A United Kingdom commission made up of leading scientists, academics, law enforcement officers and other experts is recommending decriminalization of drug possession in small quantities and of cultivation of marijuana.
The recommendations are the result of a six-year study by the UK Drug Policy Commission, whose members include the former head of the British Medical Research Council and the former chief inspector of constabulary. The commission points to the success of countries like Portugal, Switzerland and the Czech Republic in decriminalizing possession, and to evidence that the relative harms of alcohol and tobacco make different policy treatment for drugs “difficult to justify.” In addition to recommending moves toward decriminalization, the commission suggests review of the penalties for supply and distribution of drugs, and of the process for classifying drugs.
Taking drugs does not always cause problems, but this is rarely acknowledged by policy makers. In fact most users do not experience significant problems, and there is some evidence that drug use can have benefits in some circumstances.
With some 42,000 people in England & Wales sentenced annually for drug possession offences and about 160,000 given cannabis warnings, this amounts to a lot of time and money for police, prosecution and courts. On top of this comes the cost to the individual in terms of damage to employment prospects. Some people who do develop drug problems may also be put off from seeking help earlier because they are doing something illegal.
To address these costs, there is evidence to suggest that the law on the possession of small amounts of controlled drugs, for personal use only, could be changed so that it is no longer a criminal offence.
On its recommendation that the UK decriminalize marijuana cultivation, at least for personal use, the commission explains:
There is an argument that amending the law relating to the growing of it, at least for personal use, might go some way to undermining the commercialisation of production, with associated involvement of organised crime and the development of stronger strains of cannabis (‘skunk’), that we have seen in the UK and other countries in recent years. Perhaps the most expedient course to take here would be to re-examine sentence levels and sentencing practice to ensure that those growing below a certain low volume of plants face no – or only minimal – sanctions.
In the U.S., 750,000 people charged with marijuana offenses were arrested for possession only in 2010, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. Fourteen states have decriminalized possession, which typically means individuals do not get prison time or a criminal record for first-time possession of small amounts. But law enforcement officials in other states are increasingly endorsing full-scale decriminalization of marijuana, citing many of the reasons provided in the commission’s report.
In the meantime, vigorous federal crackdowns on medical marijuana dispensaries in states that consider them legal, harsh mandatory minimum sentences and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities are just some of the most egregious manifestations of the continuing U.S. war on drugs.
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