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United Kingdom Appoints First "Drug Tsar," While Marijuana Decriminalization Debate Grows


November-December 1997

The appointment of Richard Hellawell, a former chief constable, as the United Kingdom's (UK) first "drug tsar" and a call by Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, for an open debate regarding the legalization of cannabis, has highlighted the controversy over the UK's drug policy (Nicholas Rufford, "Blair set to appoint nation's drug tsar," The Sunday Times (UK), October 5, 1997; "A new ruling from the lord chief justice: let's talk about dope," The Independent (UK), October 9, 1997, p. A1; Francis Gibb, "Chief justice urges debate on cannabis," The Times (UK), October 9, 1997).

Hellawell had told the BBC in a 1994 interview that he could foresee cannabis being legalized one day. But Hellawell says he has changed his view, saying now that legalization is not the answer. "The efforts [at legalization] in Alaska have been a disaster, what is happening in Holland is a mess, there's no justification for it," he said. Upon his appointment, Hellawell rejected a call for an inquiry into the decriminalization of soft drugs, saying his priority would be to "refocus" the government's anti-drug policy and to redirect the fragmented efforts of anti-drug agencies. An immediate task is to remedy inconsistencies in the way police regard personal possession of cannabis. The prevalence of drugs among the younger generation has prompted Hellawell to propose requiring police officers to take random drug tests, which has been resisted in the past (Valerie Elliot and Stewart Tendler, "Police chief to be joined by second drug tsar," The Times (UK), October 11, 1997; Nicholas Rufford, "Blair's drugs tsar pledges he will not go soft on cannabis," The Sunday Times (UK), October 12, 1997; Tim Reid, "Drugs tsar presses for random tests on police," Daily Telegraph (England), November 2, 1997).

Hellawell has since softened his stance saying he welcomed discussions about soft drugs, but still rejects any proposals of decriminalization or legalization. He criticized people who thought there was a competition between treatment and enforcement. He targeted pop icons who glamorized drugs, asking them to use "better judgement" in their comments on drugs. Hellawell said he would combine education, rehabilitation and law enforcement in his anti-drug strategy. The Conservative party, the Police Superintendent's Association, and the Association of Chief Police Officers said they were opposed to any move toward legalization (Philip Johnston, "Drug tsar and his deputy take the reins," Daily Telegraph (UK), October 15, 1997; Valerie Elliot, "Blair's `drugs czar' hopes to silence the siren voices," The Times (UK), October 15, 1997; "Tsar Hellawell rules out legalisation of drugs," The Independent (UK), October 15, 1997).

Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, issued a statement saying that the decriminalization issue deserved consideration. He made clear that he was not expressing a personal view on decriminalization of soft drugs, but said, "It is a subject that deserves, in my judgment, detached, objective, independent consideration." Bingham's remarks followed remarks by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who said he adamantly opposes marijuana decriminalization. A spokesman for Straw said that Straw believed that legalizing cannabis would encourage its use, but the Government would be happy to debate the issue. Straw has started reviewing the way police deal with people caught with cannabis, saying that the police have too much discretion, which results in an inconsistent response ( "Straw orders review of cannabis law enforcement," Independent on Sunday (UK), October 19, 1997).

Brian Iddon, a Member of Parliament and a former Reader (a professor) in Organic Chemistry, said that the 1971 drug legislation, which includes anti-marijuana laws, was not working, and called for a change, "If we continue to put in more legislation, more enforcement on the ground, the only effect that will have is to put up the price of street drugs - the consequence of which will be more crime, because people will have to pinch more stuff to pay the higher prices. In my honest opinion, this will not work."

Health Secretary Frank Dobson also said that he would consider making medical cannabis legal, through a doctor's prescription, for sufferers of illnesses such as multiple sclerosis. Emma Bonino of Italy, the European Union's Consumer Affairs Commissioner also voiced her support, saying, "If you legalize, you can better control production, processing and trade (Chris Blackhurst and Paul Routledge, "Cannabis - are you listening?", Independent on Sunday (UK), October 12, 1997; "EU commissioner Emma Bonino backs our cannabis campaign," Independent on Sunday (UK), October 26, 1997).

The British newspaper, the Independent on Sunday (UK), has fueled the debate with their campaign advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, including printing the names of prominent people who support their position. A poll conducted for the Independent on Sunday showed that eight out of ten people think that laws against marijuana should be relaxed. 64% thought that a debate on the subject was a good idea. An anonymous poll taken of Members of Parliament revealed that 70% said that there was a case for allowing doctors the right to prescribe marijuana for medicinal purposes ("British Newspaper, the Independent on Sunday, Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization," NewsBriefs, September-October 1997; "Huge majority want cannabis legalised," Independent on Sunday (UK), October 12, 1997; Graham Ball, "New poll reveals MP's in favour of change in law on drugs," Independent on Sunday (UK), November 2, 1997).

A study sponsored by the European Union (EU) revealed that drug use has become more ingrained in British culture than any other European nation. One in eight Britons under the age of 40 admitted to having used marijuana in the last year. More British young adults use amphetamines, ecstasy and LSD, (drugs associated with "rave" parties) than people of the other EU countries. In 1995 Britain accounted for an overwhelming portion of European Union drug seizures: 69% of ecstasy, 59% of amphetamines and 48% of LSD ("Britain is the drug capital of Europe," The Independent (UK), November 3, 1997).

On November 11, the British Medical Association (BMA) published a report entitled "The Therapeutic Uses of Cannabis" which advocates the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The report concluded that "present evidence indicates that they are remarkably safe drugs, with a side-effects profile superior to many drugs used for the same indications." The BMA will urge Parliament to "consider changing the Misuse of Drugs Act to allow the prescription of cannabinoids [active chemical compounds in cannabis] to patients with certain conditions causing distress that are not adequately controlled by existing treatments ("Cannabis  -- Legalise This Safe Drug, Says BMA," Independent on Sunday, November 16, 1997). The BMA had recently called for the legalization of certain cannabinoids for medical use (see "Medical Use of Marijuana Ingredients Backed by British Medical Association," NewsBriefs, August 1997).

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.

Lord Bingham of Cornhill - Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, London WC2A 2LL, ENGLAND.

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.

Frank Dobson, MP - Secretary of State for Health & Chairman of the NHS Policy Board, Department of Health, Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, London SW1A 2NS, ENGLAND, Tel: (011) (44) (171) 273-3000, Fax: (011) (44) (171) 273-5523.

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