Legalise cannabis, say top HK judges

TWO of Hong Kong's top judges say use of the soft drug cannabis should be decriminalised.

High Court judge, Mr Justice Kaplan, and Appeal Court judge, Mr Justice Godfrey, say the laws are outdated and do little to stem drug use.

They were supported by four other senior judges, although they would only speak off the record.

Their comments came just days after police seized a tonne of cannabis, worth $60 million, intended for the local market.

''The current drug laws are failing to curb drug use, it's as simple as that,'' said Mr Justice Kaplan, 52, who became a High Court judge in 1990.

''Cannabis use is now so widespread that [keeping it illegal] makes people think the law is an ass.

''I am in favour of its decriminalisation. Otherwise, good citizens find themselves on the wrong side of the law and are alienated.'' He claimed the image of cannabis as a dangerous drug was no longer valid.

''I am not satisfied that cannabis leads people to take more dangerous drugs, and recent research indicates that it is no more harmful than tobacco. It is certainly less addictive.

''I don't advocate anyone takes it - it is a criminal offence. But I do believe something must be done to take away the profit motive from criminals,'' Mr Justice Kaplan said.

''There is clearly a growing demand for the drug and a lot of money to be made from it. So if someone is going to supply it, why should it be criminals? ''Why not have the Government supply it? That way its use could be much more easily controlled, its use restricted and its users educated and separated from criminal elements,'' he said.

The best way to take cannabis out of criminal hands would be to set up licensed premises, ''something like a cross between a chemist and a pub, where the drug could be available to people under whatever restrictions were considered suitable''.

Mr Justice Godfrey, 61, who joined the judiciary as a High Court judge in 1986, said the ban made no sense while people were free to use tobacco and alcohol.

''I am for decriminalisation,'' he said. ''Since human beings are allowed to smoke themselves to death with cigarettes they ought to be allowed to smoke marijuana in the privacy of their own homes.'' One of the other judges in favour of decriminalisation said: ''Prosecuting offenders simply wastes an awful lot of police time and taxpayer's money.'' Police recently redoubled efforts to crack down on recreational drug use. Officers are increasingly stopping and searching people in Lan kwai Fong and Wan Chai, raiding nightclubs and prosecuting in every case of possession, no matter how small.

In the past year, arrests for possession have soared more than 50 per cent from 601 to 962. Some of the biggest increases were reported in the Wan Chai bar area, where possession figures rose from two to 23, and those for trafficking from 25 to 38.

But privately, many officers believe they are losing the battle and a new approach is needed.

''There is a lot out there that we are not seizing,'' said one detective. ''I am in favour of decriminalising all drugs, not just cannabis. Drug users should not be treated as criminals. It is a social problem.'' The light sentences the courts hand down for possession of cannabis are also a problem.

''Generally, if the amount of cannabis resin is under an ounce and there is no indication of trafficking the sentence is a small fine - say $200 to $900,'' said a narcotics officer.

Yesterday, an expatriate was fined $700 by a magistrate for having 1.5 grams of resin for ''personal use''. And recently a dealer caught with a kilogram of cannabis was jailed for just six months.

Most people charged with dealing in small amounts of cannabis are sent for trial at magistrates' courts where sentences go up to 36 months, but those accused of trafficking in more than nine kg must stand trial in the High Court where they face up to four years' jail.

''Compared with the money that can be made, many dealers believe the sentences are small enough to be an acceptable risk,'' said the officer.

The comments by the judges come amid concern about the growing use of cannabis, traditionally an expat drug, among locals.

A senior Inspector in the Narcotics Bureau said: ''There has been an explosion in the use of cannabis, cocaine and LSD among 18 to 30 year olds as the Western dance floor culture has caught on here.

''Two years ago it was confined to Western users - now possession prosecutions tend to be a 50-50 mix between Westerners and locals.'' Certainly, experiments with decriminalisation elsewhere, including Germany, suggest it has merit.

American states which allowed the use of cannabis in the 1970s, registered no major surge in consumption.

Meanwhile, extensive experience with decriminalisation in The Netherlands supports the point and shows also that drug-related crime falls.

Acting Governor Anson Chan Fang On-sang told the Sunday Morning Post last night that the Government would look at the basis for the judges' conclusions but said there was no easy solution to the issue.

''The fact that it is widespread is not a good enough reason to make it legal,'' she said. ''It is not something that can be changed overnight.'' However, Legislative Council security panel member Miriam Lau Kin-yee is against the move as she believes it may encourage people to try drugs.

''It is my belief that the taking of soft drugs, including cannabis, should be discouraged, and if it is decriminalised it would send out the wrong message,'' she said.

''Once people get into soft drugs many of them get into harder drugs.

''I think they might treat it like smoking a cigarette and having a puff,'' she said.

Attorney-General Jeremy Mathews said drug use was a social and medical issue as well as a matter for the law.

''The suggestion has not been put to me before so I have no views on it,'' he said.

''But I am prepared to say that any change in the law would have to reflect opinions from all areas.'' A spokesman for the Narcotics Commission said: ''We will consider whether to look into the subject in the light of the experiences of other countries.'' The current penalties for trafficking and possession of cannabis are limited only by internal guidelines agreed by the police and judiciary.

Trafficking or possession with the intention to traffic in any drug, including cannabis, is subject to penalties of up to life imprisonment and a $5 million fine.

Possession or use of drugs, including cannabis, is subject to maximum penalties of seven years imprisonment and a $1 million fine.

Cultivation, or conspiracy to cultivate, cannabis attracts a fine of up to $100,000 and up to 15 years imprisonment.

Figures released by police last week demonstrated a significant continued increase in drug-offence arrests in the territory up to the end of June.

In the first half of this year 7,618 people were arrested for drug offences, less than 200 short of the annual total for 1991.

when 7,813 were arrested.