‘If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.’ So said the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.
Perhaps the leadership of the Durham police service have been reading a little too much Lewis Carroll of late.
Durham police have announced a decision not to take future action against many private growers and users of cannabis.
While most personal use of the Class B drug will remain technically illegal, the police will not employ their resources to prevent small amounts from being grown or used privately.
This, they say, will free up time and money for the pursuit of those pushing harder drugs.
Perhaps only someone unfortunate enough as to be a regular user of marijuana – or more potent forms of the drug such as skunk – will be irrational enough not to see flaws in the reasoning.
First, there are obvious issues relating to who makes laws in the first place. Is it the police service, or the Houses of Parliament?
If a private citizen were to ignore a law, would that individual be allowed to walk away, after arguing that he or she was simply trying to pre-empt a change to the law?
In behaving as it is, the Durham police service – the only one in the country to take this stance – is arguably subverting the role of government and therefore challenging the democratic principle.
There is also the issue of public health.
Granted, the police service is not a health provider per se. However, the various branches of public service have always worked together to help the community face and overcome potential, multi-faceted challenges to public wellbeing.
The threat represented by terrorist activity defies categorisation as a health, security, or criminal issue alone. It crosses all boundaries.
Likewise, the potential future spread of plague through a community is a challenge that can only be met by local and national services that are thinking, planning and behaving in a truly linked-up way.
In the light of these potential future threats, is the Durham police service suggesting that it has no part to play in protecting public health?
After all, the potential dangers to human wellbeing presented by the use of marijuana and its variants have often been widely acknowledged within the medical community.
In a number of studies, the drug has been linked to the development of psychosis.
This effect is exacerbated by stronger variations on the theme such as skunk. According to Cannabis Skunk Sense (CanSS), a UK charity, this is the variety of cannabis that is smoked by 80 to 90 percent of users in Britain.
It contains on average, they say, a 16.2 percent content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical which acts on the brain and emotions. Apparently, the Dutch government, famously liberal for its drug policies – until relatively recently, at least – considers any cannabis with a THC content of over 15 percent to be a Class A drug.
A few years ago, a mother by the name of Julie Myerson published a book in which she shared the pain her family endured as they tried to help her teenage son overcome a life-controlling addiction to skunk.
Her story of ‘tough love’, retold in the nation’s press and media, was both harrowing and inspiring. Ms Myerson ‘outed’ her son as a drug user in her controversial book The Lost Child, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
In it she described how her son Jake stole from the family and fought with them when they tried to banish them from the family home in order to protect younger siblings.
At the time, Jake described his mother as the ‘worst mother in Britain’, only to publicly recant and thank her for the tough love approach five years later.
We can only wonder at the fate of those children and young adults who, unlike Jake Myerson, don’t have parents who are equipped or willing to take such a resolute and painful stance.
Now, Durham families who might decide to do just that are being told that they will should expect scant support from their local police service.
In the same way, drug-related charities will doubtless find the news disheartening. It is so often they, not government services, that provide effective rehabilitation programmes and ongoing personal support for recovering addicts.
A 2015 poll by the Centre for Social Justice think tank found that 69 percent of 100 UK charities surveyed would be concerned if the Government decriminalised cannabis. Seventy-three percent were concerned about the effects cannabis had on their clients and families.
If Prime Minister David Cameron is still even mildly interested or invested in his Big Society idea, developed in the last government, he should realise that engaging third sector organisations to solve community problems requires that government and its agencies instil confidence.
Charities need to know that law-makers and law-enforcers are on the same page when it comes to reducing drug usage.
The key here, of course, is not simply tightening criminal codes. Prison sentences are not necessarily the best way to treat the drug problem – especially as it relates to first-time users, or those whose use is restricted to Class B drugs.
By all means, let’s have a debate about the penalties applied. That, however, represents a very different approach to simply ignoring current laws because they waste police time, which is clearly the reasoning here.
Over the past decade, the incidence of teenage use of cannabis in the UK has been falling. Figures released by the NHS say that one in 15 teenagers and adults have smoked the drug in the past decade.
One is left to wonder, therefore, why the Durham police have chosen to take this stance – particularly as it is predicated on the cost of law enforcement?
They have said that their decision is based on the need to free up resources for dealing with more serious forms of drug crime. This ignores the fact that international studies over many years have indicated that marijuana use can and often does lead to experimentation with harder, Class A drugs.
In some users, dependence breeds more dependence; the addiction to a chemical high leads to a desire, and then a life-altering craving, for more.
In the end, then, what might be ‘saved’ within law-enforcement will likely be lost within the already embattled NHS. It may struggle to keep up with treatment of more serious drug problems, which can’t necessarily be undertaken by third sector groups.
Moreover, surely a falling incidence of marijuana use at the present time suggests that the current approach has been working? Why ditch it now?
The message the Durham police are sending will have an impact felt beyond the cannabis-using community. It will suggest to some that, given enough time, any drug experience may be legitimated – if not by law-makers then certainly by supposed law-enforcers.
It will also suggest to drug users – and pushers – in other parts of the country that a domino effect may be in the offing. If nothing is said or done to oppose the Durham approach, other forces might soon follow suit.
The Durham decision is both irresponsible and immature. Let’s look again at the penalties regarding imprisonment, but turning a blind eye is irresponsible.
Read Mal Fletcher's related piece: "Medical Marijuana: Australian Government Moves Ahead of Medical Debate"