30 June 2002
By Robert Mendick
When cannabis campaigners set out to get themselves arrested they wanted to highlight what they consider to be the ludicrous and draconian nature of Britain's drugs laws.
They did the job admirably. The prosecution of 29 cannabis campaigners, who were caught in possession of as little as £1 worth of the drug, is likely to cost a staggering £1m. The final bill may be even higher. Among those charged are two Euro MPs.
The remarkable campaign follows a series of raids on Britain's first Amsterdam-style cannabis café, which opened last year in Stockport, Greater Manchester.
The café, the Dutch Experience, remains open for business but the arrest of its founder, Colin Davies, prompted a series of mass protests outside Stockport magistrates court and the town's police station. Arrests were made in November, December and January with 24 activists demanding police arrest them for holding up or smoking small amounts of the drug in front of them.
The Lord Chancellor's Department admitted last night it expects the legal aid bill alone to exceed £300,000. With the costs of the prosecution, police and court time thrown in, the cost to the taxpayer will top £1m and may reach £2m, defence lawyers said.
The mass protests followed the arrest of Mr Davies and four fellow activists for the possession and sale of cannabis at the Dutch Experience. Mr Davies claims to take the drug to alleviate severe back pain. He claims he was selling the drug at his café to subsidise the free distribution of cannabis to sick people, many of them suffering from multiple sclerosis, around the country.
His trial was due to begin this week but has now been put back to September. The delay has added to the spiralling legal costs. They also include keeping Mr Davies, 44, on remand in Strangeways prison, Manchester. He has since been released on bail but has been gagged by a court order from talking to the press about his campaign to legalise the drug.
Defendants charged with cannabis possession have the option of having the case heard before a jury in a crown court rather than the cheaper option of a magistrates court hearing.
It is thought all the defendants will opt for a crown court trial to highlight the "ludicrous" cannabis laws and the huge expense of prosecuting people for possession of a drug, which the Home Office's own advisers admit is less addictive than alcohol or tobacco.
Mr Davies, who must live in Todmorden, Lancashire, while on bail, said: "I am trying to find out whether I can say that the cannabis laws are a disgrace. If I can't say that in this country it is a massive breach of my rights."
Mr Davies is also barred from talking to any defendants subsequently charged in Stockport in the direct action protests. That means he cannot talk to his own Liberal Democrat MEP, Chris Davies (no relation), who was arrested alongside a colleague from Italy with possession of about £2 worth of the drug. Mr Davies has never smoked cannabis but wanted to protest at the draconian laws. He is demanding a crown court trial.
"I support Colin Davies and all he is doing," said Mr Davies, MEP for the NorthWest. "I support the whole principle of the Dutch-style café. I am prepared to take whatever punishment is meted out but I simply don't think these prosecutions should be taking place."
A spokeswoman for Greater Manchester police said: "We have to enforce the law as it stands no matter what the costs."
'They should try the experiment somewhere like Westminster'
It is one year since police in Brixton, south London, began not arresting people for simple possession of cannabis. Opinion on the trial period is mixed, as locals make clear – especially when it comes to legalisation and the problem of dealers.
Patricia Kilroy, 63, moved here in 1961 "because it was a nice area" but no longer goes out after dark. "We see people smoking it openly all the time. It's an everyday thing but not a good thing. The dealing makes me feel nervous. Years ago you knew it happened but you didn't really see it... It's fine behind closed doors but the dealing leads to violence."
Othman Mohammed, 31, showing the scars from a car accident –"of all the medicationnone worked as effectively as cannabis" – thinks the softly-softly approach is "brilliant. The police should concentrate on rape and crack cocaine. The problem is dealers that will continue to deal crack if cannabis was legalised. If they want to destroy society, blame them and not cannabis."
Sandrine Vasselin, 28, from France, doesn't "think your country's ready for relaxed drug laws because you have no other solutions in place. You should look at Switzerland, where they managed it more efficiently because they invested in alternative ways of dealing with the problem. But as far as it leaves the police free to concentrate on other crimes, it's a good thing."
Mark Ashley, 35, is "not mad about the experiment. If it's designed to let police concentrate on other crimes then they should be funded properly to fight all crime. They should try the experiment somewhere like Hampstead or Westminster... As soon as we allow a certain amount of liberty with drugs it's going to cause problems unless we legalise the dealers."
Adam Orr- Ewing, 25, believes it has got rid of harder drugs. "There used to be crack heads and junkies plaguing Windrush Square but this has allowed the police to concentrate resources and I've seen a definite reduction. Smoking cannabis isn't going to go away. If we're going to legalise it, we should do it properly and tax it and put the tax back into the community."
Juanita Radway, 70 (who asked not to be pictured), is unimpressed. "This government goes softly-softly on everything. I used to be a health visitor and the majority of people who suffer from drugs are the black under-educated youngsters. They drop out of school, have no discipline from their parents and get into drugs. Look at the free-for-all in Jamaica to see where this will go. We need to go back to discipline in the home."
Copyright 2002, Independent Newspapers