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Drugs in Lambeth: Little Amstredam

By Hempology | June 12, 2002

From THE ECONOMIST, June 8th, 2002

Cannabis isn’t legal in Lambeth. Perhaps that’s the problem.

Not all Her Majesty’s subjects were celebrating during her jubilee parada: a few industrious souls were at work. “Skunk weed, man?”, inquires a vendor on Landor Road in Lambeth. “Marijuana, baby?”, asks a woman outside Brixton tube. “Skunk weed?”, suggest several men on Coldharbour Lane, where a familiar smell mingles with the noise of a Brixton street party. (“Respec’ to the queen; respec’ to Mr Eriksson”, says the MC.)

The number and brazenness of drug-dealers in Lambeth is, according to some, the result of a policing
experiment that began in the borough last July (and which has survived the departure of its former
and flamboyant police commander, who was removed after allegations by a former boyfriend that he
dabbled with the weed himself). Contrary to local superstition, possession of cannabis is still illegal,
but people caught with small amounts can be punished with confiscation and a warning, rather than arrest.

The idea is to cut out the cumbersome bureaucracy of arrests – liberating officers to deal with
serious criminals, including dealers – and to help endear the police to locals. Recent research for
the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a think-tank, suggests that many arrests for cannabis possession
derive from the police stopping and searching people suspected of more serious crimes, which they are rarely
found to have committed. A bit of resentment is understandable.

An evaluation of the Lambeth trial by the Metropolitan police revealed that it has indeed saved some
man-hours. Perhaps as a result – or perhaps because there’s more of it about – a greater number of
cannabis offences have been recorded. Street crime in Lambeth has recently declined, but that has more
to do with a seperate anti-mugging initiative.

Anecdotally, though, things have got worse. Drug-dealers and users have been attracted to the area,
many locals say, bringing other types of crime with them – even though, as in other part sof the country,
the police were already fairly relaxed about cannabis possession before the experiment. “If people want
to score”, says one disgruntled resident, “they now come to Brixton”. These days, says a denizen of the
tough Stockwell Park estate, the dealers are “cocking a snoop” at the police.

Kate Hoey, the local MP, is fuming. So is Dr Claire Gerada, head of drugs training at the Royal
College of General Practitioners and a Lambeth resident, who says that the cannabis now readily
available to disadvantaged local children is much more debilitating than the kind policymakers
may have experimented with in the 1970s. Too many kids, she says, now think that anything goes.
Opinion polls suggest the Lambeth pilot is less popular among ethnic minorities and parents
than others (it is also unloved by some ordinary police officers).

Opponents of liberalisation have inferred that it might, after all, be preferable at least to pretend
to enforce what is an unenforceable law. But it might be better still to abandon it altogether: as well
as highlighting the problems with differential policing, Lambeth suggests that as long as supplying
drugs remains criminal, greater tolerance of possession may have limited benefits. Alas, this sort of fudge
may give sensible reform a bad name.

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