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Durham's Lesson's Learned

Every social change campaign requires periodic boosts of momentum. Breakthroughs, even modest ones, create a notion of possibility that provide the vital sustenance to keep volunteers and activists motivated. For those who have campaigned for reforms of the UK's drug laws relating to cannabis yesterday was one of those days when hope was permissible. 

In the immediate aftermath of May's General Election, with the Conservatives sweeping into power and the routing of the Liberal Democrats, despondency reigned within the drug reform community. The baleful passage of the Psychoactive Substance Bill only added to the dismay as familiar, recalcitrant prejudices have played out in the House of Lords. 

However all this has masked both a bigger picture and broader political trends which, if properly appreciated, could offer a new opportunity for activists and advocates to engage. 

It is vital to understand the situational context within which Ron Hogg, Durham Constabulary’s police and crime commissioner could announce that henceforth his force’s scarce resources were no longer being used against small cannabis growers and were instead being deployed against the “multi-million pound business of organised crime, drug dealers, and street gangs.” 

Firstly, austerity is an opportunityThe default of most drug reform activists is to oppose austerity in all its forms, but Hogg was clear; he doesn't have the resources now - and there is no trajectory in the future in which he envisages that he will have sufficient funds - to make small scale cultivation of cannabis a priority for his force. This is unlikely to be a repeat of the doomed Lambeth experiment of 2001. Money talks, and Hogg knows that he hasn't got enough to pursue small growers and fight more serious crimes. 

Secondly devolution. George Osborne has been audacious in his pursuit of big city devolution both before and after the election. The Northern Powerhouse of Greater Manchester has commanded most of the headlines but it is the more unheralded reforms driven through by Steve Hilton - David Cameron's former strategy adviser - that have allowed Hogg to make these changes in defiance of the Home Office. Hogg is accountable to his Durham electorate as Crime and Police Commissioner. Democratic power now rests with his rank. Hogg is now making himself available to run seminars for his peers in Derbyshire, Dorset and Norfolk. The consequences of devolution are now becoming manifest; campaigners take note. 

Thirdly a new justice agenda. Michael Gove is no run of the mill politician. Early indications suggest he may become a radically reforming Lord Chancellor. His recent speeches on the conduct of the justice system and on prison reform signal a fundamental change from his predecessors both Conservative and Labour in terms of tone and moral intent. He has much to do and has emphatically ruled out any significant drug reforms, but the signs are clear, a huge overhaul is afoot which, combined with cuts, creates a whole new context for campaigners to operate in. 

“What do they know of England, who only England know?" - Kipling 

Successful campaigns need to build on little successes and understand their provenance. 

This Government is embarking on a dramatic programme of budget cuts, but also a vast transfer of power to town halls and newly elected local leaders. They also have within their ranks a Justice Secretary who has something of the air of the great Victorian social reformers. 

It's clear that the UKCSC team in Durham understood this new operating environment and acted accordingly, building rapport and trust with their local police commissioner. 

Yesterday signalled how the long overdue reforms to Britain's drug laws might yet unfurl. 

CISTA's party political broadcast - the first ever by a cannabis reform party

  • CISTA, launched just 12 weeks ago, will have its first party political broadcast on BBC Northern Ireland and UTV.
  • Broadcast will be seen by millions as it will be available on Freeview 
  • Right-wing DUP has attacked the decision to grant broadcast

CISTA, or Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol, was formed just 8 weeks ago and already has 1,500 members across the UK. Because we've attracted 32 candidates who will be standing in the forthcoming general election on 7 May, as well as a significant number of candidates in Northern Ireland, the party has been given the opportunity to air a party political broadcast.

Incredibly, this is the first ever party political broadcast by a cannabis reform party. It shows the incredible response to our party, which
The political broadcast has been subject to a direct attack from the right-wing DUP. Meanwhile, CISTA goes from strength to strength in Northern Ireland.

The party's last recruit, which allowed it to claim a Party Political Broadcast, is Neil Paine, a 45-year-old former British soldier who lives in Coleraine. He is standing in East Londonderry where he hopes to unseat Gregory Campbell of the DUP. Paine, who is a medicinal cannabis user, has been raided by the police twice. Both times they did not charge him.

One voice in the broadcast, John Lycett Green, grandson of poet Sir John Betjeman who treated his mother using medicinal cannabis, said: “There is no point in blaming politicians for ignoring the facts. The real point is that CISTA candidates, if elected, will be able to make the case for a Royal Commission. This is the first step towards a reformed policy that will mean no one else will need to face the challenges that my mother suffered in her final months of life. I agreed to take part in this broadcast because I was convinced by the CISTA people that they genuinely believe they can make a difference on issues that Westminster chooses to ignore.”
One of the candidates featured in the PEB, Barry Brown, who is standing in West Tyrone, sums it up: “The people of Northern Ireland deserve a better way to bring about change, reform and progress than the one that the dinosaurs have promoted. We want people to know that CISTA stands up for decent people who want to live in a country where the laws about drugs make sense and allow people dignity and the right to make informed choices.”

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Convening a Royal Commission - the rationale

CISTA was founded and exists to campaign to secure changes to drugs laws inspired by those that have been successfully implemented in recent years in US states, notably Colorado.

There are a range of ways in which such changes might be expedited here in the UK , but we have settled on campaigning for the convening of a Royal Commission. Its an approach that, we believe, is most likely to bring about much needed reform.

Royal Commissions have rather gone out of fashion in recent decades. We however have reached a settled view that engaging all mainstream political parties, the general public and expert insight through this process represents the best hope of achieving our goals. Changes in legislation will alleviate human suffering, improve public health, usurp criminal activity in favour of a regulated marketplace, divert police resources to address much more serious offences and provide a much needed fiscal boost to reduce the deficit and/or fund public services.

The public seem to agree.

When last asked if they favoured the convening of such a Royal Commission they were resoundingly in favour of this.

Further in December last year the Electoral Reform Society report Open Up found that:

· 67% believe the rise of smaller parties is good for democracy (against just 16% who think the opposite).

· 51% believe it is better to have smaller parties rather than two big parties (against 27% who think the opposite).

· 50% believe the era of two parties dominating British politics is over (against 32% who think the opposite).

The same poll showed that people are comfortable with the implications of a multi-party system, and prefer parties to work together in the common interest rather than continually attack each other.

· 78% believe the Opposition should work with the government on issues they agree on.

· 54% believe Parliament works best when no party is too dominant so that cross-party agreement is needed to pass laws.

There is a new public desire for consensual politics and CISTA is going with the grain of this new mood.

When Nick Clegg announced the new Lib Democrat policy position on drug reform last month, he said he had lost count of the number of MPs from all parties who, in private, have advocated a change to our abjectly failed drug laws. And yet we are still as far away as ever from achieving this goal with both main parties, Conservative and Labour, recalcitrant in the face the overwhelming evidence that supports the societal and economic benefits of legalising, regulating and taxing cannabis in the same way we treat alcohol.

It is time for a fresh approach and we believe we can now make a compelling and pragmatic case for change.

It is important to set out our position in relation to the Liberal Democrats and Greens.

We respect their respective policy positions and the conviction that underpins both. We just can’t foresee a trajectory where they will be able to legislate on their manifesto commitments.

Neither the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party are going to win this election.

Only the Conservative Party or the Labour Party can possibly win this election outright. Neither are likely to support our goals in their manifestos.

There was a time when we could safely assume that each election would produce a clear winner and that the winning party could legislate on its manifesto commitments.

Those days are gone.

There is a remote chance that the Green Party and a small chance that the Liberal Democrats could hold the balance of power at the outcome of this election. They might, under these circumstances choose to make their stated manifesto positions on cannabis reform a ‘red line issue but it unlikely; such reforms remain politically a ‘second order’ issue. It will be illuminating to see how prominent both the Greens and Liberal Democrats make drug reform in this campaign. Our guess is that, notwithstanding their manifesto commitments, they will not place drug reform at the forefront of their campaigns; but we hope we are wrong.

In the absence of either the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party winning this election, and making drug reform a ‘red line’ issue in any subsequent negotiations, how else are we going to advance our goals?

We might get lucky, and an incoming Prime Minister may decide to forge ahead with a reform Bill, even though it was not a manifesto commitment — as happened with David Cameron and same-sex marriage — but does anyone really think that is going to happen?

Instead we are left with an opportunity to create anew the conditions where the consensual, evidence-based approach the public want to see happens.

We are committed to engaging openly with all who support our aims and who share our passion. No politcal party will be excluded. We will work with each to facilitate that delivers change.

Vitally, we know that the public are right behind us as we do so.

Gallery of Supporters

At CISTA we are constantly inspired by how campaigners in Colorado and other US states managed to build public support for reform. A significant part of the success came from their ability to draw on supporting attributions from a broad, diverse range of respected people from celebrities to politicians and academics.

CISTA are currently building a wall of people who support drug reform and an end to the war on drugs that has turned into a war on people. But we need your help to identify more British people, more women supporters and more from ethnic minority communities.  So please get in touch with us on Twitter, Facebook or info@cista.org with appropriate links.