The Weekly Round-Up: Unconventional Harm Reduction and Shamima Begum’s Final Appeal

1 March 2021 by

In the news:

The UK has seen an increasingly falling rate in arrests and prosecutions for cannabis possession over recent years, as police forces no longer see the point in enforcement. The Liberal Democrats have campaigned for its legalisation since 2016, and the first medically-prescribed cannabis was permitted in the UK in 2018. However, crucial NHS cannabis-based medicines for epilepsy remained prohibitively difficult to access for another year, with the majority of self-reported ‘medicinal’ users still turning to the black market. With growing numbers of US states, alongside Canada and South Africa decriminalising recreational use over the past three years, some UK MPs believe that cannabis legalisation will occur in the UK within five to ten years.

Meanwhile, cannabis remains prohibited under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 as a Class B substance, carrying a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment for possession, with £2.5bn spent since 2015 on policing, trying and imprisoning cannabis-only offenders. Cannabis remains among the least dangerous illicit drugs, as well as the most widely-used, mentioned without the presence of alcohol or other substances on the death certificate of only one person in 2019. There is, however, a correlation between cannabis use and schizophrenia. By contrast, alcohol-specific deaths continue to number in the thousands annually.

On Saturday, Police and Crime Commissioner of North Wales Arfon Jones called for a trial in prisons to provide cannabis to offenders. Prisoners routinely turn to drug use behind bars to combat the stress and boredom of prison life, which, alongside stronger and more dangerous drugs such as opiates, has encouraged the spread of extremely harmful new substances such as synthetic ‘cannabis’ (though bearing little relation)  or ‘spice’ which can cause tachycardia, hypertension, hallucinations, seizures, memory changes, respiratory depression, acute anxiety, psychosis and death. In 2015, HM Inspectorate of Prisons identified ‘new psychoactive substances’ as ‘the most serious threat to the safety and security of the prison system.’ Spice is cheap, easy to smuggle into prisons and extremely effective at creating the dissociation prisoners crave. If the controlled use of cannabis in prisons is permitted for testing and it is found to be effective at substituting for harder drugs and perhaps even reducing violence, in line with the link between cannabis decriminalisation and crime reduction in the wider community, something that can safely reduce the harm caused to and by addicted prisoners could be a sensible step. Drug abuse in prisons is reaching critical levels, more than doubling between 2014 and 2019. Violence has also significantly risen. Nevertheless, such a project still seems unlikely. The impact of COVID-19 on prison conditions forms yet another and an even more recent cause of concern, which has seen many prisoners in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

In other news:

  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary released its report on Friday, stating that over 35 years from the introduction of stop and search powers, no police force could adequately explain why the powers were disproportionately used against black people. Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped, even though they were less likely to be found with drugs than white people. The report highlights the risks of police forces “losing the trust of the communities they serve”. A number of recommendations are made, including expanding the use of body worn cameras, better recording practices and continued professional development on communications skills and understanding proportionate uses of force.
  • Fixed penalty notices issued under the Coronavirus Regulations surged in the four weeks to mid-February, The Guardian revealed on Thursday. Police forces have adopted a tougher stance just as fatigue with the rules has increasingly set in. The police issued 40% of the current 68,952 total coronavirus fines during that period.
  • Transform Justice, the National Appropriate Adult Network and Fair Trials, all UK charities, released a report on Thursday on police interviews during the COVID-19 pandemic.  The report highlights the difficulties in conducting police interviews where solicitors appear remotely in cases involving young or disabled clients. In some cases, solicitors even refused to attend stations where their clients were accused of serious crimes including rape and murder.

In the courts:

The Supreme Court has had the final say on the case of Shamima Begum in R (on the application of Begum) (Appellant/Respondent) v SIAC and SSHD (Respondent/Appellant) [2021] UKSC 7. The story of the British teenager who travelled to Syria to join ISIS and the litigation she initiated to challenge the deprivation of her citizenship has been extensively covered on the UK Human Rights Blog. Friday’s unanimous decision by the country’s highest court has come down on the side of the government, overruling the Court of Appeal’s surprise July decision to allow Ms Begum to re-enter the UK in order to more effectively challenge her deprivation decision. Citing ‘national security’ 47 times in their judgment, the Supreme Court found that Sajid Javid had acted within his extraterritorial human rights policy, the right to a fair hearing did not trump the government’s confidential security concerns, and the Court of Appeal had made procedural errors in determining one of Ms Begum’s appeals.

The court determined that

The appropriate response to the problem in the present case is for the appeal to be stayed until Ms Begum is in a position to play an effective part in it without the safety of the public being compromised.

Nevertheless, it is as yet unclear how this situation could ever materialise. Since Bangladesh has repeatedly stated that the country will not accept Ms Begum, despite her mother being a Bangladeshi citizen, the court’s decision renders her effectively stateless. The death of her last child in 2019, which Sajid Javid recognised could have been a British citizen, also removes any hope of her attempting entry again as a parent. While the fierce debate surrounding Ms Begum’s circumstances would likely never have occurred if she were a male fighter, it remains controversial that a ministerial decision can supplant facing trial for crimes committed as a teenager in Ms Begum’s country of birth. Hundreds of others who left to join the conflict have returned from Syria.

On the UKHRB:

1COR’s Henry Tufnell analyses the High Court decision in R (The Motherhood Plan and Anor) v HM Treasury [2021] EWHC 309 (Admin) on the Self Employment Income Support Scheme.

Alex Ewing asks where victims of human trafficking can be criminals themselves, analysing the ECtHR’s decision in V.C.L. and A.N. v the United Kingdom (16 February 2021)

1COR’s Marina Wheeler QC announces a webinar examining whether India is still a liberal democracy in 2021.

In the latest episode of Law Pod UK, Rosalind English talks to Matt Hervey, head of AI at Gowling WLG, about the latest textbook he edited, The Law of Artificial Intelligence

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