Pubdate: Sat, 14 Jul 2001
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Author: Tania Branigan, The Guardian


A man was yesterday found guilty of cannabis possession at a London
court after a failed attempt to have the case thrown out on the grounds
that it infringed his right to private life under the Human Rights Act.

Jerry Ham, 34, the former co-ordinator of a homelessness charity, argued
that the amount he possessed - 1.75 grams, or less than a 16th of an
ounce - was so small that prosecution amounted to a disproportionate and
therefore unlawful response. His case was backed by Liberty, the human
rights campaign group.

The case reached court after Ham refused a caution from the City of
London police following his arrest in June last year. Cautions can be
seen by potential employers and can be raised in court should offenders
face a charge of another occasion.

Owen Davies QC, for Ham, argued that although in some cases it might be
appropriate to prosecute individuals for cannabis possession, it was
unjustified in Ham's case because he had committed such a "trivial"

"We say this is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut," he told Judge
Geoffrey Rivlin, in pre-trial arguments at Southwark crown court. He
argued that it criminalised "otherwise honest, law-abiding, responsible
members of society".

Ham has spent all his adult life working with homeless people, most
recently at a charity he set up, GRouNDSWeLL.

A search of his houseboat, Passion Du Jambon, moored in Walthamstow,
revealed no further drugs, although he admitted he was a recreational

He told the court he used cannabis only in the evenings to relax because
of the stressful nature of his job. 

But Judge Rivlin ruled the case should go ahead, saying that courts
could only stay trials in exceptional circumstances, where the defendant
could not receive a fair trial or where it was integral to the public
interest that the trial should not take place. To accept that it should
be widened to take into account "proportionateness" under the Human
Rights Act would be "very wide and dangerously vague".

He said: "The restriction of his right to take drugs in the privacy of
his own home is not an intrusion on his personal space or an affront to
his personality."

With a nod to the fact that the legalisation of cannabis has been mooted
in recent weeks, he added: "No one would wish to stifle debate - nothing
could be more healthy.

"If the defendant and his supporters wish to secure a change in the law,
it can be achieved and must be done by normal democratic means. Until
there is a change in the law, judges must continue to uphold it."

Ham was arrested in June last year while driving over London Bridge
after a police officer spotted a torn Rizla packet through the window of
his van. He gave up the cannabis immediately when challenged by the

He defended himself during the trial, pleading not guilty despite
admitting possession, on the grounds that it should not be a crime. "Bad
laws are the worst kind of tyranny," he told the court, comparing his
prosecution with the trials of the suffragettes as they struggled for
the right to vote.

Despite a clear direction to convict Ham in the judge's summing up, the
jury of seven men and five women took two and a half hours to reach a
10-2 majority verdict of guilty.

Sentencing Ham to two years conditional discharge, the judge told the
court: "We know the defendant is a man of good character. I give great
weight to the immensely powerful mitigating factors about which I have

"He has worked tirelessly and selflessly on behalf of the community and
has done wonderful work for homeless people in particular."

During the trial Ham had produced a glowing character reference from Mo
Mowlam MP. Outside the court, Ham, who plans to appeal, said he was
disappointed by the verdict but was pleased to have brought the case
this far.

"I would love to think this case might encourage the government to
reconsider its policies on drugs," he said.

A spokesman for Liberty said: "A mile south of here he would have got a
warning. Two miles west some of our most senior politicians are talking
about changing this law. Yet here he has a conviction for a fractional
offence and a completely victimless 'crime'."
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