United Kingdom

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Leicester, England—More kids are lighting up joints at some youth clubs here, and youth workers who confront them are getting a new response – it’s legal now.

Actually, it’s not, but that’s part of the confusion over the United Kingdom’s shift toward not arresting people for possession or use of small amounts of marijuana. The pending reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug – putting it on par with anabolic steroids and mild tranquilizers – has youth workers trying to figure out what to tell kids about marijuana and how to respond to those who try to use it openly.

The U.K. experience offers a glimpse of the challenges that such drug law changes pose for youth workers – a challenge that appears to be spreading, as more nations relax laws against marijuana use. Spain and Portugal generally do not prosecute users of small amounts of recreational drugs. Italy and Switzerland have also loosened up on recreational marijuana use, while Canada is considering a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The changes in the U.K. are part of a new drug strategy that focuses enforcement more on hard drugs and the supply chain. But extensive media attention to the cannabis portion of the new drug laws has created confusion among both youth and youth workers.

Many youth “seemed to have the impression they could now smoke cannabis wherever they wanted,” says youth worker Lee Parker of Brixton’s Marcus Lipton Youth Project, after a pilot project last year in the London borough of Lambeth. “Some were astonished when they found out they couldn’t.”

In South Gloucestershire, the local Drug Action Team acknowledged that in the run-up to the law change, there has been more visible use of cannabis around youth clubs. “We’re running training with youth workers including a focus on cannabis,” says acting coordinator Amanda Davies. “Youth workers naturally are asking, ‘What do I do if someone lights up?’”

Not Ready for Youths’ Questions

The change began with the appointment of Commander Brian Paddick as police chief of the borough of Lambeth in January 2001. Paddick was a new style of cop: urbane, gay and keen to consult the community. In the spring of 2001, he floated the possibility that the police would stop arresting people for simple possession of cannabis. He was given tacit approval from his bosses at Scotland Yard.

So from July 2001 to August 2002, Lambeth police replaced arrests with a “seize and warn” program, whereby young people found with cannabis had their drugs confiscated and were referred to a Youth Offending Team – one of the local teams of youth justice workers throughout England who combine community supervision with crime prevention work.

But many youth workers were confused. Paul Gralton, principal youth officer for Lambeth, says there was no briefing given to education or youth services workers, and information on what the changes would mean didn’t really percolate down.

“The changes raised a lot of questions from young people, but we weren’t ready for those questions,” Gralton says.

The local community, however, was, by and large, delighted with the results. Police figures showed that reported robberies in Lambeth fell during the pilot program by nearly 50 per cent (to 468 in April 2002, for instance). Arrests for hard drug dealing went up 20 per cent over the same period. The police say both figures reflect their increased focus on serious crime, thanks to the 1,350 hours of police time they estimate were freed up during the six months of the pilot.

An independent survey showed that 83 per cent of local people gave outright or conditional support to the pilot, while 8 per cent expressed disapproval. The poll also showed that nationally, 68 per cent thought such tactics would be a better way of dealing with young people.

During the pilot, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administrator Asa Hutchinson visited Lambeth and saw some drug users injecting themselves in a squalid building. Hutchinson went home to write a piece for The Washington Post saying that is what happens when a society goes soft on cannabis.

Not everyone in the United Kingdom was happy, either. The local member of Parliament, Kate Hoey, said the area had more drug dealers and more people smoking cannabis during the pilot. “Whatever the experts are saying, the message that is going to families across the country is very stark and very uncomfortable: that cannabis is OK, no matter how strong it is and no matter how it is taken,” Hoey said.

But the results of the Lambeth pilot coincided with a research report for the national Home Office, “Road to Ruin,” which stated there was no causal “gateway effect” of cannabis use leading to hard drugs. The U.K. government decided to take the Lambeth concept nationwide.

The nation’s “drug czar,” former Police Chief Keith Hellawell, resigned in protest.

Mixed Messages?

Now youth agencies must ask themselves whether the new law will change the messages they give young people about marijuana.

Youth workers acknowledge that there is already something of a conflict between the “don’t do it” and the harm-reduction messages that youth workers put out, and some staff worry that the new law will complicate things even more. In largely rural Gloucestershire, for instance, Mike Counsell, head of the youth and community service, says, “We’re clear that our policies are to encourage young people away from it, while acknowledging that experimentation is an important part of growing up.”

“We have to tell them clearly that it is still illegal, and after that, it’s important to help look at the issues,” says Davies, of the Drug Action Team in South Gloucestershire. “Ultimately, it’s the young person’s choice, but that needs to be an informed one.”

“Youth workers need to understand the changes to the law, but information is constantly changing, and the uncertainty over implementation has not really been cleared up,” Davies says. “Young people are still getting mixed messages.’

Lambeth youth service is working with local drug agencies to review its policy on marijuana, especially for detached workers as they meet with young people on the streets and in public spaces. It’s one thing to tell youths that they can’t smoke marijuana in a youth club; one certainly doesn’t have that kind of authority on the street. But if the detached youth worker sticks around while kids smoke pot in public, would that constitute “permitting” it? Could the staffer get in trouble with his employer or the police?

It appears unlikely there will be an outbreak of dope smoking in youth clubs and programs. Many youth service agencies say they will continue to inform young people about health and other implications of cannabis, just as they do with alcohol and tobacco.

“We do take a fairly traditional view” of drug use, says Counsell, in Gloucestershire. “We certainly don’t allow it in any of our projects.”

For Counsell, the issue of alcohol abuse remains more important.

“Over-drinking is part of adolescent culture, and there is a link to unruly and violent behavior. These are the issues facing our youth workers,” he says.

Even though the pilot is officially over back in Lambeth, policing of cannabis has been carried out with a soft touch while everyone waits for the national changes to kick in. For years this has been a hot-button issue in the area, with many residents saying that strict drug law enforcement unnecessarily brought police and youth into conflict and diverted police attention from more serious matters.

Youth worker Parker, from the Lipton Project, thinks the police/youth relationship may improve now that young people feel the heat is off them. “With the police putting the focus on hard drugs, some young people say, ‘It’s not me that’s the problem, it’s the crack dealers.’ ” Parker says.

Local police will have a measure of flexibility in implementing the law, which has led to some concerns among youth workers that, as in Lambeth, there will be confusion among young people. Indications are that possession of small amounts or private use will not lead to arrest, although a refusal to hand over drugs or a flaunting of the drug to challenge the police might.


Home Office resource for
youth work practitioners.

Site of Drugscope, an independent
drug policy and advice organization.

New information site about drugs.

Brixton-based e-zine that includes a history of the Lambeth pilot.

Talking with Youth about Drugs

At the end of May the United Kingdom launched a new drug awareness campaign to back up the new drug strategy. The campaign, called Frank, involves a national help line and website that will provide advice and information for young people (ages 11 to 21) and their parents.

The campaign is backed by extensive TV, radio and press advertising encouraging people to “talk to Frank” if they have questions or concerns about drugs. It reflects an explicit move away from the “just say no” approach, and uses humor that recognizes the reality of widespread drug use among youth people.

The campaign’s main line: “Drugs are illegal; talking about them isn’t.”