A pressure Cooker

Pressure cookers are great fun. If you’ve never seen one they work by super heating water under pressure. The lid fits tightly onto the base with air tight seals and the only hole is a small one on the top, through a little spindle. You put your food inside with a little water and heat it up. As the water boils you add weights to the spindle which stop the steam escaping, so the pressure inside builds up and the water boils at a higher temperature.

It’s a very fast way to cook and a pretty safe one, but they do go wrong and when they do, the result is something to behold.

As the steam pressure inside builds it takes more weights on top to keep it in. If you heat it up too much or get something else wrong, the weight can blow off and the result is dinner on the ceiling, and it happens very quickly and over a wide area.

What’s this has to do with Cannabis law reform is it provides a wonderful metaphor for prohibition and, specifically, where we are now with events.

Recently the sentencing guidelines for drugs offences were published and they very much reflect the cold light of day shining on the prohibition regime.

What the guidelines do is to set the sentences courts can give out to different levels of offence and you can now expect the same punishment no matter where you live (in England and Wales). Before the the introduction of these guidelines it was all a postcode lottery, you could have ended up with a jail term if you lived in some areas like Sheffield, whereas in others you would have got off with a slapped wrist. Now, it’s all the same everywhere and for small-scale offences very much at the slap wrist end of the scale.

For the full summary of the sentencing guidelines, which are a bit complex, take a look at the Judiciary,gov website

Without going into detail, what it means now is if you are charged with a low-level cannabis offence, you are over 18, there is no supply involved and so on you will get at worst a community service order, at best a discharge.

Now this isn’t decriminalisation, even with a discharge you get a criminal record, although according to Bright Knowledge it only lasts six months and is then spent. Of course this might still mess your life up if you have a good job that requires CRB checks for example, it might cost you your tenancy and more besides.

Release were quick to point out that this isn’t a move towards legalisation and that nothing had changed.

We have received a number of emails from cannabis activists asking for clarification on how the new Sentencing Guidelines will impact on cannabis cultivation and possession. Release provided detailed advice to the Council and has welcomed many of the changes in the guidelines as an improvement on the previous regime, but in relation to cannabis, there has only been a slight shift in approach.

Well, although the Release information is of course correct, it’s not quite true. What has happened is one of the weights has been taken off the pressure cooker. Sure, in some areas this makes little or no difference, but as has already been said, in some areas it does. In some parts of the country this is near revolutionary stuff and some people are not happy.

As Peter Reynolds observed on CLEAR

Judge Murphy revealed his prejudice and cruelty when he said:

“If you had been in front of this court six months ago you would have been going to prison but the law has changed”

Then he went on to demonstrate his ignorance of science and medicine and why he is not fit to preside over any cannabis related case.

“…there are other ways of pain relief”

The Daily Mail is outraged as well.  The whole story is reported here.

Now, another health warning. This only applies to low-level offending, although the cultivation level of up to 9 plants is easily enough for moderate self-provision. For heavy users all this is actually bad news, the penalties ramp up significantly for large amounts. What it seems they are trying to do is to draw the line in the sand at a place they think they can hold, by putting more resources into fighting the big supply side. It is a very pragmatic move forced on the authorities by this annoying reality thing.

But for small-scale possession and cultivation, the draconian threat posed by the law has been all but removed. Remember, in theory the law provides for 5 years inside for simple possession of any amount and 14 years for germinating one seed. What this will mean in practice is yet to be seen. It will really depend how much effort the police are going to put into raiding a house of a hobby grower when they know all they’ll get in terms of a result is a discharge? If the police do realise it’s all a big waste of time, effort and money to get  such a low return it does begin to look a little more like defacto decriminalisation. This won’t happen immediately of course, we will only know about that in a year or so.

Now, the problem for the drug warriors is simple, hence the analogy of the pressure cooker because they understand this only too well. Prohibition has to be all or nothing. The demand for cannabis is only being held in check by constant enforcement, it’s like the pressure cooker sitting on the gas ring with the gas full on,  the best they can ever hope for is to have enough weights to keep the peas and super heated water in. Unless someone can turn the gas down they will always have to be putting more weights on.

In prohibition terms it means constant, ever-increasing enforcement just to keep things as they are. What happens if you take the enforcement away, even a little? Prohibition supporters claim it will lead to a rapid collapse of the whole regime. Thing is, the are probably right.

Fact is once the dust has settled and we see how this is all working, chances are quite high that a significant number of people will decide that a low-level penalty is well worth the risk. After all, the cannabis culture has lived for years with a much higher risk than now seems to be the case. Add to this declining police budgets and the end result can really only be one thing – widespread low-level defiance of the law.

Of course, the prohibs are not at all happy about this and there is now something of a campaign brewing to step up the war on drugs and to make it a real war, where low-level drug use is targeted with severe penalties. Peter Hitchens in the Sunday Mail has been banging on about this for some time, along with the other regulars like Kathy Gyngell of the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. I’m in an odd situation now where I actually agree with these people in a way; we are at a very decisive moment and we go one of two ways – either toward drug law reform or toward very much harder line prohibition

I suspect  an attempt to head this off was at the root of the Release “nothing has changed” statement, which is very much in line with the government message. It’s also why these changes to the sentencing guidelines got almost no coverage in the media. They really are trying to take the weights off the boiling pressure cooker quietly, hoping the pressure inside won’t notice

These changes have only happened because practicalities demanded they happen, there simple is no way the possession law can be enforced consistently everywhere to the level the law provides for and something had to give. There is no doubt the government really does not want to entertain the idea of drug law reform and it would, if it could, do what the drug warriors want. But it’s this cold light of day I mentioned at the start; stricter enforcement would cost a massive amount of money, at a time when essential services are being cut and the country is on the edge of a recession. It’s a fair bet that there is no chance of seeing Hitchen’s campaign for a real drug war.

It will be interesting to see what the Home Affairs Select Committee come up with when they eventually publish their review into the drugs laws, which will partly depend on what happens as a result of these changes to enforcement.

Footnote: It’s also worth noting that medical use of cannabis is now to be accepted as a mitigating circumstance again, having been outlawed a few years ago. That alone has to be worth a reasonable level grunt, if not quite a cheer.