Last week I spent a day with Ron Hogg in the city of Durham. Four years ago Hogg was directly elected as one of the first wave of new Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales. There are 41 of them in total. Hardly anyone turned out to vote at these elections and fewer still will have noticed their impact since.
Hogg stands out as an exception.
His role permits him to reach out to people served by his local constabulary, make sense of their concerns regarding crime and agree a police plan and budget for the county. In July this year Hogg announced that, on his watch, no one would, in future, be arrested in the county Durham for growing small amounts of cannabis for their own personal consumption. The tabloids raged and Hogg took to the airwaves to express his view; that Durham’s police officers had better things to do with their time and money. Other PCCs — Derbyshire, Dorset and Surrey — offered their support, a tacit confirmation that they were adopting the same policy.
The local cannabis campaigners I met in Durham last week were passionate, intelligent and energised. Over the past few years they have formed little co-op-style cannabis social clubs with dozens of members. These groups share learning, particularly with regard to how criminal justice system and law enforcement engages with drug possession and cultivation. They also have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of how overseas jurisdictions are adopting alternatives to prohibition. They have engaged with Hogg throughout his tenure with considerable adroitness and earned his trust. Critically they recognised how austerity is abruptly transforming how the police organise and operate. Now they are planning local public events to raise awareness of the medicinal benefits of cannabis and are taking their message to neighbouring police districts to campaign for change.
Durham was bustling and blooming in autumn sunshine, without a trace of reefer madness.
During the summer over 220,000 signed a petition calling for a debate to legalise the production, sale and use of cannabis. In the course of a lifetime over 30% of British adults will consume cannabis at least once. Around 5% of adults currently consume it on a weekly basis. The campaign group Transform this week published details of an internal study undertaken by the Treasury which concluded that tax revenues in the UK from a legalised and regulated market could generate between £500 million — £800 million for the Exchequer.
On Monday a handful of politicians gathered in Westminster Hall to debate the petition motion. Paul Flynn and Peter Lilley with a combined total of 62 years of experience in the House were, once again, the most prominent contributors. It predictably got nowhere.
The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.
Last week the Prime Minister’s party conference address was widely interpreted as a calculated pitch to the middle ground vacated by Corbyn’s insurgency. But the speech struck me as being a welcome and long overdue revival of pre-2008 crash Cameron mantras. It is hard now for many to recall but Cameron’s initial prospectus to the country was almost wholly framed around social — not economic — renewal. Notwithstanding the difficulties that lie ahead when tax credit cuts letters start to land on doormats, the passages on social mobility, discrimination, prison reform and tackling extremism essayed an urgency that he wants to remembered as a Prime Minister who achieved more than an economic turn-a-round.
Might there be room to add drug reform to this reinvigorated social reformers to-do list?
When Cameron launched himself into the limelight during the 2005 leadership contest he was a powerful advocate for drug reform. His new Downing Street Policy Unit Director Camilla Cavendish argued for legalisation as recently as June last year.
The challenges of poverty and social division set out in last week’s speech will take decades to achieve and it is future generations of politicians who ultimately will be garlanded if they ever are.
If he was now to act decisively now on cannabis decriminalisation or legalisation he could, in one fell swoop, generate a legacy that would have an instant beneficial societal impact.
Each year tens of thousands of — mostly — young people are criminalised — with deleterious impact on their future lives — for possession of small amounts of cannabis, a drug that is manifestly less addictive and less harmful to health than cigarettes or alcohol. Meanwhile criminal gangs have their income facilitated by prohibition and almost exclusively supply a damagingly potent form of cannabis on the streets.
The sheer futility in pursuing this approach is now recognised by law enforcement agencies across the world. The US is leading the way on reform with Colorado state now in its second year of legalising, regulating and taxing cannabis without any discernible rise in consumption or addiction. Next week if Stephen Harper loses the Canadian General Election it is likely that Canada will move quickly to legalise cannabis as both opposition parties have made it a manifesto commitment. Late next year, California will go through the formality of a referendum to vote to do likewise.
As with banning of smoking in public and gay marriage the momentum behind legalisation of cannabis is now inexorable.
One of Ron Hogg’s stories will stay with me. He told me how once or twice a year he would gather 200–300 officers in the early hours of the morning in a big barn, fuel them with coffee and bacon butties and together they would go and bust a criminal gang supplying cannabis. That afternoon officers would want to assess the immediate impact. The response? Supplies had been disrupted for two to three hours. New gangs — often more violent ones — had moved in by the afternoon of the day of the raids.
The dog barks and the caravan moves on.
It is good have a Prime Minister with his social reforming brio zeal seemingly in tact. If he can now help us adopt some drug policies that spare a generation from being criminalised, reduce the prison population and allow markets act instead of gangsters it will be a worthy and humane addition to his legacy.