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British Minister's Son Arrested For Selling Marijuana in Newspaper Sting; U.K. Marijuana Decriminalization Debate Stimulated


January 1998

On December 13, the 17-year-old son of British Home Secretary Jack Straw allegedly sold about $17 worth of marijuana to Daily Mirror newspaper reporter Dawn Alford (John Burgess, "British Judge Says Press Can Publish Name of Home Secretary's Accused Son," Washington Post, January 5, 1998, p. A15; Alexander MacLeod, "Drug-Fighter Turns In His Child, Wins Praise," Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 1998, p. 6; Ray Mosely, "Son's Drug Case Test British Aide's Get-Tough View," Chicago Tribune, January 4, 1997; Susan Taylor Martin, "British marijuana law comes under attack," St. Petersburg Times, January 3, 1998, p. A2).

A Daily Mirror editor contacted Straw on December 20 to inform him that the paper planned to publish a story about the incident. On December 22, Straw, who oversees juvenile crime programs and drug suppression efforts, as well as law enforcement policy and administration in Britain, took his son William to the police station, where William was arrested and released on bail. Two days later, the Mirror ran the story but was legally barred from identifying the accused or his father.

Mirror reporter Dawn Alford was also arrested for marijuana possession, and then freed on bail. Scotland Yard later said that no further action would be taken against Alford. On January 12, William Straw received a "caution" by police for the incident. Oxford University told the young man that his admission to the university is safe for next year ("Journalist Arrested Over Drugs Bought in `Sting,'" The Independent (UK), December 30, 1997; John Penman, "Straw's Son Cautioned in Drug Case," The Scotsman (UK), January 13, 1998).

British law that prohibits newspapers from publication of names of persons under 18 involved in criminal proceedings, prevented British papers from identifying Straw and his son. For several days, many British people wondered which senior British cabinet member had a son who allegedly sold drugs. However, William's identity was published extensively on the Internet and in newspapers in France and Scotland. On January 2, a High Court judge lifted the restriction in Straw's case saying that the restriction was "no longer realistic."

Straw maintained his reputation as the most vehement opponent in Prime Minister Tony Blair's government to legalizing marijuana. "The United Nations regards drugs, including [marijuana] as dangerous. I too shall continue to do so until there is evidence to the contrary." On January 5, Straw said that medical marijuana could be prescribed by doctors only after researchers prove that it has beneficial medical uses. "The law does not say that, because a drug is classed as illegal, it therefore should not be available on prescription. What it does say, however, is that before drugs are available on prescription they've got to be properly tested and researched. ... So far the medical researchers have not been able to prove, indeed very few have tried, that there are real beneficial medicinal effects from cannabis," said Straw ("Straw Rejects Cannabis as a Cure," The Scotsman (Edinburgh, UK), January 5, 1998; Ian Brodie and Roger Boyes, "Straw Warns of Perils of Legalising Cannabis," The Times (UK), January 5, 1998).

Labour MPs are calling on Straw to set up an inquiry into marijuana legalization. Paul Flynn (Newport West), a left-wing Labour MP, said at least 30 colleagues will support the call for a Royal Commission on the subject as soon as Parliament reconvenes in January (David Wastell, "MPs to Press For Inquiry Into Cannabis," Daily Telegraph (UK), January 4, 1998).


Dr. Bill O'Neill, the British Medical Association's (BMA) science and research advisor, said cannabis-based drugs are likely to be legally available within a few years. O'Neill said 17 research projects on the medical use of cannabis derivatives are currently licensed by the government, and that an application to the Medicines Control Agency to market a cannabis-based product is likely to be put forward ("Straw's Challenge Over Cannabis Drugs," The Independent (UK), January 5, 1998).

An earlier report by the BMA said that chemicals found in cannabis can relieve pain in people with illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis. The report advocated more research and concluded that cannabis is useful for relieving the wasting caused by AIDS, treating glaucoma, promoting sleep, and relieving chronic pain and muscle spasms caused by multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. The report said many doctors consider cannabis effective in treating nausea brought on by chemotherapy. According to the report, regulations governing the use of cannabis have not just restricted the buildup of scientific evidence about its effects, it has also forced citizens to resort to the illegal use of cannabis to help symptoms that are inadequately controlled by other drugs (BBC Online News, "British doctors back use of cannabis," November 18, 1997; see "Cannabinoids in Marijuana Can Relieve Severe Pain, Researchers Report," NewsBriefs, November-December 1997; "Medical Use of Marijuana Ingredients Backed by British Medical Association," NewsBriefs, August 1997).


The Independent on Sunday (UK) newspaper organized Britain's first public marijuana conference, held on December 11 in London. At the conference, sponsors, including Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records boss Richard Branson and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, declared that marijuana should be legalized because it is a largely safe drug and it can alleviate some symptoms of AIDS, multiple sclerosis and cancer ("British crowd urges marijuana legalization," Orange County Register, December 12, 1997).

George Soros, financier and philanthropist, said in an open letter to the Independent on Sunday that he endorses their campaign to decriminalize marijuana. Soros said that marijuana arrests are a waste of justice resources and noted, "While I do not favor the outright legalization of cannabis, I do favor its legalization for medicinal purposes as well as broader decriminalization, provided adequate safeguards are taken to minimize misuse among young people." He also said the marijuana conference organized by the newspaper was a "timely step" toward a "more rational" drug policy in Britain and he believed it would influence the debate in the United States (Reuters, "Soros backs British push to decriminalize marijuana," December 7, 1997).

The Independent on Sunday said it will compile evidence supplied by hundreds of doctors and scientists demonstrating the therapeutic and nonaddictive properties of marijuana. The paper said the material will form part of the record that it will submit to the government in response to Straw's call for more information about the drug ("Cannabis: Look, Listen, Learn," Independent on Sunday (UK), January 4, 1998).

A Mori poll for the Independent on Sunday revealed that 80% of those polled want marijuana-laws relaxed. Forty-five percent said they were in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use, while 35% said they wanted marijuana legalized for recreational use ("Eight in 10 Britons Favour An Easing of the Law," Independent on Sunday (UK), January 4, 1998).


On January 4, Britain's new "Drug Tsar" Keith Hellawell formally took up his post. He is expected to report his anti-drug policy recommendations to drugs minister George Howarth and to the Cabinet in April ("Drugs Tsar Begins Work in Earnest," The Independent (UK), January 5, 1998) ("United Kingdom Appoints First `Drug Tsar,' While Marijuana Decriminalization Debate Grows," NewsBriefs, November-December 1997).

Hellawell has been accused of hardening his stance since being appointed in October, but insists that he has not changed his views, "I like to think of myself as a liberal and fair-minded individual." He praised his deputy, Mike Trace, for admitting he once smoked marijuana. Despite pressure for a debate from Britain's two most senior judges, the Lord Chief Justice and The Master of the Rolls, Hellawell is against initiating a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the law. "Royal Commissions are not for single issues, but are held on the state of the nation. To my mind, the Police Foundation inquiry will cover this territory just as efficiently" ("Cannabis campaign - I will listen to all positive ideas says drug tsar," Independent on Sunday, November 30, 1997).

When the Independent on Sunday publishes Hellawell's e-mail and postal addresses in January, Hellawell will have the opportunity to receive views from anyone. In response, Hellawell said, "Mike Trace and I will listen seriously to anyone who has a positive contribution to tackling this serious problem."

Jack Straw, MP - Secretary of State for Education & Employment, Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT, ENGLAND, Tel: (011) (44) (171) 273-4000, Fax: (011) (44) (171) 273-3965.

British Medical Association - BMA House, Tavistock Square, London WC1H 9JP, ENGLAND, Tel: (011) (44) (171) 387-4499, Fax: (011) (44) (171) 383-6400.

Keith Hellawell - UK Anti-Drugs Co-Ordinator, Cabinet Office, CDCU, Government Offices, Great George Street, London SW1P 3AL, ENGLAND, Fax: (011) (44) (171) 270-5857.

Independent on Sunday - 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, E-mail: