Picture caption: Stewart Lee, who told his story to councillors from around Devon and Cornwall last week
At his lowest point Stewart realised he had to do something about his dependence on drugs and alcohol, and while the services he had been offered might work for some, he needed to try a different approach.
Stewart has now been off drugs for 15 years and alcohol for 10, thanks largely to the help of a charity which has a residential centre in Mid Devon. The Amber Foundation, which was Devon County Shows charity of the year, helps young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness tackle addiction, realise their value to society and move on with their lives.
It is not an easy ride, to secure a place people must pass drugs tests, and to maintain a place there they must abstain from drink and drugs.
Stewart credits the charity with saving his life and has just released a book, Me and My Addiction. Last week, at a seminar organised by my office, he shared an honest account of his journey with me and local authority members from around Devon and Cornwall who are part of my Councillor Advocate scheme.
For him, the opportunity to get away from a chaotic life of addiction and stay in a location where constructive activities were offered proved game-changing. He embarked on English and maths courses there, a talent for numbers was recognised by one of his tutors, and he later qualified as an accountant, a job he worked in for a decade.
We also heard from Philippa Brown, of the Probation Service, on the work she is doing to reduce drugs dependency in prisons and the community, and how moving addicts onto prescribed medications is reducing crimes like shoplifting because users no longer have to raise funds to feed their habits.
Of course, the widespread availability of drugs in our society is a huge hindrance to those who genuinely want to get clean, and that is where policing plays a key role. At the same seminar councillors heard from Detective Superintendent Jon Bancroft, who is leading Devon and Cornwall’s response to the organised gangs who seek to exploit young people in our force area by selling drugs to them and involving them in the drugs supply chain.
And it’s not just class A drugs like cocaine and heroin that these gangs are involved in. D Supt Bancroft described how extremely violent criminals are now heavily involved in the commercial growing of high strength cannabis. This drug is far more dangerous than many realise, with organisations like the Royal College of Psychiatrists warning of a clear link between its use and the terrible condition of psychosis, where people cannot distinguish between reality and imagination.
Those calling for cannabis to be tolerated or legalised argue that it is harmless – that simply is not true. People under the grip of cannabis-induced psychosis have committed the most horrific criminal acts. Because of this, and the fact it acts as a ‘gateway’ drug for other substances, I remain firmly of the view that it should remain illegal and police should continue to punish those who deal it.
I would like to congratulate Stewart on his strength to come off drugs and for his courage to share his story so others can benefit from his insight into addiction. I would also like to thank our police who have done so much recently to remove drugs from our communities.
So far Operation Scorpion, the anti-drugs initiative launched by five forces in the South West last year, has resulted in total drugs seizures worth more than £1m out of circulation, seized a vast array of weapons and made 388 arrests.
We must continue to send the message that the South West is no place for drugs, while wholeheartedly supporting those who want to come clean.
My councillor advocate scheme helps forge links between policing and local government at all levels. If you are an elected member of a local authority and would like to sign up, see my website for information.