Durham — what have we learned?

Every social change campaign requires periodic boosts of momentum. Breakthroughs, even modest ones, create a notion of possibility, providing the vital energy 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.

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 opportunity. The 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 inequities 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 public spending 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.

The next time you are asked to sign a petition to the Prime Minister, think again.

There is another way.