Not long ago I met some old friends for a reunion. We’d all gone to uni together and used to live in the same house. Once a year or so we catch up, see what’s new. As we sat round a table at a Chinese restaurant in the East End, not far from our old stomping grounds, one revealed he’d been on jury duty. The case was money laundering for a drug ring; many millions of pounds.
The case was complicated: the jury was shown wiretaps, phone triangulations… it must have taken months to prepare. The suspect was a middle-aged black man. My friend agonised – was he really guilty? In the end, he and the other jurors decided he was and the man was given twenty years. At his age that may as well be a life sentence – he might die in prison.
I wondered how much money was spent on this investigation. How many hundreds of manhours were officers sat in a van carrying out surveillance? It will cost taxpayers over £20k a year to keep him locked up, all to stop a few Shoreditch wankers getting high who are gonna get high anyway.
I knew my friend was just doing his civic duty… and yet, I could smell the hypocrisy. I knew everyone around the table had done a bit of coke. Hell, I’d sold them the coke. It was chilling – under another set of circumstances, my friend would have helped put me away. Most people would have. It’s cognitive dissonance on a massive scale.
If it sounds like I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, I do, and not just from food fights at Burger King. In 2013, I’d won two-and-a-half-years’ worth of free meals and gym membership courtesy of Her Majesty’s Prison Service after (stupidly) getting caught on the Tube with a few packets of naughty powder. When police searched my flat they found all my other stuff, including about a kilo of weed and a fat stack of cash.
Now, the critical readers among you might detect just a slight hint of bias… as a convicted dope peddler I’m not exactly over the moon with the system that put me away. Spending up to 23½ hours a day in a cell with only my own thoughts for company drove me to the edge of suicide. While it wasn’t exactly unfair — don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time, as they say — sitting in jail gave me a lot of time to read, and there was plenty of reason to question whether justice has been served.
Drugs didn’t always land you in jail. In fact, when the British Empire pondered banning cannabis in 1894, the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission reported: “To the Hindu the hemp plant is holy … To forbid or even seriously to restrict the use of so gracious a herb as hemp would cause widespread suffering and annoyance … It would rob the people of a solace in discomfort, of a cure in sickness … So grand a result, so tiny a sin.”
However, a 1916 amendment to the Defence of the Realm Act forbade selling any kind of intoxicating elixirs to military personnel after Tommies kept getting little gift cards from Harrods full of heroin and cocaine, which made those suicidal charges towards German positions a little easier to bear. The ban came in effect after the brass got worried these party powders would leave Our Boys befuddled in the field, which had the bonus of taking a shot at Germany’s then-legal coke industry.
Unlike the United States, where the banning of cannabis, opium and cocaine was deeply rooted in racist paranoia about Chinese, Mexicans and African-Americans, our drug laws didn’t start off that way. But they quickly took a racist turn. “Evil Negro Caught” gloated one News of the World headline over a Jamaican-born “dope king” in 1923.
In 1961, prodded along by America’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics, the UK signed up to the UN’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which banned opium, heroin, cannabis, cocaine and all the old favourites, and followed this with the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Before that you could buy heroin from Boots: each night, a long line of junkies formed outside until the clock chimed twelve to claim the next day’s prescription. It wasn’t perfect, but afterwards, all those addicts started getting their fix from the black market. Making something illegal drives the price up, which means those who can’t afford their ‘medicine’ would have to beg or steal.
The Misuse of Drugs Act created an opening for renegade pharmacists like myself and my cellmate, Brotherman, an up-and-coming rapper who got busted selling three ounces of coke to an undercover narc while he was working at a bar in Hackney. The guy worked him for months, spinning him a yarn about music and kids before finally asking if he could score some gear. Brotherman wasn’t even a dealer, he just saw an opportunity to make some money. He didn’t even get ahold of good coke – the fact it was cut with more baking powder than an afternoon cake sale gave him a lighter sentence. Still, it was enough to mess up his life.
“The worst thing about going to jail was of course losing everything on the outside,” Brotherman told me, “namely my job, my flat, my contact with my kids. Even my career as a musician. I was on the up and then suddenly lost it all.”
When I first saw Brotherman on the outside he was practically homeless, crashing on his mate’s couch with a doggy blanket. He’s back on the up now, though, with a new album out, but it took a while. Brotherman owns his mistake – he did what he did – but I have to wonder whether it was worth turning him into a statistic.
Brotherman originally hailed from Montserrat, a British island in the Caribbean. If you’re black, brown or mixed-race like him, you’re 240% more likely to do jail time when caught with drugs.
“You’re eight times more likely to be stopped by police if you’re black than if you’re white,” Lord Brian Paddick told me. “I was having dinner with a friend and this six-foot blonde, white guy who was his friend came in. He knew who I was, and explained that when he was at public school, every weekend he went to buy cannabis and never once was he stopped and searched by police.”
I’d met Lord Paddick at the House of Lords. Among other things, I learned that the carpet in the House of Lords is colour-coded. Most of their carpet is red, but if it’s green you’re not supposed to talk to anyone. It was a long way from me dealing twenty-bags in the East End, and a long way from when Constable Paddick walked the beat in Brixton.
It was the early ‘80s. Racial tension was thick in the air as the young bobby found himself caught up in the Brixton riots.
“I remember the weekend of the riots in 1981,” he recalled. “I was given ten officers and six shields and told to clean up the street. We had burning cars and burning buildings because the fire brigade were attacked as well as police, and people were throwing concrete and lumps of bricks at us.”
The Scarman Report later found that the police deliberately picking on black people in those days to be, funnily enough, racist, creating an atmosphere of tension and mistrust until the residents of Brixton had enough and it all kicked off.
Later, Paddick chased a youth into a building that was a known gambling den. A middle-aged black man answered. Whaddaya want him for? Cannabis. The door slammed shut. Sometime later Brian chased another youth into the same building. Same geezer opened up. Whaddaya want him for? Stealing a woman’s handbag. The man handed over the kid. Brian was learning a valuable lesson. And so in 2001 when he became the local commander of the Metropolitan Police, there started to be some changes. There was a new sheriff in town.
“A lot of officers were taking their own initiative, informally, taking cannabis that they found and dumping it down the drain, but there was one case of an officer who was allegedly taking it home and smoking it himself. He was arrested and prosecuted, and a lot of his colleagues told me they wouldn’t be dealing with it informally any more, in case they’d end up like him as well.”
Add to that, Brixton had one of the highest street robbery rates in the country, if not Western Europe, and the beleaguered police force simply didn’t have the manpower to handle it all on top of chasing those burnout beatniks smoking the dankiest of doobies. So Paddick told the officers on his beat not to bother hauling in smokers with a bit of green.
“Knowing how conservative my boss was I didn’t see the point of telling him so I went straight to the cover of the Evening Standard, and that started a debate. We agreed to a six month pilot scheme where we wouldn’t arrest.”
It was a little like the Hamsterdam season out of The Wire. Brian had essentially decriminalised cannabis in his ward. The effect was phenomenal. With police time no longer clogged up catching potheads, crime dropped: burglaries fell by 18 per cent while the number of muggings almost halved. The scheme was extended another six months. But while dealing with thieves and purse snatchers was one thing, Paddick had to face an even more sinister set of reprobates – the Daily Mail.
When they’re not writing about East European immigrants poaching the Queen’s swans, the Daily Mail loves fearmongering about cannabis: every year, without fail, there’s some new exposé about weed causing psychosis. This can happen, although it’s relatively rare, but “relatively rare” doesn’t sell papers. And the Daily Mail couldn’t let Paddick keep doing what he wants with this very Dangerous Drug™ willy-nilly.
“Towards the end of the scheme an ex of mine did a kiss-and-tell story and claimed I was a dopehead, I smoked cannabis, and that wasn’t true but it was enough to get me removed as commander of Lambeth,” Paddick said.
Ultimately truth prevailed, and Paddick went through the smear campaign to come out clean the other side. The DM was forced to take down the article and local people even held a meeting in the town hall to get Paddick reinstated. That’s when he knew he’d done well.
“That was a completely different reception to the one I’d got in 1981,” he grinned.
I asked him how much had changed with institutional racism in the force since that bad day in Brixton.
“I don’t think racism and homophobia is as open or as prevalent as it used to be. But when I was in Brixton I met a mixed-race former soldier who was quitting the police. His anecdote was back in the army, he shared a room with a right-wing extremist with a quasi-Nazi flag over his bed who told him they were both professional soldiers and he’d die for him in the battlefield, but don’t mix with me off-duty. And he said he knew exactly where he stood. What he felt in the police was racism was more hidden or subtle, so he was being criticised for things a white colleague might get away with. The Metropolitan Black Police Association say over the past year or so around half of black or ethnic senior officers are under investigation and it’s interesting when you look at the figures, because the number of public complaints against black and white officers are about the same but internal discipline cases are far higher.”
So there’s still some suspect attitudes ingrained in the police, which affects how things play out in the street which, in turn, make it far less likely you’ll face arrest if you’re white.
But even if the law was fairly enforced on black, white and perma-tanned alike, you’re not going to solve the drug problem by putting people in jail. Newsflash: there are drugs in jail. It’s a cliché but if you put away one drug dealer, all that creates is a job opportunity for someone else. The market’s not going to go away. Meanwhile what we’ve done is taken thousands of people, cut them off from their families (at great expense) and any opportunities they might have had to be successful, and herded them together into what might be called Hogwarts for Hoodlums where the houses are gangs, Professor McGonagall yells “Bang-up or IEP!” and your wand consists of a sharpened toothbrush. Then we wonder why they keep going back.
It’s a myth that everyone who takes drugs is a strung-out loser. Bill Gates and a whole bunch of tech billionaires dropped acid. Dr William Halsted, founder of Johns Hopkins medical school, speedballed morphine and cocaine. Three out of the last four US presidents, and at least one of our prime ministers, smoked pot, and our current prime minister is a self-confessed criminal. But in my experience, the top echelons of the Tory party are more typical of people who use drugs than some nightmare version of Renton from Trainspotting.
If it wasn’t for thousands of years of tradition, alcohol would almost certainly be illegal (they say a little wine is good for the heart… lol, fuck off). And it is, in certain countries. If we’re looking at it objectively, drinking beer or smoking a cigarette isn’t much better for you than having a spliff or doing ecstasy (when it is, it’s because Es are illegal, so there’s no telling what goes in them — you don’t see Carlsberg bulking up their orders with antifreeze).
And yet, we’ve taken the fight for clean living to ridiculous levels. In January, 31-year-old Sean Fitzgerald was shot dead by armed police in a supposed raid on a ganja growhouse. Apparently, Sean caught a bullet in the chest as he was trying to flee… over a fucking plant. You can argue that police need to be tooled up to properly fight crime, but there were no weapons found at the crime scene. Either way, the idea that you’d go in blasting like the Navy SEALS to tear up somebody’s gardening project is insane.
Remember, most of these are non-violent offenders. There’s some nasty thugs out there for sure, but most of the people I knew in university weren’t Joe-Pesci-in-Goodfellas/Menace II Society types: one’s now a lawyer, another’s working for a global risks firm, while one teenage pot grower’s just got her nursing certificate.
“There’s this view of dealers as predators and users as victims, but from our point-of-view the distinction between people who use and supply’s not very helpful,” said Niamh Eastwood, executive director of Release, a charity offering legal advice to people facing drug charges.
“There’s a very big overlap; the majority of people selling are also using themselves, and the majority of people who supply on the lower level don’t engage in violence – that’s more on the higher-up side.” -Niamh Eastwood
Drug dealers are blamed for the recent plague of knife crime sweeping across London. But it’s not like Chicago or Medellín, where bodies pile up over who gets to run the dope spot. Some of it’s definitely drug-related, but I’ve met loads of people serving time for GBH and most of it was just petty personal shit that got way out-of-hand. In other words, the same reasons young men have fought each other for since forever: girls and respect. Some of them might also be drug dealers, but that’s incidental— shotting some chro and getting stabby over your postcode are two different things (there’s more evidence of turf wars when London gangs go out-of-town; the so-called ‘country lines’ phenomenon).
“If you’re talking about knife crime in London, I’m not sure the evidence supports that. I think politicians overstate that position, because it justifies a lack of support for young people and social services,” Niahm continued. “There’s an idea this specific group is a problem in the community, while really the problem is lack of investment and focus by the government.”
But even if they haven’t stabbed someone, don’t these dealers still make money off people’s misery? Hmm. If your business model’s based around making your customers as miserable as possible, good luck. Drugs are fun. People wouldn’t do it if they didn’t enjoy it. Sure, it’ll kill you in the long run (same as vodka), but in the meantime, kiss the sky and taste the motherfucking rainbow.
You might say it’s still worth it, stopping these bottom-feeders poisoning our kids, but that’s proven to be a less-than-fruitful venture. Cocaine’s now cheaper than ever while weed and ecstasy are more potent than they’ve ever been. If even a thousand kilos of heroin gets intercepted, Afghan farmers produced around 6,400 tons last year. It’s a futile enterprise.
People like to say the war on drugs is a failure, but if the end goal was to seem ‘tough-on-crime’ through an expensive waste of police work perpetrating a racist system that destroys lives and criminalises the poor (not the Tories) and the mentally-ill (OK maybe the Tories), with no tangible effect on drug use, it’s been an extraordinary success.
So what can you do? Well, as David Simon, writer and co-creator of my favourite TV show, The Wire, says: sabotage the trial. If you get called up for a drug case – any drug case, as long as it doesn’t involve violence or children – vote to acquit. Remember 12 Angry Men? Be that one guy who doesn’t let everyone else go home. Even if the geezer’s obviously guilty as sin, the jury’s got the right to return an independent verdict. That’s a British tradition dating back to 1670 when William Penn, a Quaker (who went on to found the colony of Pennsylvania), was arrested for unlawful assembly – preaching the word of God to his followers. At the time the British government didn’t think much of Quakers so they put him on trial and when the jury found him not guilty, the judge had them banged up with no food or tobacco to bully them into changing their verdict. They didn’t, and both the jurors and Penn walked free after another judge ruled that holding the jury hostage was ridiculous. Since then, it’s been used in a number of cases in the 90s around medicinal cannabis.
Politicians understand public money, so maybe if jurors screw up enough prosecution cases, all those expensive retrials might help them reconsider? I ran this idea past Niamh.
“It depends on the case,” she explained. “In terms of jury nullification, we’ve seen some cases since the nineties around medicinal cannabis, and so for many juries it was very easy to be sympathetic to the defendants. However, it’s a risky strategy. You’re pleading not guilty to have the jury trial but then arguing that the law is wrong – this can lead to a harsher sentence as you lose the sentence reduction from a guilty plea, but at the same time are admitting guilt so it really hangs on the jury, and their position might be the law’s the law. So in terms of mass reform I’m not sure it’s effective.”
But it looks like change is coming, and not from a corner you’d expect. The biggest driving force behind reform in this country have actually been the cops. Ever since Brian Paddick and the Brixton experiment, more and more police forces have announced they won’t press charges for baggies of cannabis while others have even got behind heroin injection rooms: in July, the Home Office gave the OK to the UK’s first drug consumption room. There, users can safely shoot up medical-grade heroin, or diamorphine, under medical supervision, for free – it won’t get them off the habit, but it will help make sure they won’t die or go around boosting TVs to pay for it. I mean, again, it’s not perfect, but who’d you rather fill the void from Boots all those years ago — a certified medical practitioner, or a certified convict, like me? A similar scheme is planned in Glasgow, and more could follow. But if it wasn’t for support from the local cops, the scheme wouldn’t have been given the go-ahead.
“It’s clear for this hardcore of substance addicts the current strategies are not working,” said Cleveland police and crime commissioner Barry Coppinger.
“If we don’t try something new, the cycle of offending and the enormous costs to society will continue and in all likelihood increase.”
So how about politicians? We’ve seen the Tories admit taking more brain-tickling substances than a weekend with the Rolling Stones, so maybe there’s a sense that normal(ish) people do drugs, not just some crusties passed out in a stairwell.
“Historically there’s been a reluctance to engage with this issue because it’s very controversial with voters, but that’s changing significantly,” Niamh explained. “The Labour Party’s got a drug policy group and their starting position is prohibition has failed, what do we do now? The Lib Dems have a good drug policy, and the Greens. Even in the Conservatives – although we’re not seeing it on the front bench, on the bank bench definitely. If people want to affect change, they can write to their local MP, ask them what their position is and show them the evidence. Drug prohibition failed miserably and we need to look at an alternate approach that treats people with dignity and respect.”
Meanwhile, after Uruguay, Canada and parts of the States, more and more nations are considering legalising cannabis. Will it be a vote-winner here? Maybe not for a couple more years, but the dominos are falling, and it’s hard to swim against the tide of history.
In the meantime, remember: you don’t have to vote guilty.
The views in this article reflect those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Volteface as an organisation.