- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

What does it mean when a former top-level conservative politician comes out in favor of legalizing marijuana and then is promptly trumped by the head of the prison system, who says all drugs should be legal?
Well, it means you've woken up in Britain, for one thing. That's where one-time Conservative Party Deputy Leader Peter Lilley publicly described laws against marijuana as "unenforceable and indefensible." He wants licensed outlets to be able to sell the popular herb to users over the age of 18. Rather than exiling himself to the political wilderness with his comments, Mr. Lilley sparked a discussion in which other members of his own party, as well as senior members of the ruling Labor Party, allowed that it was time to debate changes to the law.
Just days later, Sir David Ramsbotham, the chief inspector of prisons in England and Wales, called for all drugs to be legalized "so people do not have to go and find an illegal way of doing it."
That's mighty surprising talk for people accustomed to the unwavering prohibitionist line at the higher levels of American politics, but it's not so strange overseas.
Europeans have never been quite so fanatical as Americans on the drug issue, and they are more readily admitting the inability of police to force people to stop taking substances that make them feel good. After decades of harsh laws, full prisons and plenty of public finger-wagging, drugs remain as available and profitable in the Old World as ever. Rather than continue with more of the same, many politicians and much of the public are ready to try something new. As a result, drug laws have been loosening up all over Europe.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws summarized recent reforms in a 1999 study, saying: "A major part of the European model of drug policy is to treat drug use not as a criminal activity that must be stamped out completely, but rather a part of human nature that should best be handled in a manner that minimizes adverse effects to both the individual and society as a whole."
An example of the differences between United States and Europe can be found in Switzerland. That country's somewhat stodgy image has long been belied by a surprisingly tolerant attitude toward marijuana. While the plant can't be sold for intoxicating purposes, it's widely marketed as potpourri, though nobody seems to be fooled. What purchasers do with the stuff once they get home is their own business.
Now authorities in the mountainous republic are considering legalizing the open production and sale of the stuff without the nudge and wink factor. Even if they don't go that far, members of the ruling coalition have voiced support for a Dutch-style solution, under which prohibition laws remain on the books without being enforced.
For their part, the Portuguese have joined Spain and Italy in looking beyond the relatively easy debate over marijuana and tackling the thornier controversy over disfavored intoxicants in general. Portugal recently decriminalized the use of all recreational drugs, including cocaine and heroin. Users no longer face imprisonment if caught with small amounts.
That's not to say Portugal has taken the full step to legalization. Instead, Portugal has adopted the trappings of the therapeutic state. According to the BBC, marijuana smokers must "meet a commission of psychologists and social workers, who try to convince them to change their ways."
Users of harder drugs are obliged to seek treatment for a vice that is now officially considered an ailment. Still, a dose of psychobabble is a definite improvement over Lisbon's version of the pokey.
Even Canada, so like the United States in many ways, has made major advances toward reining in the excesses of the drug war. Prime Minister Jean Chretien recently felt obliged to announce that he wouldn't consider legalizing marijuana for recreational use. This came after members of all five parliamentary parties agreed to convene a special committee to examine the country's drug laws, and as a legislator from the conservative Canadian Alliance proposed replacing criminal penalties for marijuana possession with fines.
As it is, Canada has legalized marijuana for medical use and commissioned a private company to grow an official crop. Legalization advocates committed to civil disobedience have been pushed to the point of promising to sell a better quality product than that available from the authorities.
As if to emphasize the United States' growing isolation on the drug issue, President Vicente Fox of Mexico, a Bush buddy and fellow conservative, has added his voice to the international chorus suggesting that drugs can best be dealt with in an open market.
Of course, proposing an end to prohibitionistic drug laws isn't completely taboo in the United States. Libertarians, liberals and some conservatives have made waves by suggesting just that. A few maverick politicians, such as Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico and Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, have survived the fallout from their pro-legalization ideas.
In terms of real policy, medical marijuana laws have been passed by popular referendum in many U.S. states (though they have mostly been blocked by federal authorities). And Portugal's drug decriminalization largely resembles a policy adopted last year by California.
So the continuing hard-line rhetoric from drug policy-makers in Washington sounds almost anachronistic, like the last stand of true-believing foes of alcohol in the early 1930s.
Whatever the pleasures and dangers to be found in using many intoxicating drugs, U.S. officials stand increasingly isolated in their insistence that the force of the law can prevent people from making their own decisions on the matter.

J.D. Tuccille is a senior editor of the Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net.

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