ENGLAND, LONDON - Marijuana is illegal here, but the police in south London
have decided to stop wasting time on pot-smokers and focus their resources
on combating hard drugs and violent crimes.

In a six -month trial that began recently, the police in the London borough
of Lambeth are issuing warnings to people caught with small amounts of
cannabis. They're confiscating the drug, but they're not prosecuting.

The new policy, initiated by the Lambeth Division but approved by the
central Metropolitan Police office, amounts to a de facto decriminalization
of marijuana in one part of the capital and has sparked a national debate
about Britain's drug laws.

Against warnings that south London could become "the next Amsterdam," some
of the proponents of legalization have come from unlikely places. Peter
Lilley, a former deputy leader of the Conservative Party, urged that the
current drug laws be scrapped because they aren't working.

"When laws on the statute book are not enforced on the street, that brings
the law, the police and Parliament into disrepute. We need to bring the two
into line," Lilley wrote in The Daily Telegraph. "The reason that the law
on cannabis is unenforceable is that it is indefensible."

Home Secretary David Blunkett of the Labor Party responded that the
government should undertake "an adult, intelligent debate. Let's think,
let's consider, let's not be pushed by articles in newspapers or hysteria."

Under the Misuse of Drugs Act, marijuana possession carries a maximum
sentence of five years in jail and/or a $7,000 fine. The police in Lambeth,
one of 32 boroughs in sprawling London, say that in practice few people
caught with pot for personal use have ever faced the maximum punishment.
After their arrest and bureaucratic processing - a routine that could take
two officers off the street for up to five hours - most offenders end up
with a caution or a fine of less than $70.

Now, instead of going through the costly and time-consuming process of
booking each marijuana offender, the police are issuing warnings on the
spot. The new procedure takes just 10 minutes and keeps the police on the beat.

"This is not a message that you can smoke cannabis in Lambeth," said Paul
Halford, a spokesman for the Lambeth Division. "In fact, we're hoping this
will lead to greater police presence on the streets."

The police will continue to pursue dealers of marijuana, along with heroin
and crack cocaine traffickers who prey on the low-income area.

Residents have mixed reactions to the new policy. Jennifer Douglas, who
works with a Lambeth community group that monitors police issues, called
the move an "appropriate prioritization of police resources. Cannabis has
very little negative impact on our community. Hard drugs and violence have
a much bigger influence."

At the Brixton neighborhood's outdoor market, where Caribbean music blares
from a butcher's stand selling salted pig snout and locals buy bread from a
Jamaican bakery, many vendors and shoppers were unaware of the new policy
on cannabis possession - it didn't seem to affect them. Others were

"One thing leads to another. If you legalize cannabis, what's next?" said a
28-year-old lawyer hurriedly shopping for produce with her toddler son.

Fellow Lambeth resident Tom Utley, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph,
said he supports legalization but not the local experiment in

"It is not for a local police chief to say that the law is (silly). It is
his job to enforce it, however silly it may seem," Utley wrote last week.
"Nor is it any good to say that the law is so widely disregarded as to be
not worth the trouble of trying to enforce it. The laws against burglary
and mugging are widely disregarded too."

Furthermore, he argued that it isn't right to enforce a law differently in
different ZIP codes.

"It is simply unfair that somebody caught in possession of cannabis in
Brixton should escape with a warning, while if he had been caught a few
hundred yards away in Camberwell - or a few hundred miles away in Yorkshire
- he would find himself with a criminal record, and perhaps in prison."

Metropolitan Police officials said it's too soon to predict whether the
program will succeed and be expanded to other boroughs of London.
Spokeswoman Lisa Carroll said the program will be evaluated after six
months. "If we decide to go further with this, we'll probably need a change
in legislation first," she said.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said the government has no
intention of legalizing marijuana. As for de facto decriminalization, he
was less adamant. The government has always prioritized tackling hard drugs
over soft, he said. So the new policy in Lambeth "fits in with the
government's strategy."

Newshawk: Sledhead - http://drugtesting.freeservers.com/
Pubdate: Mon, 16 Jul 2001
Source: Concord Monitor (NH)
Copyright: 2001 Monitor Publishing Company
Contact: letters@cmonitor.com
Website: http://www.cmonitor.com/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/767
Author: Laurel Rosen, Los Angeles Times
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/pot.htm (Cannabis)