Police commissioners offer fresh hope for cannabis reform

Police commissioners could be the key to cannabis reform
Police commissioners could be the key to cannabis reform

By Steve Moore

Cast your mind back to November 15th 2012. A new dawn for democracy in England and Wales, was it not? Alas 85% of us had better things to do rather than take the time out to vote for a local police and crime commissioner (PCC). But 41 were duly elected anyway to provide direct local links between the public and the police.

Hardly anyone noticed or much cared. Like so much of the 'big society', the innovation survived just about unscathed from its first exposure to public apathy. No wonder the then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude proclaimed that "transferring power out of Whitehall was like trying to pull chewing gum of your shoe".

Then last week Ron Hogg emerged into the light. Hogg is an avuncular Scottish teacher turned police officer, who previously made his name by heading up the police unit attached to the England World Cup supporters in 2002. He's served as a PCC for Durham for four years. During his tenure Hogg started a dialogue with Michael Fisher (aka Ziggy Musthava Spliff), founder of the Teeside Cannabis Club. Fisher suffers from a chronic stomach condition which he formerly treated with strong prescribed medications which didn't work. For years he has instead been self-medicating with cannabis oil, reaching out to others like himself to form support groups and, more recently, planting cannabis seeds across the north east of England as part of activist movement Feed the Birds. Fisher has 36 previous convictions for cannabis-related offences. 

Meantime Ron Hogg, as part of the new wave of PCCs, has been grappling with how best to police Durham at a time of unprecedented public spending cuts. He is responsible and accountable for consulting with the public, prioritising Durham's police priorities and allocating his chief constable the budget to deliver on them.

Last week he announced he would no longer make cultivation of cannabis a priority offence for his force. The power to make such decisions now rests with his rank. What was previously implicit was now made explicit. He no longer has the resources to pursue small scale cannabis growers. Over the past 18 months, in meetings facilitated by Fisher and culminating in a 'drugs symposium' last November, he became convinced he had more important priorities, not least chasing down the criminal gangs who deal drugs.

In the last week Hogg has been lauded by cannabis campaigners and predictably pilloried by Melanie Philips and the Mail. But crucially he won the support of his peers in Surrey and Derbyshire, who suggested they will follow suit.

This is a small story but a salient one.

It offers a glimpse of what's coming in Britain over the next five years. The chancellor is now the high commander of this government and his ambitions are manifest. On his watch the state is to become smaller and power will be transferred out of Westminster. What once seemed a whimsical remnant of Steve Hilton's 'big society' is now seminal. When Ziggy met Ron they both knew intuitively the rules had changed.

Social campaigners should listen up. It is a now time for little stories rather than grand narratives.

In the same week that Hogg made his intentions clear, a petition signed by 175,000 people was submitted calling for a parliamentary debate to consider legalising cannabis. The great wheels of Westminster will now creak into action. A group of MPs will consider the application in September, a debate will probably take place in November attended by a dozen or so MPs. Expectations will be raised then dashed. It's always the way.

But Ziggy suggests there is a new way to campaign. There are many Ron Hoggs out in the world. If cannabis reformers engage them, build rapport with them and understand the fiscal and political context within which they operate , they might secure the change they crave.

Steve Moore is curator at CrowdShed and campaign director at Cista, Britain's first cannabis reform party.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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