Published on Tuesday, July 9, 2002 in the Madison Capital Times
Pols Must Not Be Silent on Drug War
by John Nichols
In Great Britain, newspapers have a tradition of "campaigning." They take up causes and campaign by focusing attention on them in their news columns, editorializing and generally badgering people in power to change the status quo.
Over the years, campaigns pressed by British newspapers have brought major shifts in the country's political and cultural landscape.
The best of the current crop of campaigning newspapers is the Independent (www.independent.co.uk), a London-based daily that circulates nationally.
The Independent's boldest and most successful campaign of recent years has been a drive to liberalize Britain's drug laws. In particular, the campaigning focused on lifting criminal penalties against the possession and use of marijuana.
When the Independent's campaign began, Britain was coming out of the Margaret Thatcher/John Major era of conservative rule, in which successive British governments embraced all but the silliest American affectations. Thus, while Brits were never subjected to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say 'No' " blathering, the country continued to mete out harsh punishments to people found to be in possession of marijuana.
Worst of all, politicians who knew better remained generally silent. As in the United States, where most mainstream candidates and elected officials are afraid to appear to be "soft on crime" - or even "soft on soft drugs" - British pols simply avoided discussing the absurdity of laws that applied the same criminal sanctions for possession of marijuana as it did for possession of dangerous drugs.
That all changed when the Independent started campaigning for decriminalization of marijuana possession and use. The newspaper's reporters demanded that cultural, business, legal and political leaders address the issue of marijuana prohibition and, over the past few years, they have.
Predictably, the first to speak up were rock and film stars, civil libertarians, and others who have long objected to a "drug war" that was lost before it began. Then came a few bold members of Parliament, most of them from the progressive wing of Tony Blair's governing Labour Party.
Slowly, more Labour parliamentarians spoke. Cabinet ministers and members of the opposition Liberal Democrat and Conservative Parties decried marijuana prohibition. Police chiefs joined the chorus to point out that time wasted on pursuit of marijuana users was undermining their ability to tackle serious crime.
Finally, the senior jurist sitting on Britain's highest court, the broadly respected Lord Bingham, declared the country's tough laws against marijuana possession and use to be "stupid." Asked if he supported legalization of cannabis, Lord Bingham replied, "Absolutely."
The judge's answer made headline news, not just in the Independent, but in newspapers and on broadcast reports throughout the country. Even Blair felt compelled to respond, with an admission that the war on drugs has been a failure.
Blair's aides quickly announced that the government plans to change the classification of marijuana so that Brits caught in possession of small amounts of the substance will no longer be subject to arrest and imprisonment.
The change in Britain mirrors a dramatic rejection of drug war rhetoric and policies by European nations. Switzerland, Portugal and other countries are moving rapidly to embrace liberal approaches to marijuana like those of Holland.
While most Americans are well aware that the drug war is bankrupting our states, misdirecting our police and overcrowding our courts and jails, political leaders here - with the notable exceptions of progressives such as U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin and state Rep. Mark Pocan, both Madison Democrats - remain as silent as their British peers were a few years ago. Over the next few months,
The Capital Times will try to change that circumstance by borrowing a page from Britain's Independent and asking Wisconsin's candidates for governor, attorney general and other jobs to stop just saying "no" to an honest - and needed - debate about the latest failed attempt at prohibition.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times