According to FBI figures released last fall, American police arrested more than 734,000 people for marijuana violations in 2000 -- a new record. About nine out of 10 arrests were for possession, and the other category, sale/manufacture, included cultivation for personal use.
In the United States, then, it's clearly not true that no one gets arrested for smoking pot anymore. But it looks like that will soon be the case in Britain, home of Europe's harshest drug laws.
Last fall British Home Secretary David Blunkett announced a proposal, expected to take effect this spring, to make marijuana a "Class C" drug. This status, which is shared by anabolic steroids and sedatives such as Valium, means police will no longer have the power to arrest pot smokers.
In theory, possession will still be punishable by up to two years in jail, but prosecutions will have to be authorized by a court. In practice, most people caught with small amounts of cannabis will get off with a warning.
The new policy brings Britain closer to other European countries that have eased up on drug users. The Netherlands has long tolerated not only the use but the retail sale of cannabis. Spain does not punish drug use, and in Italy marijuana smokers receive warnings or administrative penalties. Last year Portugal eliminated jail time for drug users, Belgium and Luxembourg decriminalized possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use, and Switzerland's Federal Council endorsed a plan similar to the Dutch model.
Blunkett, the British home secretary, said his proposal was intended to make the U.K.'s drug laws more credible by concentrating on "hard" drugs such as cocaine and heroin. "It is time for an honest and common-sense approach focusing effectively on drugs that cause the most harm," he said.
Brian Paddick, a London police commander who experimented with a warning-only approach to marijuana users last year, estimated that each cannabis arrest took an officer off the street for five hours. Prosecutions, which usually resulted in a small fine, cost an average of $14,000.
"Very few people will now be prosecuted for cannabis possession," Paul Flynn, a Labour Party M.P., told The Times of London. "It's the equivalent of giving the police and the courts millions of pounds in extra resources."