Cambridge University is one of the world’s grandest and most prestigious educational institutions -- but many of the ancient city’s residents and students have placed a different emphasis on “higher” learning.
A local councilor has complained that cannabis-smoking is so prevalent in some parts of Cambridge that it might be a waste of time and money for police to prosecute this criminal violation.
The Cambridge News reported that Councilor Sarah Brown, who represents the Petersfield ward, complained that Cambridge’s Mill Road is “awash” with cannabis.
“It’s pretty much impossible to walk more than 100 meters in Petersfield and Romsey without smelling it,” Brown, a Liberal Democrat, told a council committee.
“The wards are more or less awash with it, I wonder if it’s a good use of resources [for police] to go after this. It’s more or less omnipresent.”
Instead, Brown proposed that police target more serious (Class A) drug offenses, like heroin and crack cocaine. (Cannabis is currently designated as a ‘Class B’ drug in Britain).
On her Twitter account, Brown declared: “It seems obvious that public opinion on cannabis, at least in my ward, is at odds with the law. Resolving the disconnect is a national issue.”
A local senior police officer appeared to agree with Brown’s assertions.
“I will go after any drugs, but we focus on class-A [drugs] because [they do] more harm,” Sgt. Colin Norden told the same committee.
“If we get reports in, particularly of dealing, we will deal with that.”
Norden indicated that his police force have conducted raids of drug dealers in various parts of the city – including the capture and arrest on one man who had 62 bags of heroin and crack cocaine on his person.
Nonetheless, some civilians are outraged by Brown’s declarations.
A hair salon owner on Mill Road, Piero D’Angelico, told Cambridge News: “It is just not true. It’s totally ridiculous. Mill Road is just like anywhere in England. If someone is walking along smoking cannabis and you can smell it you can’t blame the whole road. This is an outrageous thing for the councilor to say and is very unhelpful.”
Indeed, the Cambridge City Council also disagreed with Brown, voting to maintain vigilance against drug use and drug dealing (including cannabis offenses) in the university town.
A local resident of Cambridge, Adam Chatham, condemned any talk of legalization. “If you don't have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to drugs then everyone will start taking advantage of it, and those people will almost certainly go on to use harder drugs,” he said, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Councilor Brown told International Business Times that she does not advocate the legalization of cannabis.
“I'm afraid I have been rather heavily misquoted [by other media sources],” she said. “I did not suggest cannabis be legalized in the meeting concerned. That is some way above my ‘pay grade’ as a district councilor! I did ask the police if they thought concentrating on casual use of cannabis was a good use of their resources, and the police sergeant present confirmed that they were more interested in drug dealers and class A drugs.”
Most Britons who are caught with small possessions of cannabis generally avoid a prison sentence, although pot growers can sometimes earn jail time.
According to Webehigh.org (a website that rates the drug-friendliness of various countries and cities around the world), Cambridge has quite a high level of cannabis-smoking tolerance (ranking “4” out of the maximum “5”),
“Although the cops here aren’t too bothered about possession -- you get an on-the-spot warning [and] they [take] your stash,” Webehigh warned.
“If you’ve got a lot of previous warnings for possession, or they think you might be dealing then it can get more serious -- if the cops think you’ve been smoking weed before driving you’ll be in a lot of trouble.”
Moreover, on the green campuses of Cambridge University, not only is drug consumption popular, but so is dealing.
Last year, a survey of Cambridge students by student newspaper Varsity indicated that one in seven have sold drugs to help pay their tuition.
The Daily Mail also reported that almost two-thirds of students at Cambridge admitted taking drugs, ranking cannabis as the most popular drug of choice. One-seventh of the students who admitted taking drugs have also been admitted to hospital as a result of their illegal behavior.
“It’s hard to juggle a job and studying at Cambridge, so [dealing] is a quick and easy way for them [students] to make cash to pay for the fees,” a student told the Mail.
One-third of students in the survey said they have one or more friends with a “serious drug problem.”
Another undergraduate told the paper: “The relative affluence of Cambridge students seems to lend itself to drug taking.”
Britain’s drug laws, which were essentially formalized by the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971 divides drugs according to three classifications: Class A (which includes cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, LSD); Class B: (amphetamine, barbiturates, codeine and cannabis, etc.); and Class C (anabolic steroids, minor tranquilizers, etc.).
Under the law, possession of Class A drugs could potentially lead to a maximum sentence of 7 years in prison; while Class B and C drugs mandate a maximum term of 5 and 2 years, respectively.
Penalties for dealing are much more severe – up to life for Class A, and up to 14 years for Classes B and C.
On a national level, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, has supported measures to start the decriminalization of certain drugs, despite opposition from Prime Minister David Cameron.
Last December, Clegg suggested the formation of a royal commission to consider decriminalization, something akin to the program that Portugal has already instituted, apparently with success.
“We can't be complacent, we owe it to the many, many children in this country who still get snarled up by drugs, whose education chances are blighted by drugs, whose health is damaged by drugs, we owe it to them to constantly restlessly look for better ways of dealing with the scourge of drugs," Clegg told BBC.
Noting that more than 2,000 people die in Britain every year due to drug abuse and that kids as young s 11 years of age are now using, the Deputy Prime Minister noted “we should also be open-minded enough to look at whatever alternative approaches help us help those children more effectively in the future."
Indeed, the Home Secretary Theresa May has just ordered the government to review Portugal’s easing of its drugs laws, suggesting a somewhat wider acceptance of legalization in the coalition government.
Moreover, despite Cameron’s public stance against drug legalization, other reports suggest the Prime Minister may actually be warming up to the idea.
According to a report in The Independent newspaper of Britain, Lord Mancroft (a former heroin addict himself) said “Cameron… thinks drugs ought to be legalized,” but that he is “just too afraid of the press reaction to say so.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.