I am a disabled cannabis user, with a prescription for a cannabis spray that my Primary Care Trust will not fund. I chose to grow my own and was caught; I subsequently refused a police caution and pleaded Not Guilty. At Snaresbrook Crown Court last week, I told the jury that although my conscience is clear, they should convict me.
It seems a lifetime ago, but I was once a touring musician with a successful international career. In 2001, I developed a sensitive form of Coeliac Disease, an autoimmune condition that began to attack my health. By 2004 I was unable to play music, pain and nausea had become intolerable and continuous, and my absorption seemed to be deteriorating rapidly. Finally, the prescription painkillers stopped working.
Then I discovered the benefits of cannabis. For many thousands of people cannabis is the only medicine that reduces the pain, quells the nausea, stills the tremors, lifts the depression and calms the anxiety. When prescribed pharmaceuticals fail, we have the ‘choice’ of obeying a blunt and pointless law that demands either our passive agony, or opting for a life worth living by breaking it. The choice for me is bogus: chronic, untreatable pain is an immediate imperative weighed against the remote threat of prosecution and conviction. Because many of us can’t derive pain relief through alternative means, and because it is a safer alternative to alcohol, many millions of otherwise law-abiding Britons believe cannabis prohibition to be unfair and unworthy of obedience.
My medical predicament was acknowledged in a letter from the Minister for Policing, Crime and Drugs, Vernon Coaker, to my local MP, Harry Cohen on 21st July 2008:
“…we recognise that there are people like Mr Stratton, with severe pain and debilitating illnesses, who cannot satisfactorily alleviate their symptoms through the use of existing medication… That is why we have said that we would seek Parliament’s agreement to make any necessary changes to the law to enable the prescription of cannabis-based medicine, for the purposes of relieving pain…”
I followed Mr. Coaker’s advice. My medical need for cannabis was confirmed, and I became one of the few offered a prescription for cannabis in its liquid form, ‘Sativex’, promised by my pain consultant on the proviso that my Primary Care Trust would fund it. But in spite of comprehensive peer-reviewed evidence, my PCT declared that Sativex is not sufficiently proven for pain relief to justify funding.
At first I tried buying cannabis on the street, as a less-risky proposition than growing it. But as a disabled person I felt extremely vulnerable hanging around the streets of east London. It’s also the worst of all options because dealer-weed is frequently adulterated. I have bought cannabis laced with silica and glass; I have seen it contaminated with iron filings, and even lead dust. If I am to find relief at all, the only safe solution is to grow my own.
So in February 2008, I began growing cannabis in my spare room. Three months later, my luck expired when a neighbouring wine bar was firebombed. The conflagration spread, the police burst into my home to evacuate, and were greeted by my plants. Arrested and bailed, a week later I was offered a police caution, which I refused on principle. To accept a caution would be equally absurd for growing chamomile or brewing wine.
On 1st October 2008, I was charged with cultivation of cannabis. Eight days later I appeared at the Magistrates’ Court where I moved to seek permission in the High Court in for a Judicial Review of the decision to stand me for trial, on the grounds of unconscionable behaviour by the government that makes a fair trial impossible. I should not have to be before any court. I claimed that I was only there at all because the Home Secretary had abused his power by failing to control harmful drugs as the law demands, by refusing to apply proportionate controls on drugs according to their relative social harms, by prohibiting drugs arbitrarily, while neglecting his duty to apply meaningful controls to the two most socially obnoxious drugs of all: alcohol and tobacco. It is a sick joke at the expense of equality and society that off-licensees are typically handed a small fine for selling alcohol to children, while I face jail.
In 2009 the Home Office confirmed that alcohol and tobacco fall squarely within the remit of the Misuse of Drugs Act. Now that the government finally admits that alcohol and tobacco are harmful drugs, the question arises as to why users of safer alternatives are unfairly singled out.
The government’s answer came in a 2006 Command Paper, Cm 6941. In spite of its acknowledgment that “alcohol and tobacco account for more health problems and deaths than illicit drugs”, the government defended its provision of civil rights to alcohol and tobacco users on the one hand, versus its criminalisation of users of ‘illegal’ drugs on the other. The government did not justify this unequal treatment on the grounds of science, or for the protection of society: for the first time ever, the government admitted that the inequality of treatment is based on “historical and cultural precedents.”
‘Historical and cultural precedents’ are the stock and trade of discrimination. This is the ‘reason’ that smashed the genius of Oscar Wilde. The same ‘reason’ drove the criminalised homosexual Alan Turing, perhaps our greatest war hero, to depression and suicide. Today, this arbitrary justification continues to destroy the lives of thousands of ordinary people, while permitting identical activities with the most lethal drugs of all.
At the High Court, I claimed that the government’s justification for the inequality of treatment I suffer is irrational, unfair and illegal. I argued that it is disproportionately restrictive of my civil rights and freedom of choice to deny access to safer alternatives to alcohol; that it is invasive of my privacy, and abusive of my freedom of thought. I insisted that a fair trial was impossible, and asked the High Court to prohibit my trial.
On July 1st, 2009, the High Court refused me permission for Judicial Review, ruling that there had NOT been an abuse of power even if the government did admit to arbitrarily prohibiting ‘illegal’ drugs on the grounds of ‘historical and cultural precedents’, rather than for the protection of society as the law demands. The High Court adjudicated that the law as applied to me but NOT to users of the more-harmful drug alcohol was NOT discriminatory, and therefore was NOT unlawful. I was sent back to the Magistrates’ Court, and committed for trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court.
My trial began on Monday 26th April 2010. On the Tuesday His Honour Judge Tudor Owen ruled that there had been NO abuse of power by the Home Secretary, and even had there been, the Crown Court is not the place to rule that the law is wrong. The judge told me that the place to argue that the law itself is bad is the Court of Appeal.
On the Wednesday, I was tried for cultivating cannabis. I represented myself, but was forbidden from defending on the grounds of medical necessity, that option having been eliminated at the Court of Appeal in 2005. I could not argue an abuse of power; the Judge having ruled that out the day before. I had no defence in law.
There is another obscure option available for people who represent themselves: ‘jury nullification’. For three centuries juries have had the power to pass a verdict on whether the law itself is wrong. The jury may acquit the defendant, regardless of the evidence or the facts, if they think the law is bad. Judges don’t tell juries they have this power, so few jurors know about it, and lawyers are not permitted to mention it.
Jury nullification would seem sensible for the purposes of damage-limitation. But, if the jury were to acquit me, my journey would immediately stop. Two years of groundwork, of developing and refining arguments, of trying to make an impact on drugs policy, would be over. I would be acquitted, but nothing would have changed. I still risk arrest, prosecution and jail if I dare to address my symptoms.
Clearly, acquittal would be an unsatisfactory outcome. I felt that I needed to come out of my trial with more substance than the mere cessation of proceedings. What value is an acquittal if it affects nobody but me, and then only in the short term? Many thousands of people in similar situations to mine can’t even stand up, let alone stand up for themselves in Court, so it falls to me to do it for them.
I recalled the Judge’s clear instruction that the Court of Appeal is the venue to challenge a bad law, which settled the matter. Per His Honour’s assertion, if I wished to take the matter forward to a potentially more meaningful conclusion for all of us, and not just for me, I would have to be convicted. Only then could I go to the Court of Appeal to exercise a Rizla-thin chance, but a chance nonetheless, at challenging a dreadful law.
I took the stand determined to tell the whole truth. I argued on behalf of sick people and for adults who choose to relax in the evening with a safer drug than a glass of wine. I told the jury I agree with Professor Nutt. I admitted my sinful enjoyment of smoking cannabis; only when the pain subsides can I enjoy life. I explained how vicious the law is, how sick people like me, in addition to responsible adults enjoying a cultural choice, are caught in the law’s dragnet for private, peaceful activities affecting nobody else. I told them that guilt is as appropriate to me as would be to them if they chose to brew a demijohn of wine; I had no option but to plead Not Guilty to preserve my integrity. I said that my activities were partly an act of civil disobedience, and reminded the jury of the words of Martin Luther King – that it is our duty to disobey unjust laws.
I repeated the directions of the Judge: that this Court has no power to rule on a bad law, or to make exemptions from it. I then relayed His Honour’s assertion that the place to argue that the law itself is bad is the Court of Appeal.
I informed the jury that they have the power to acquit me if they think the law is wrong, even in spite of the facts and the evidence:
“…but I will not be asking you to do that today.”
“I want to go to the Court of Appeal, but if I am acquitted, that is the end of the matter, and I will be in the same position next week if I choose to grow cannabis. I will be liable to arrest, prosecution and imprisonment, and nothing has changed. My ambition is to challenge this appalling law, therefore I ask that you convict.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any sympathy for me, if you think it is unjust for sick people to be persecuted in this way, you will pass a verdict of guilty. Please help me out here today by convicting me.”
The jury returned after less than a minute to pass the verdict I had demanded of their consciences: Guilty. I flashed a grateful smile at the honourable twelve, and gave them two thumbs up. Most of the jurors returned my smile, apparently happy to have granted my wish.
Thanks to government intransigence, my conviction is an opportunity to argue my case at the Court of Appeal, in an attempt to help myself and many thousands of people to live a better quality of life.
Sentencing will take place at Snaresbrook Crown Court on May 26th, 2010.
Find out more about Drug equality at www.drugequality.org