11 Feb Neither Martyrdom Nor Cowardice Are Effective Campaigning Strategies

The dreadful tragedy of Winston Matthews’ imprisonment was exacerbated today by news from Oxford Crown Court. There, on Friday, Judge Patrick Eccles imposed a suspended sentence on Andrew Walters, a sufferer of chronic back pain, despite him being caught with 135 plants, £2630 in cash and “hundreds of grams of skunk”. See here.

Judge Eccles said:

“The fact is, given the medical history, despite the quantity and despite the fact he has been told not to do it before, it seems it’s not in the public interest for him to serve an immediate sentence of imprisonment.

You’re not by any standard definition a criminal, but the fact is you are somebody who had decided because of your own difficulties you were entitled to break the law on a significant scale by cultivating cannabis to provide medication for your own condition.”

By contrast, Winston was caught with only 80 plants but as a result of three separate incidents, the latter two while on bail, he was sent to jail for 16 months. See here.

Not under any circumstances should any medicinal user be criticised at all for doing whatever it takes to obtain the medicine that he needs. However, Winston’s actions were inevitably seen as provocative by the Court. His past campaigning which consisted mainly of videos of him smoking his bong will not have endeared him and his cause to anyone, certainly not those who are presently opposed to cannabis. They are the people we most need to influence but their prejudices will have been confirmed if they saw Winston’s videos.

No one can doubt Winston’s courage but we need to campaign far smarter if we are to achieve results. Of course CLEAR supports the Free Winston Matthews campaign but unless he wins an appeal (of which there must be a real chance) he will probably serve six months before being released on a tag. CLEAR has sent him a cheque to his prison account to try and make his time a little easier to bear. Many others are contributing to a fund for him.

Strong grounds for appeal will be the new sentencing guidelines which come into force at the end of February. For the first time they formally recognise medicinal use as mitigation. Winston must stand a good chance if he does choose to appeal.

The new sentencing guidelines are a breakthrough for cannabis users and mean that anyone with less than 100 grams or growing fewer than nine plants should only be subject to a small fine or low level community order. Of course, that is less certain if you’re a repeat offender but judges are obliged to follow the new guidelines unless there’s a very good and explicit reason not to do so.

That’s why it’s surprising that from some quarters there has been such negativity and cowardice about seizing on this good news and promoting it as part of the campaign.

Back in the 1970s, Release was everyone’s friend. Anyone who enjoyed using cannabis knew that Release was the place to go for advice and the banner around which we could rally to oppose prohibition. That has all changed. Release has turned away from the mainstream and become an uber-politically correct collection of lawyers interested only in more and more esoteric minorities. Now it is little more than a free legal advice bureau.

I suppose that given the inevitable caution of lawyers, Release was never going to enthuse about the new guidelines. Its advice is here – accurate but extremely unhelpful. It has only one campaigning idea, which is to run letters signed by celebrities as national press advertisements. It is a shame that it does not spend its money more wisely and that it cannot assist people effectively with what the new guidelines mean. As its founder, Caroline Coon, wrote:

“For too long there has been a deep strategic failure of principle, a failure to fight for anti-prohibition policies. For too long Release directors have been ludicrously unambitious. Release is producing vague, derivative, ‘decorative’ waffle. There is very little difference between what Release says on its web site and what government says in various drug information outlets. It is dull and tepid. Release does not care. Release does not campaign.”

So neither martyrdom nor cowardice are effective campaigning strategies. That is why CLEAR, now the largest, membership-based, democratically run, drug reform group in Britain takes a different path.

We will constantly promote ideas and proposals for regulation. We will gratefully accept any progress that is made, however small, and do all we can to inform and educate those who use cannabis and the public in general. The new sentencing guidelines are massive progress. With the Home Affairs select committee inquiry into drugs policy and the various ballots for marijuana in the USA elections, the end of prohibition is in sight. We are getting there. The weed and, more importantly, the people who use it will soon be free!