UK bases its new policy on the Belgian policy for compromise

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The Independent Online

To the North lies Holland, land of hazy, smoke-filled cafes and a country which is planning to introduce a cannabis drive-through. To the south is France, where use of the drug continues to be a criminal offence.

But Belgium, not for the first time in its history, has compromised, with an attitude to soft drugs – at least for the past three years – akin to the new UK policy proposed on Tuesday by David Blunkett.

In 1998, when Britain's Labour Government was rejecting calls for a change to the law on cannabis, across the Channel in Belgium the establishment decided to take its head out of the sand. After discussions with the justice minister, the nine chief prosecutors issued a circular declaring the crime of possession of marijuana to be one of the lowest of their priorities. Although the law was not changed, the direction of policy was made clear.

So successful has this step been that Belgian ministers have already agreed on new legislation, which gives legal force to the tolerant approach. When the new law comes into effect, probably around the beginning of next year, Belgians will be able to possess cannabis for their own personal consumption but not to purchase it.

There will be no radical move to allow Dutch-style coffee shops, and smoking openly in the Grand Place of Brussels or other public places might still leave Belgians liable to prosecution under other laws to prevent "social nuisance" – legislation more normally wielded against those who urinate flagrantly in public.

At present, possession of any cannabis remains, technically, punishable by a prison sentence, although the biggest problem appears to be inconsistency, with those in rural areas more likely to face police attention than smokers in cities.

According to Pascal Garlement of the Belgian Federal Police, nothing has changed from the point of view of law enforcement: small quantities of cannabis are still seized, although their owners are not indicted.

But already the more lenient approach has filtered through to the smoking public. On the streets of Brussels yesterday, Frederic, a student at the Free University of Brussels, said: "It's particularly easy to get hold of cannabis at the university – it's all over the place and lots of people smoke it. I have never had any problems with the police. As far as I know, even people who deal don't normally get into trouble."

Even non-smokers are aware of its easy availability. Samiya Mabtoul, a 21-year-old student, said: "I don't smoke cannabis myself but I know that it is very easy to get hold of here in Brussels."

Surveys show that as many as 40 per cent of the country's 10 million population has experience of cannabis.

Perhaps the most striking fact is that, three years after Belgium took its first important move towards tolerating cannabis, it has proved not to be such a big step after all.