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Belgium Allows Cannabis Possession
January 18, 2001

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Belgium's government effectively decriminalized the possession of cannabis for personal use on Friday in a move that the country's health minister said would create extra personal freedom. Announcing the move to a packed news conference, Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said a royal decree would be issued instructing prosecutors not to pursue people for possession.

The production, supply, sale and ownership of larger quantities will remain actively prosecuted, as will the use of cannabis which leads to unsociable behavior.

"This is a policy that is being followed in many of the countries in the European Union. We are not penalizing individual users of cannabis, but we are concentrating on production, distribution or problematic use,'' he told reporters.

Ministers stressed the new regime would not imitate the Netherlands, where cannabis and cannabis derivatives are sold through licensed coffee shops. Health Minister Magda Alvoet said the new measure was a recognition that the judiciary should no longer intervene in the personal use of cannabis. "The criminal judge won't interfere any more in lives of people who use cannabis on a personal basis and who do not create harm or do not become dependent,'' she told Reuters Television.

"We want to create an extra space of liberty, but we want to do it in a controlled manner.''

The new regulations treat cannabis on a par with alcohol and nicotine in terms of the health risks it poses. But there are substantial gray areas that will be left up to the judiciary to decide.

The royal decree which will formalize the announcement will not contain any indication of what quantities of cannabis are considered for personal use. With one eye on neighboring France, which is furious at the tide of soft drugs arriving from the Netherlands, Verhofstadt stressed the new policy would not throw open the doors on a new era of drugs in Europe. Belgium, France and the Netherlands belong to the Schengen group of countries which do not have checks on their mutual borders. The Netherlands' liberal drug policies are a constant source of friction with Paris, which blames them for many of the country's drug problems. But Alvoet said the new regulations would bring Belgium in line with Italy, Spain and Portugal, which are all easing their regulations on the personal use of cannabis.