Durham takes us one small step towards a sensible policy on drugs

And the NHS could do with a dose of common sense

Janet Street-Porter
Saturday 25 July 2015 01:30 BST

New figures show that more than a million people aged between 16 and 24 used cannabis in the past year. Now, those in the North-east who keep pot plants – the hallucinogenic kind rather than a Busy Lizzie – no longer fear a knock on their door and a trip to the police station.

Durham’s force is the first to announce that local users can grow drugs for personal consumption without fear of prosecution. This historic decision was taken by police and crime commissioner Ron Hogg, a former assistant chief constable, who has spent years engaged in the “war” on drugs; a futile battle that can never be won by forces already stretched by cuts, a huge increase in illegal online activity and a renewed focus on sexual offences against the young.

Hogg wants his decision to “prompt a national debate about drug laws”, but people have asked for the same thing a million times over the past few decades and, it turns out, there’s no such thing as rational debate about drink or drugs. Drugs are still ranked according to their potential harm, with punishments graded accordingly. New legal highs are created in a lab somewhere every single hour of the day – and Theresa May will never be able to stem the flow in spite of forcing through new legislation in an attempt to do so.

The latest figures show that the number of young people taking ecstasy has doubled in the past decade, but drug use still polarises public opinion. The only rational solution (given the size of the black market and the fact that drugs show no signs of going out of fashion) is to nationalise the industry, taxing and selling products in controlled premises in rationed amounts.That way at least the Treasury would gain millions in revenue. At the moment, ministers talk about plugging tax loopholes and evasion, and dealing with non-doms, but can’t face up to the £8bn tax-avoidance scheme that’s functioning right under their noses.

Durham police will take no action against people who grow “small amounts” of cannabis (a class B drug) for their own use, but will still pursue those who are “blatant”. I’m not sure what “blatant” means – dealers turning disused trading estates by the A1 into cannabis farms, perhaps? Previously, anyone convicted of growing a small amount of cannabis would likely receive a community sentence. Now smokers who live in Durham will be able to sign up to a “crime reduction initiative”, which sounds a bit like the speeding awareness classes we can attend instead of receiving penalty points on our driving licences.

Hogg says his course of action is a chance for cannabis smokers “to recover”, but the reality is his coppers have got more important things to do than drive around Durham arresting people for smoking dope. People who use cannabis regularly are unlikely to be persuaded that there’s a better way to spend their time, particularly if they’re unemployed or retired.

Labelling people as drug addicts because they smoke a couple of spliffs every day to relax, to sleep or help with pain is crass and inaccurate. Most experts agree our current drug laws are not working.

Demand for class A drugs is increasing. Last week cocaine worth £70m was found in the boot of a taxi near Tilbury Docks in east London. It will be destroyed, but that’s £70m of goods that could have been checked for purity, packaged into strictly controlled units for sale and taxed highly.

By legalising drugs, the Government can raise the millions it needs to sort out the NHS, build its high-speed rail links and correct the collapse in social housing. It could also help to tackle the clandestine drug industry’s use of illegal immigrants and the way its operatives break the law in many other ways: people trafficking, grooming kids for sex, blackmail and extortion.

Addicts constantly commit petty crime to get the cash for their habit, making them vulnerable to exploitation by dealers. Ron Hogg and his chief constable, Mick Barton, both want heroin and cocaine decriminalised and supplied on the NHS. With the police under pressure to trim budgets further, I predict other forces will follow Durham and the Government will be forced to concede that the time to revisit our antiquated drug laws has finally arrived.

And in the meantime, can we at least acknowledge that not everyone who enjoys illegal drugs is an addict in need of rehabilitation?

There’s couture – and then there’s Yves St Laurent

Apart from enjoying a legal spliff, there’s another reason to go to County Durham – the dazzling Yves St Laurent exhibition at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle. Yves St Laurent certainly partook of a wide selection of substances during his troubled life. Sometime around 1990, we filmed the reclusive genius in his atelier in Paris as he emptied an entire can of hairspray over his carefully coiffed locks, frantically moulding it into a perfect shape over and over again: the process took about 15 mesmerising minutes.

Without a doubt, St Laurent remains the most influential fashion designer of the 20th century, a man who liberated female dress in so many ways. He created the trouser suit, the elegant shift dress, evening dinner jackets – “le smoking” – safari suits, pea jackets, hooded capes, culottes and transparent evening wear.

He was inspired by great artists – from Braque, Matisse and Picasso to Mondrian, by the way of stage costumes and the Russian ballet. The Alexander McQueen show has been a huge success, but make the journey to Bowes to see where Lee got most of his ideas. There’s a black YSL cocktail dress designed in 1970, the back cut right down to cheeky cleavage, veiled in chantilly lace. We’ve seen that dress a million times since. The footage of YSL sketching is awe inspiring, and much of what’s on show could be worn today.

Women, if no one else, now have a party worth voting for

The Women’s Equality Party has been quietly growing, and this week appointed a leader, Sophie Walker, a Reuters journalist and mother of two. I want this party to succeed. There’s no question we sorely need to redress the blatant injustice in which half the population is unrepresented in Parliament, the City and the judiciary.

Sandi Toksvig co-founded the party just four months ago, and its website is simple and impressive. I’m worried that the leader and founders are all media luvvies. I hope the party attracts women from all walks of life, because that’s the only way a movement like this will take off.

A party which is run totally differently from the others will get my vote. I know Tories and Lib Dems who are joining Labour to vote for Corbyn and sabotage the party’s chances at the next election. What happened to putting voters first?

The NHS could do with a dose of common sense

Running the NHS is harder than selling underwear, says health service boss Simon Stevens, in a rebuke to Lord Rose, who is credited with turning around M&S.

Rose, who has just released his report on the NHS, praises staff but finds “a lack of clear vision” and a shortage of good leaders.

The NHS ought to be more receptive to Rose. New figures reveal that in the past year, the NHS has rehired 5,500 workers it made redundant. NHS bosses spout self-important jargon about delivery options and pathways. What’s needed is executives who speak everyday English and act decisively.

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