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Europe Goes To Pot

6 minute read
J.F.O. Mcallister/London

Stroll down Electric Avenue in Brixton, South London, and three guys might offer to sell you marijuana within five minutes. It’s O.K.; the cops here won’t arrest you for possessing a little. And it’s no different on much of the Continent. Cedric, an 18-year-old Swiss student, smokes dope regularly with his friends on trains, in the streets and parks of Geneva, even during high school recess. “The teachers know about it but don’t say anything,” he says. In Marseilles two months ago, 20 crewmen on the aircraft carrier Foch had consumed cannabis so flagrantly on board that a military court had to punish them but handed out only suspended sentences. Judging by the fragrant smoke wafting around the ship, the crewmen estimated that two-thirds of their shipmates were equally guilty.

It used to be that Holland was Western Europe’s only tokers’ paradise, courtesy of 900 cannabis cafes where adults can legally buy five grams of marijuana or hashish. But now, all over the Continent, the weed has won a new level of social acceptance. And where voters lead, politicians are following, as they ease up on criminality.

A European Union drug-monitoring report says at least 45 million of its citizens–18% of those ages 15 to 64–have tried marijuana at least once, and about 15 million have done so in the past 12 months. Young people toke the most: 25% of 15-to-16-year-olds and 40% of 18-year-olds have tried pot at least once. In the past decade, the number of people who admit to smoking at least once in the past year has doubled in many European countries.

When 45 million people have broken the law, the law may not be an ass but it is certainly an endangered species. Most countries still hang tough on hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but when it comes to grass, they go with the flow. Despite lingering strict anticannabis laws–smoking a joint in Britain can technically result in five years in jail–the way millions flout those laws is pushing European governments to adapt.

Most are trying variants on what the Dutch call gedogen–turning a blind eye. The authorities keep marijuana-possession statutes on the books to conform with a 1988 international convention that prohibits outright legalization and to avoid the political controversy of changing the law. But they opt for quite lenient enforcement. Last month police in Brixton started a six-month experiment: they will caution users on the spot and confiscate their dope rather than book them for prosecution. The cops expect to save at least five hours of police work per nonarrest, which they will devote to street crime and drug dealers. In France and Germany, local police, prosecutors and judges are allowed considerable discretion to be tolerant. In Belgium the government proposes to make arrests only if marijuana use is “problematic” to the puffer or to others–so don’t smoke in front of minors. Officials obviously expect few problems, since people will also be permitted to grow their own grass.

Some countries go even further. While dealers can still be arrested, Spain no longer prosecutes users of any recreational drug, including heroin, as long as they do it privately. In actual practice, it’s common to see young people sharing a joint outside a club or even injecting drugs in a public square. Whether in spite of or because of the liberal regime, Spanish drug use has dropped over the past decade. Last month Portugal embarked on a similar decriminalization approach. First-time users of any drug are given suspended sentences; the hooked are deemed “patients,” who are sent to a special drug-dependency board and offered treatment. If they refuse, they can be fined, sentenced to community service, blacklisted at discos–but not sent to jail. Carlos Rocha, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, says the old law simply “sent more and more persons to prison every year, and prisons became drug markets, drug-addiction nurseries.”

Still, plenty of Europeans think decriminalizing marijuana is reefer madness. Even in Holland, 40% of those polled want the sale of soft drugs banned again, and 80% of localities bar the cannabis coffee shops. But advocates of coffee-shop sales think there’s a major gain in isolating marijuana users–75% of whom are recreational dabblers, smoking once a week or less–from dealers who peddle harder drugs. “Separating these markets has resulted in less heroin use among young people,” says Janhuib Blans from the Jellinek Center in Amsterdam. Today the average age of Dutch heroin addicts is rising steadily and has reached 40; a retirement home for junkies has even been opened. Peter Lilley, former deputy leader of the British Conservative Party, caused a stir recently by backing the sale of cannabis in licensed shops for off-premises consumption, just like liquor. The drug would, like booze, carry health warnings and be taxed. But unlike in Holland, it would be procured legally from licensed growers. He thinks this will hurt drug syndicates and help make dope “simply boring”–the same reasons advanced by Swiss officials for a new law permitting legal production of marijuana for purchase by Swiss residents.

European liberality is unlikely to make a dent in Washington, where President Bush has said drug legalization “would be a social catastrophe.” Despite rising numbers of marijuana arrests, the U.S. remains wedded to strict prohibition. But Washington will have to watch out for hemp-scented clouds blowing from north of the border. The Canadian Bar Association, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police all conditionally support decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of pot. So does Joe Clark, a former Prime Minister who is leader of the opposition Conservatives.

It’s already a lucrative export: British Columbia’s underground marijuana industry employs an estimated 150,000 people and earns some $4 billion a year, sending as much as 95% of the output to the U.S. A recent pot poll shows that 47% of Canadian voters back its legalization. One entrepreneur estimates that will happen in two years; he is already drawing up plans for a string of cafes along the 3,987-mile U.S. border, proffering high-quality weed to go, in vacuum-sealed bags.

Washington will squawk as loudly as it can if Ottawa comes anywhere close to legalizing the pot trade. But as Europe is learning, it may be easier to knock down rogue missiles than to beat back a consensus among allies and neighbors who think it is smarter to live with cannabis than to fight it.

–With reporting by Alex Brant-Zawadzki/Washington, Martha de la Cal/Lisbon, Steven Frank/Toronto, Nicole Gerard/Brussels, Nicholas Le Quesne/Paris, Thea Mac Ruairi/Amsterdam and Jane Walker/Madrid

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