Stroll down Electric Avenue in Brixton, South London, and three guys might offer to sell you marijuana within five minutes. It's O.K.; the cops here won't arrest you for possessing a little. And it's no different on much of the Continent. Cedric, an 18-year-old Swiss student, smokes dope regularly with his friends on trains, in the streets and parks of Geneva, even during high school recess. "The teachers know about it but don't say anything," he says. In Marseilles two months ago, 20 crewmen on the aircraft carrier Foch had consumed cannabis so flagrantly on board that a military court had to punish them but handed out only suspended sentences. Judging by the fragrant smoke wafting around the ship, the crewmen estimated that two-thirds of their shipmates were equally guilty.
It used to be that Holland was Western Europe's only tokers' paradise, courtesy of 900 cannabis cafes where adults can legally buy five grams of marijuana or hashish. But now, all over the Continent, the weed has won a new level of social acceptance. And where voters lead, politicians are following, as they ease up on criminality.
A European Union drug-monitoring report says at least 45 million of its citizens--18% of those ages 15 to 64--have tried marijuana at least once, and about 15 million have done so in the past 12 months. Young people toke the most: 25% of 15-to-16-year-olds and 40% of 18-year-olds have tried pot at least once. In the past decade, the number of people who admit to smoking at least once in the past year has doubled in many European countries.
When 45 million people have broken the law, the law may not be an ass but it is certainly an endangered species. Most countries still hang tough on hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, but when it comes to grass, they go with the flow. Despite lingering strict anticannabis laws--smoking a joint in Britain can technically result in five years in jail--the way millions flout those laws is pushing European governments to adapt.
Most are trying variants on what the Dutch call gedogen--turning a blind eye. The authorities keep marijuana-possession statutes on the books to conform with a 1988 international convention that prohibits outright legalization and to avoid the political controversy of changing the law. But they opt for quite lenient enforcement. Last month police in Brixton started a six-month experiment: they will caution users on the spot and confiscate their dope rather than book them for prosecution. The cops expect to save at least five hours of police work per nonarrest, which they will devote to street crime and drug dealers. In France and Germany, local police, prosecutors and judges are allowed considerable discretion to be tolerant. In Belgium the government proposes to make arrests only if marijuana use is "problematic" to the puffer or to others--so don't smoke in front of minors. Officials obviously expect few problems, since people will also be permitted to grow their own grass.