Time to Jump Ship

by Jason Reed


When an MP, an organisation of police officers, a film director and a comedian enter a bookshop to talk drugs and cannabis, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a joke, but nothing could be more serious.

In a series of events, in association with rapper and poet Scroobius Pip, we’re hosting conversations and podcasts to talk about all aspects of our drug laws.

We still treat cannabis with a bit of a titter – a middle class dinner party accompaniment for giggles. Most of us aren’t really impacted by drug laws, and in truth, unless you’re from an ethnic minority background or a lower socio-economic group, the chances are you’re not going to feel the blunt end of the criminal justice system.

(Eric A. Hegg)

(Eric A. Hegg)

We’ve entered the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ phase of drug laws; a nod and a wink to the naughty. But as we progress (or stagnate) in the UK with our dialogue, we have to bear in mind the vulnerable groups that are not being let off the hook. The infamous findings by Release still make uncomfortable reading. You’re 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs if you’re black.

It’s true and heartening that many constabularies are taking a softer approach to cannabis. With resources stretched, places like Durham under PCC Ron Hogg’s lead, are holding back on enforcing cannabis laws. In fact, it’s perhaps not a coincidence that Durham is the only force to receive an ‘outstanding’ by the HMIC. Across the board, cannabis arrests are reported to be down 46 percent since 2010, but this doesn’t go far enough. With over half a million stop and searches for drugs in England and Wales every year, and with only a 7 percent arrest rate, the impact this has on police and communities is self-evident.

Like many pieces of legislation that came before it, such as Temporary Class Banning Orders, the new and controversial Psychoactive Substance Act stops short at criminalising possession. There’s clear acknowledgement that mass criminalisation of society simply does not work. It begs the question: when drawing up new laws we are indeed able to recognise the failures of criminalisation, and yet we still labour under the full weight of a criminal justice system approach to the Misuse of Drugs Act – why? This is a tale of two cities where we arbitrarily decide which substances to prosecute and which we’re being lenient with, and where other factors such as race and class are unavoidably a caveat.

(George Grantham Bain Collection; Library of Congress)

(George Grantham Bain Collection; Library of Congress)

The Liberal Democrats have been the first political party to fully take on the issue of cannabis reform. After seeking advice from a panel consisting of policy experts, former and serving Chief Constables, leading professors in the field of drugs, the Lib Dems have pushed cannabis into their manifesto. Much like the Liberal vote in Canada, with Justin Trudeau leading the party to an election victory, there’s clearly a market for drug law reform in politics. The emerging electorate are taking the issue on as their own. We could also argue that US Candidates like Bernie Sanders have made gains through their championing social justice and drugs.

Drug law reform is not exclusive to the left. It is a cross-party and cross-spectrum issue. When Liberal Democrat Norman Lamb presented a cannabis regulation Bill to Parliament, it was co-sponsored by Caroline Lucas of the Greens, Paul Flynn from Labour, Michael Fabricant, Crispin Blunt, and Peter Lilley – all of whom are Conservatives. But the UK is now on a par with some of the least progressive nations in not giving any real credence to reform. When a nation prides itself of leadership, innovation, tolerance and compassion, to remain anchored to a sinking ship of prohibition is simply outdated and frankly bizarre. This is why the conversation has never been more important, and this is why we all must add our voices to the reform dialogue.

We ask you to join us at Tottenham Court Road Waterstones on May 23rd for our next Stop and Search event and podcast – in association with LEAP UK and Scroobius Pip’s Distraction Pieces Network. Guests include Norman Lamb MP, political comedian Joe Wells, film director Dale Beaumont-Brown. There’ll be an exclusive trailer and clip release of the new film Grassroots: The Cannabis Revolution.

Jason Reed is the Director of LEAP UK and a regular VolteFace contributor. Tweets @JasonTron

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