Soft Spot


Even before it came out, a drug policy report from the Police Foundation, a think tank funded partly by the British government, was making politicians squirm. Released in late March, the report recommends downgrading the legal status of LSD and MDMA (a.k.a. Ecstasy) and eliminating jail time for marijuana offenses.

The authors, who include law enforcement officials as well as academics, call this policy "depenalization"–not "decriminalization," which apparently has too radical a sound to it. Clare Short, currently Britain's secretary for overseas development, was harshly criticized several years ago when she used the latter word, and now only Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is still tossing it around.

In February, British drug czar Keith Hellawell declared himself firmly against "legalization, decriminalization, or depenalization." But he added: "We need to discriminate between different drugs and the relative harm caused. …The focus is going to be on the drugs that cause the major harm." According to The Observer, "this means that cannabis use and even the recreational use of Ecstasy and amphetamines is a low priority."

Hellawell got backup from his boss, Cabinet Office Minister Mo Mowlam, who admitted in January that she had smoked pot as a graduate student. Asked about the possibility of changing the marijuana laws, she said, "I never cancel anything in or anything out, but at the moment there are no plans or intentions so to do."

Even that was too much for Prime Minister Tony Blair, who seems determined not to let the Conservatives portray him as soft on drugs. He arranged a meeting with two leading anti-drug campaigners to reassure them that his government wouldn't listen to what the Police Foundation had to say. But according to subsequent reports in the British press, Blair is prepared to approve the medical use of marijuana, so long as Mowlam gives up the idea of going further.