Major UK Reform of Marijuana Policy to Take Effect Today, Most Will No Longer Be Charged for Personal Possession

Press Release January 28, 2004
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or Elizabeth Mendez Berry at 212-613-8036

Thursday January 29 — In what CNN called “the biggest shake-up of Britain’s drug laws in 30 years,” a new marijuana policy will take effect today in the UK, disallowing most people in possession of small quantities of cannabis to be arrested. A January 26 Daily Telegraph/YouGov Poll found that the reform had widespread public support. The poll, one of the United Kingdom’s largest ever investigations into public attitudes on drugs, found that a majority of those surveyed not only supported the new law, but were in favor either of complete decriminalization or legalization of marijuana. The British public also dismissed many of the U.S. government’s arguments made against marijuana: that it is a gateway drug that leads to “harder” drugs, that it is seriously addictive, and that marijuana users are violent criminals.

Specific poll results include:

“We hope that U.S. politicians will learn from their British counterparts,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “As our closest allies start to recover from the failure of cannabis prohibition, we look more and more like a friend in serious denial.”

Today’s legal change, which will place Britain in the majority of Western European nations in easing marijuana laws, will be achieved by re-classifying cannabis from a class “B” to a class “C” drug. Instead of arrest — and possibly jail — most people found in possession of small quantities of marijuana will be given a warning, a caution or a summons to court. The government action followed recommendations of a parliamentary committee in May 2002, and a 2001 report by the Police Foundation last year, which concluded that the penalties for marijuana possession in Britain– the harshest in Europe–did more damage than the drug itself, by wasting police resources and saddling otherwise law-abiding citizens with a criminal record.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to enforce and even step up their failed marijuana policy, spending more and more taxpayer money on policies that don’t work. This weekend, for example, the Office of National Drug Control Policy will unveil a new pair of costly television ads that target teenage marijuana use during the Superbowl and Survivor: All Stars. This media blitz is part of the ONDCP’s $150 million taxpayer-funded media budget. Previous ads compared American marijuana users to terrorists.

“Roughly 700,000 Americans are busted on marijuana charges every year, almost all of which are for possession alone,” continued Nadelmann. “They can even lose their jobs or student loans or access to public housing. Alcohol prohibition did more harm than good. The same is true for marijuana prohibition.”

The British public rejected key elements of the ONDCP’s alarmist rhetoric in the Daily Telegraph/YouGov Poll. Conducted by one of Britain’s most respected pollsters, the poll included more than 2,500 participants. It found that the majority of respondents thought of cannabis as less addictive than legal drugs like coffee, alcohol, and cigarettes. The majority (74%) also did not think that cannabis users were a lot more likely to use hard drugs. If a cannabis user also used hard drugs, the vast majority of respondents (83%) felt that it was not a result of cannabis creating a craving for harder drugs, but that they did so because “cannabis users find themselves part of a ‘drug culture’ with dealers pushing both hard and soft drugs.” They also didn’t think of drugs as making addicts mentally unstable and therefore likely to commit crimes; any crime they associated with drugs they saw as the result of addicts stealing to get money to buy them.

In the U.S., marijuana, along with heroin and LSD, is classified as a “Schedule I” drug, despite substantial evidence that it is less harmful than tobacco or alcohol. The majority of western European countries — including Switzerland, Spain, Belgium and Portugal — have eliminated criminal penalties for cannabis possession, consumption, or both. In The Netherlands, sale of small quantities of cannabis is permitted in coffee shops. Switzerland has proposed a law that allows for the regulated sale and production of cannabis, putting the country on the cutting edge of reform in Europe.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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