It is around 1am on Saturday and I am working the night shift in the police when a colleague’s emergency activation rings through my radio, writes former Police Officer, Adam Wordsworth.
This is a distress signal: a button pressed by an officer under attack to let all nearby colleagues know that they are in danger. I can’t go to help, because I am stuck in the hospital.
I sectioned a 40-year old male two hours ago after he had tried to kill himself. His story is a common one. He smokes weed nearly every day, which has led to him becoming clinically depressed and convinced that his neighbours are trying to kill him. The correlation between cannabis use and mental ill-health is a stark one. Still, I regularly hear on the news from pressure groups, from well-meaning journalists and from politicians who should know better, that cannabis isn’t addictive, like nicotine; it doesn’t do you any physical harm, like alcohol; it should be legal, it’s natural, and that we have “lost the war on drugs.”.
I have no idea what this last point means. I police the busiest division of the busiest force in the country, and I have never been involved in a war on drugs. The media are now regularly reporting the rise of county lines drugs gangs – criminal gangs from major cities pushing drugs into more suburban and even rural areas. For me, this is just middle-class Britain learning what our towns and inner cities have known for a long time: that the drug trade is prevalent and that it destroys anything it touches.
The legislation which regulates drug use in the UK is the Misuse of Drugs Act (MODA). However, far from being a declaration of war, this act is a white flag flying high above every officer and the law-abiding majority in this country. It has two principal flaws, which have led to the effective de-criminalisation of many common drugs. The first is the separation of the offences of ‘possession’ and ‘supply’. The theory behind this was that if we cut off the supply, there will be no drugs in the country. The actual effect is clear: For dealing drugs, you can be imprisoned for ten years. For possession, you will get a slap on the wrist.
What we are saying, is that the Cartel in Columbia which grows coca plants, harvests them and turns them into powder, is committing an evil act, which they know will blight lives the world over.
The smuggler who moves that powder into this country is committing an evil act.
The criminal gangs that push drugs and knives into the hands of city children and tell them to peddle the drugs and defend their turf at all costs are committing an evil act.
But the guy who voluntary hands over £20 to those kids on the street corner, thereby financing the entire operation, making it all worthwhile for the cartel, the smuggler and the criminal gangs, he hasn’t really done anything wrong. He committed a victimless crime.
If we were serious about fighting a war on drugs, we would give similar sentences to the people who finance the operation as we do to those that partake in any of the activities between harvest and supply. Do we really believe people would buy drugs for recreational use if the sentence was ten years in prison, as opposed to a slap on the wrist?
The second problem with MODA is the classification of drugs. Heroin and Cocaine are Class A drugs, meaning they are very illegal. Cannabis is now a Class B drug. Does this mean it is a little bit illegal but not really? If I find someone in possession of cannabis, for a first-time offence I give them a street warning. This means their name is logged but that is it. For a second offence, they will get a Fixed Penalty Notice – a fine. For a third offence, a caution. It will take four offences before they see the inside of a courtroom.
That doesn’t sound like a war on drugs to me.
We don’t take possession of cannabis seriously, which leads people to believe that it isn’t serious.
So we come back to my sectioned patient in the hospital. He is handcuffed for his own protection and it is taking a long time for him to be assessed: Mental health services are stretched beyond breaking point because more and more people like him are using “harmless” drugs like cannabis. Meanwhile, I can’t help an officer in need.
We need to get serious about sentencing if we want to win this war. The alternative is surrender without a fight. But if that happens, it should be because people know the effects of cannabis, and still think that legalisation is a good idea. Not because they think it is harmless or that we are losing a war that we have never truly fought.
Adam Wordsworth is a fromer Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidate and Police Officer.