 1987 model failed and we were seeing drug networks set up,” says Police Minister Robert Brokenshire. “When the Labor Party brought this in they waved the flag for small syndicates to set up drug networks and that is what has happened.”

Risks during pregnancy

Debate over laws governing marijuana use comes at a time when numerous studies reveal health problems related to the drug. BBC reported Jan. 7 that women who smoke marijuana during pregnancy may be stunting the growth of their babies. A team of researchers in the United Kingdom and New Zealand found that smoking one marijuana joint a week throughout pregnancy appears to be equivalent to the effect produced by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

Then on March 5 Reuters reported that heavy, chronic marijuana users suffer memory loss and attention problems that can affect their work, learning and life. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined 51 people who had used marijuana regularly for an average of 24 years. “Long-term users … performed significantly less well on tests of memory and attention than non-user controls and shorter-term users with a mean of 10 years’ use,” the study said.

The Guardian on June 3 quoted Dr. Neil Brenner, medical director of The Priory psychiatric hospital, who observed that marijuana “can certainly lead to psychological problems.”

“I am very wary of the concept of soft drugs,” Brenner said. “Cannabis was 20 to 30 times weaker in the ’70s than it is now. It’s much more potent.” He added: “It can certainly precipitate psychological problems for the vulnerable, and it is never something that can be taken without consequences.”

The same day Blunkett announced the new drug laws, BBC carried a report that marijuana can pose a greater threat to health than tobacco. The British Lung Foundation is now carrying out a review of research into the impact of smoking marijuana on health. Preliminary results suggest that the drug is at least as harmful as smoking tobacco — and may carry a higher risk of some respiratory cancers.

“Fifty years ago, people thought smoking was a good thing,” said BLF chief executive Dame Helena Shovelton. “Now it is described as a public health disaster — we don’t want to see the same thing happen with cannabis.”

The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers published a detailed study on drugs at the end of last year. The document notes a number of physical and psychological problems related with marijuana use and concludes that liberalizing laws in this matter would be a mistake, causing grave damage to society. Evidence is mounting that relaxing laws on drug use creates more problems than it solves.

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