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South London Pot Smokers Are Hit With Warnings, Not Warrants

Britain: Experiment with decriminalization, designed so that police can focus on hard drugs and violent crimes, raises some hackles.

July 15, 2001|LAUREL ROSEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Marijuana is illegal here, but 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, 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. 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 booking--which could take two officers off the street for as long as 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, police are issuing warnings on the spot. The new procedure takes just 10 minutes and keeps 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."

Police will continue to pursue marijuana dealers, 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 an outdoor market in Lambeth's Brixton neighborhood, where Caribbean music blares from a butcher's stand and locals buy bread from a Jamaican bakery, many vendors and shoppers were unaware of the new policy. Others were disapproving.

"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.

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

"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, it isn't right to enforce a law differently in different neighborhoods.

At the CD Link music shop in Brixton, employee Simon Williams, 25, said he's happy that police want to crack down on drug dealers who peddle their wares near his store and frighten customers away. But he said he has yet to see any impact from the new policy.

"The dealers are right here. The buyers are right here," he said, waving at the street in front of his shop. "But the police ain't doing nothing."

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.

The Independent on Sunday newspaper published a poll showing that 37% of the British population supports legalizing cannabis. That's an increase from the last survey, in 1996, when 26% wanted to legalize the drug.

The Conservatives' Lilley advocates that marijuana be taxed and sold only in specially licensed stores to people over 18. He wrote in the Telegraph that legalizing cannabis would take the market away from criminal gangs and focus more law enforcement resources on hard drugs and associated crime.

Other leading Conservatives challenged his position. Ann Widdecombe, the shadow home secretary, said the official position of the party is that there is insufficient evidence to support legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana.

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."

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