Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Cannabis: a tale of hypocrisy

Neil Winters's last court appearance was blackly farcical: strapped into his wheelchair, jerking spasmodically and wisecracking non-stop, he was rolled along the corridor outside the Sheriff Clerk's office, where it became apparent that the stairs leading to the courtroom presented an insurmountable obstacle.

But the forces of law and order were not to be foiled. The disused registrar's office was unlocked, Neil was wheeled in, and where weddings are normally conducted - there was even a scrap or two of confetti on the carpet - the bewigged Sheriff Colin Scott Mackenzie presided, as Neil Winters, 33, of Eshaness, Shetland, prepared to defend himself against charges of growing cannabis. Rather a lot of cannabis, actually: 16 plants, and then there was the bought-in cannabis that he had in his possession when the police came calling.

That the stuff existed and had been in Neil's possession was not in doubt. Neither was his ringing shout of "Not guilty" when he was asked how he pleaded. With those words, the case was adjourned and a trial loomed. So did prison, because Neil has twice been found guilty of growing his own dope, and he was warned on the last occasion that, if he did not mend his ways, he would face a jail sentence. But Neil, paralysed from the waist down since a motor-cycle accident broke his spine in 1987, has long declared that nothing would stop him growing and smoking cannabis; it is the only thing that provides him with any relief from pain, sleeplessness, depression and violent muscular spasms.

Neil lives about two miles from me, completely alone in conditions best described as primitive. He is a bit of a character: a Glaswegian with pals in the less glamorous end of the music business; cussed, aggressive, but also charming and admirably self-reliant. He has dealt with his terrible spinal injuries far, far better than many with similar afflictions, and he has done it on his own terms. The idea that he should go to prison - the notion that his property should be raided three times by the police, probably at the behest of a neighbour with a grudge - is shameful. Neil claims to need an ounce of cannabis a week to keep functioning. "It costs me £120 to buy that amount from dealers," he says, "but it costs me only a few pounds to grow my own. On a scale of one to ten, my need for cannabis is 11, and I will grow it again because it is the only thing that relieves the pain."

Facing enormous press interest in the case, fuelled by Neil's refusal to back down and quietly plead guilty, the procurator fiscal, Roderick Urquhart, decided to abandon the prosecution, citing confidential medical reports. The Lord Advocate's office, however, quickly stressed that "this decision does not reflect a general policy", and the Chief Inspector of Lerwick Police, Andrew Walker, pointed out that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is still in force, and if we receive a complaint we will investigate it". At which Neil sighs and says: "I just want to be left alone to live my life - but I'm sure I will be raided again."

Meanwhile, many of Shetland society's half-great and nearly good indulge in a bit of wacky backy at weekends, just like the carefully discreet denizens of wonderful organisations such as the BBC, the courts, big business and our own miniature but marvellously expensive parliament. The Armani inhalers won't be caught, however, because most of them will have but not hold, will happily toke on someone else's joint, or ensure that the stash is kept well and truly off the premises - perhaps at the country cottage's adjoining byre.

For Neil, there is no hiding place. He is an easy target, stuck in a ramshackle converted shop in the treeless, wind-ravaged peninsula called Eshaness, growing his illegal vegetation in an effort to take responsibility for curing his own pain, dealing with his own disability.

In some ways, he is the epitome of new Labour self-helpism. What would make him a perfect Brownian economic and social unit would be the addition of an entrepreneurial element: if he doubled the number of plants, processed the produce and sold it on, he would have a nice little self- sustaining business. An interest-free loan from the local enterprise company, and Mary Jane's your auntie. Alas, it's only a pipe dream. Neil will get raided, have his plants confiscated and suffer the agony - or else the risks of addiction from hefty, NHS-approved painkillers - alone in his remote outpost, while repulsive city political operators snigger over their past puffing and sneak sly drags whenever they can.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - Caprice