Relaxation of Cannabis Laws in the UK

The first sign that cannabis laws are set to be relaxed in the UK came in July 2001, when the police force in the London Borough of Lambeth began a policy of not arresting those found with small quantities of the drug, instead merely confiscating it and giving the offender a warning. Some claim this had already been the practice in Lambeth and other parts of Britain for some time, especially after the riots in Brixton when it was essential for the police to improve community relations. Despite this, when Police Commander Brian Paddick made the scheme official, he received a great deal of praise. The home secretary called it an "interesting experiment" and traditionally conservative sections of the media began taking a more liberal line. Amusingly, when the shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe called for on-the-spot fines for people found in possession of cannabis, her colleagues conspired to embarrass her with stories of pot-smoking in their younger days, at the same time showing up the Labour government for their silly uptightness. The Liberal Democrats were meanwhile taking a radical line on drugs, in favour of downgrading ecstasy as well as fully legalising cannabis.

Jack Straw, the old home secretary, had refused to consider softening laws on drugs, so his replacement by the more progressive David Blunkett was a positive sign for those hoping for reform. It was announced in October 2001 that cannabis was likely to be downgraded from a Class B drug to Class C, and this was confirmed in July 2002. The good sense of this decision has been backed up by some figures coming out of the Lambeth trial, showing that 1,350 police hours were saved, arrests for hard drugs were up, and 83 per cent of residents supported the scheme.

There are also signs that it is going to be made easier for doctors to prescribe heroin and methadone to addicts, and that there will be more in the way of needle exchanges. Despite this, many would have liked the government to go further still in the relaxation of drugs laws. How it will be in practice remains to be seen, but as far as the law goes, selling weed will still carry a 14 year maximum sentence, meaning as a drug cannabis won't even be fully decriminalised - let alone legalised. It's worth noting however, that it is not legalised in Holland either, merely tolerated, so perhaps Britain will follow suit.

Aside from whatever seedy underground places may exist, there are now two Dutch-style cannabis cafés openly operating in Britain, with several more planned by various entrepreneurs and activists. Most of these will not actually sell drugs, but will allow customers to openly smoke hash and weed on the premises. The two that are already open are the Dutch Experience 1 and 2, in Stockport and Bournemouth respectively. The Stockport branch, founded by Colin Davies with help from Nol van Schaik, opened its doors in September, but was raided straight away, and Davies is currently in prison awaiting trial. The café opened again however, and has been operating since, albeit not dealing, and despite occasional busts. Davies, a sufferer from severe spinal injuries, opened the Dutch Experience with the specific intention of helping out those who need cannabis for medical reasons - indeed the idea was to sell to recreational users in order to subsidise those. Van Schaik, who owns a coffeeshop in Haarlem in The Netherlands, got on board immediately after being told of the scheme, helping supply the weed.

Most of the other future coffeeshop owners, such as those of the proposed London shop The Greenhouse Café, realise that there is a risk they will face jail, but are keen to further the cause of freely available cannabis. All the same, the would-be proprietor of this one will not be dealing:

It is our view that a full, Dutch-style, cannabis café would inevitably get busted within a short time of opening. We might be able to use the press generated from such a bust to present our case to the world, but then again the general public – i.e. the very people we need to win over – are far more likely to oppose anything connected to dealing.

However, a café that refuses to implement an unjust law stands much less chance of being opposed by either the police or the populace. Quite simply, it’s an easier argument to win. Take Stockport for example, they have a policy of not dealing and as such have remained open for all but two hours since first unlocking their doors.
Other coffeeshops hopefully opening in the near future include "The Beggars' Belief" in Rhyl, so-named because a local politician said their actions beggared belief - the same story as with another, "Pipe Dreams". Also look out for the Dutch Experience 3 in Liverpool and WHSpliff in Taunton. And if you're a yuppie, you can look foward to an upmarket joint from the owners of Yo! Sushi. Apparently author Irvine Welsh had planned to open a coffeeshop in Edinburgh after reclassification occurs, but there may be problems due to variations in Scottish law. Despite positive noises from certain MPs, councilors and some police, the police have in most areas put out statements saying they will bust such coffeeshops should they open, as they will still be breaking the law. Supporters of the burgeoning movement however can be hopeful that in the face of public support, these establishments will be allowed to exist. It is worth remembering that when they first came about in Holland, they were testing the law, and indeed there were some raids, but in the end the police decided without precedent to disregard a part of the law.

Coffeeshops aside, in much of Europe there is already a softer line. Posession of cannabis for personal use is not a criminal offence in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, or Spain, and it is expected to be decriminalised in Switzerland next year. In Denmark it is only punishable if accompanied by a real crime, and cannabis users are rarely prosecuted in France and Germany. And in Portugal, all drug use (but not supply) has been legalised. All in all, things are certainly moving in the right direction for those who favour the freedom to decide for themselves what drugs they consume.


thanks to Oolong for various info

check out these links for coffeeshops in the UK:

www.dutchexperience.org
www.whspliff.net
www.thebeggarsbelief.com
www.thegreenhousecafe.co.uk
www.thechillinrooms.com

see www.thisislondon.co.uk and www.guardian.co.uk for a number of interesting articles on the subject.

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