Britons March for Marijuana
Thousands Stream Through Central London to Support Legalization
By T. R. Reid Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, March 29, 1998; Page A25
[Washington Post Letters to the Editor information follows]
LONDON, March 28 -- Basking in the support of mainstream politicians, leading newspapers and magazines, and other pillars of the Establishment, thousands of demonstrators marched through the heart of London today on behalf of a fashionable political idea that has been a complete non-starter in the United States: legalizing marijuana.
Some of the marchers wore their hair in neon-bright shades of chartreuse, pink and purple, and many lit up hand-rolled "spliffs" -- that's the British version of the American term "joint" -- along the way. But the tone was laid-back and orderly; there were no arrests or confrontations.
The size and the respectability of the march -- with a member of Parliament and a nationally prominent editor leading a mile-long serpent of people through the downtown streets -- reflects the growing divide between European nations and the United States on the prohibition of marijuana for medical purposes and for recreation.
Over the past 10 years, U.S. drug laws have been made tougher; some states now impose stiff mandatory jail sentences on marijuana offenders.
There is no member of Congress who supports legalizing marijuana and minimal media support for the idea.
Europe, meanwhile, has been loosening prohibitions on pot. The Netherlands has legalized possession of amounts up to an ounce; France and some German states have moved to de facto legalization, with users usually given nothing more than a warning by police. Italians passed a nationwide referendum calling for legalization, but the highest court voided the vote.
In Britain, marijuana remains a controlled substance on the law books, but in practice most offenders get off with a warning. Last summer, when the Conservative Party lost control of the government to the more liberal, youth-oriented Labor Party, there was speculation that the law might be rewritten.
The Labor prime minister, Tony Blair, has said he intends to keep drug laws unchanged. But the government's position was undermined recently when the son of Blair's home secretary (roughly equivalent to the U.S. attorney general) was caught selling marijuana -- and released with only a "caution" from police.
In recent months there has been increasing clamor here for legalization. The movement has the open support of some members of Parliament, many columnists and academics, and business tycoons such as Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways and Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop and Britain's leading female entrepreneur.