Cocaine, Mr Purcell, and the administration of justice

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    {jcomments on}Kenneth Roy

    Scot free

    The former leader of Glasgow City Council, last heard of ‘recuperating’ in Australia, has now made his way back as far as Ireland, where he has been visited by the Scottish editor of the Sun, presumably in preparation for a return to his native city earlier than anticipated. The newspaper makes it clear that Steven Purcell was not paid for the interview, which stretches across four pages. Instead, the Sun is making a donation to Depression Alliance Scotland on his behalf. 
       
    In the interview, Mr Purcell admits that he took cocaine ‘no more than half a dozen times’ over a two-year period at house parties. The last time he used it, he says, was a year ago, just before officers from the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency came to see him at his office in the City Chambers and warned him that his drug-taking could be used to blackmail him.
         ‘They said there might be a video of me using cocaine…I told them I wasn’t the subject of blackmail and had never been the subject of blackmail’. If such a video exists, Mr Purcell may live to curse his misfortune at having been caught on camera once out of ‘no more than half a dozen times’.
         Why did he take it? ‘Stupidity while drinking,’ he replies. ‘I can’t explain it any other way.’

    In an editorial comment headed ‘2nd chance’, the Sun is warm in its support for the fallen leader: ‘No one can condone the drug-taking but his spiral into depression evokes huge sympathy. We wish him a speedy recovery. Everyone makes mistakes. But everyone also deserves the opportunity of a second chance at life.’
         With these charitable sentiments – unusual from such a source, but none the less generous – who could find it in their hearts to disagree completely? It seems almost churlish to enter a caveat. But the more Mr Purcell’s position is examined rationally, the more caveats present themselves.
         Unless the Sun has misrepresented him, which I doubt, he has now admitted to a criminal offence, indeed a small series of such offences, some if not all committed while he was leader of Glasgow City Council. The penalty for possession of a class A drug is up to seven years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. In practice the Scottish courts seldom resort to these draconian remedies. A more typical case is that of the 19-year-old singer in a Dundee band, handed the drug at a gig, who walked away with a £1,000 fine. The greater penalty for him is that he will be unable to perform in the United States, where they take a dimmer view of drug abuse.
         The graver offence of dealing is punishable by up to life imprisonment or an unlimited fine or both. But there is more than a little inconsistency in sentencing. From the recent records of the sheriff court a few yards from this office, we find a ‘great grand-dad’ on a poor estate caught with a biscuit-tin full of the stuff going to jail for five years. But a land surveyor who peddled cocaine to his middle-class friends got off with 300 hours’ community service after buying rocks of the drug at £1,500 a time and selling them on for £3,500. The sheriff said that, although this offence would normally attract a ‘substantial custodial sentence’, each case turned on its merits; in this case community service would be enough to show the accused ‘the error of his ways’.
         What would be enough to show Mr Purcell the error of his ways? He has never been a dealer, merely by his own acknowledgement an occasional user, but it does seem odd that, unlike the 19-year-old singer in the Dundee band, he will not be prosecuted for an offence to which he has confessed; nor, so far as we can tell, even face police questioning in relation to these incidents; and if he ever wishes to visit the United States he will be free to do so.
         Is this not a teeny bit unjust? Well, he is depressed. We have the Sun newspaper’s word for that. Yet I suppose many people in the dock are depressed and almost all would consider that they ‘deserve the opportunity of a second chance at life’. Indeed, don’t we all? But I hope the Sun is not suggesting that a depressed politician is somehow in a protected category, while the pushers and users of Kilmarnock must take their chances with our learned friends, ‘each case turning on its merits’.

    If, in this matter, the application of the law is a mess, it is not in the least surprising. There are simply not the prisons in Scotland to cope with this country’s cocaine abusers and there is not enough graffiti to go round for all those who, like Mr Purcell, might benefit from community service to clean it off.
         One hundred thousand Scots are addicted to cocaine. According to a United Nations survey published earlier this month, Scotland is the cocaine capital of the world: there is no country with a higher proportion of its population taking the drug. One in 10 Scottish teenagers from the age of 16 is using it regularly and half of all young people say it is easy and cheap to obtain. In some areas, teenagers club together to buy a gram for around £50; this is then used to provide 10 lines at a fiver a time. Record harvests in South America are making it more plentiful than ever, feeding a growing industry of organised gangs. The police estimate that there are 367 such gangs operating in Scotland, supported by a network of lawyers and accountants.
         On the domestic periphery of this national calamity, we find the former leader of Glasgow City Council, lonely, insecure, unable to cope with such high days as Christmas when the emptiness of his existence presses down on him, drinking too much, contemplating suicide. When it is put in this way, which is the way the Sun newspaper puts it, Mr Purcell is deserving of human sympathy – of course. In my years as a court reporter, I heard thousands of such pleas in mitigation, some more sympathetically received than others. But I do not recall that any of these sad, defeated figures was running a major city.