Pubdate: Sun, 23 Jun 2002
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson
Bookmark: (Hutchinson, Asa)


One year after the softly-softly approach to cannabis began, hard drug use 
is soaring. Has Paddick's experiment failed - or is the fight unwinnable?

The attack happened so quickly that the young black man hardly had time to 
react. The five white police officers knocked him to the ground, pushed 
their knees into his chest and locked their arms around his neck.

It was the middle of the afternoon in London's Brixton market, the area at 
the heart of a hugely controversial 'softly-softly' drugs experiment which 
has seen those caught with small amounts of cannabis facing nothing more 
than a telling-off.

Within seconds a hostile crowd had started to gather, alarmed at what 
appeared to be police brutality. The officers knew they had to act quickly 
to prevent things from turning ugly.

Once the police had the man under control, one of the officers reached into 
the man's mouth and removed half a dozen wraps of crack cocaine, which he 
held out on the palm of his hand. 'We believe this man is a crack dealer,' 
he explained. 'We are arresting him because we are trying to get hard drugs 
off the streets.'

The incident took place earlier this month and a surveillance tape of the 
incident has been used by Chief Superintendent Brian Moore, Acting Borough 
Commander for Lambeth, to illustrate the state of the drug problem one year 
after the experiment began.

The police accept that dealers are acting with absolute impunity by selling 
crack and other drugs in broad daylight. The dramatic police tactics are 
necessary because if the dealers manage to swallow the crack they keep in 
their mouths, officers have no way of charging them with possession.

'Many people find this film shocking,' said Moore. 'But it is the reality 
of what we are dealing with. The centre of Brixton is a 24-hour crack 
supermarket. We have 15 dealers during the day and up to 20 throughout the 
night. They each sell 100 rocks per week at UKP10 a time. It means the 
centre of Brixton alone is a crack market worth UKP12 million each year. 
The level of demand means that even if we arrested 1,000 dealers, they'd be 
replaced by 1,000 new ones the next day.'

When the cannabis experiment was launched by the outspoken Metropolitan 
Police Commander Brian Paddick, it was hailed as a brave step by the 
pro-drugs lobby but seen as a blow to law and order by others who feared it 
would lead to a relaxation of attitudes towards harder drugs. Paddick 
himself said: 'I have never known anyone commit crime to fund a cannabis 

In recent weeks, criticism of the experiment from the community and the 
police themselves has risen. Locals have reported incidents of children as 
young as 10 under the effects of cannabis. Some children are said to have 
turned up at school stoned while there have been instances of children 
whose parents are dealers being employed as couriers and rewarded with 

Last week Asa Hutchinson, Director of the US Drug Enforcement 
Administration, visited Brixton and pronounced the experiment a failure. He 
claimed that its main effect had been to encourage more people to smoke the 
drug and to do so more openly.

There has also been criticism from within the Met. Deputy Assistant 
Commissioner Mike Fuller, head of Scotland Yard's drugs directorate, said 
there were 'significant flaws' in the experiment.

Writing in the Police Review, he noted: 'Our school officers report that 
children feel that the police are sending mixed messages to young people by 
on the one hand trying to deter young people from abusing and experimenting 
with drugs, and yet appearing hypocritical by not strictly enforcing the 
drug laws.'

A recent Mori poll found that while half of all white residents in Brixton 
supported the experiment, the majority of black and Asian residents opposed it.

Fuller believes this is because the white middle classes have a rose-tinted 
view of drug-taking and do not see the problems that are caused in the same 
way as ethnic communities do.

Since the experiment began last July, there has been a 13 per cent increase 
in the number of cannabis dealers travelling to Brixton to sell their 
wares. Drug dealing offences in the borough have risen by 11 per cent and 
recorded cases of cannabis possession by 34 per cent.

What seems to most concern local people, however, is that by relaxing 
attitudes to cannabis, police have given a signal to all drug dealers that 
they have nothing to fear.

'The police have abandoned the streets to the dealers,' said Reverend 
Ivelaw Bowman of St Andrew's Church. 'You cannot use the bus stop at the 
top of Coldharbour Lane or the nearby telephone boxes because they have 
been taken over by the dealers. They sell drugs openly and without fear, 
even though you cannot move for CCTV cameras there. And it is the same 
people day after day. The law is not being enforced and the question 
everyone in the community wants an answer to is this: if we can see it, why 
can't the police?'

In the debate over whether the Lambeth experiment has been a success or a 
failure, many have lost sight of what Paddick's original aims were. Some 
believe the experiment was simply a reflection of his personal views on 
cannabis. But Paddick took over the Lambeth patch soon after an independent 
Home Office inquiry concluded that it was an inefficient use of police 
resources to continue clamping down on soft drugs when Britain had the 
highest number of drug-related deaths in Europe. The experiment was an 
attempt to better manage those dwindling police resources.

The situation in Lambeth, which now has the highest levels of crack abuse 
in Britain, was rapidly getting out of control. With 100 fewer officers in 
Lambeth due to cutbacks, Paddick needed a drastic solution. Arresting and 
charging someone with possessing a small amount of cannabis would take 
officers off the street for up to eight hours at a time.

Paddick reasoned that if his officers no longer had to do that, they could 
devote more time to chasing crack dealers.

The Paddick experiment was not particularly radical. After the Brixton race 
riots in 1981, police in the area adopted a relaxed attitude towards 
cannabis smoking: the chances of being arrested and prosecuted for 
possessing the drug were minimal.

All the Paddick experiment did was formalise an arrangement that had been 
in place for years. Although the scheme succeeded in some ways, an 
investigation by The Observer has found that its impact on the crack trade 
has been minuscule.

One problem, which becomes obvious on a walk through Brixton, is that the 
dealers who sell cannabis are the same dealers who sell crack. Those who 
approach and inquire about the softer drug are almost always offered crack 

'It's just good business,' said Dennis, 41, a Brixton resident who spent 15 
years addicted to crack and heroin, spending up to UKP5,000 a week on his 
habit. 'Why sell someone UKP10 worth of cannabis and perhaps see them again 
in a month's time when you can sell them UKP10 worth of crack and see them 
three hours later for UKP10 more?'

The Lambeth experiment had two aims: to free up police man-hours and to 
increase the number of people prosecuted for dealing Class A drugs. On both 
counts it has succeeded. A preliminary study by the police found that 1,350 
man-hours had been liberated, the equivalent of almost two extra full-time 
officers. As for the number of Class A drug dealers arrested, that had 
increased by more than 10 per cent.

  But a closer examination of the numbers quickly shows that police in 
Brixton are fighting a losing battle to control the drug trade. The rise in 
Class A drug convictions is impressive as a statistic but actually amounts 
to just 17 additional arrests compared to the previous year.

Taking Moore's own statistics about the number of dealers operating and 
comparing it to the number of arrests shows that a crack dealer in the 
centre of Brixton has only a one in 85 chance of being arrested during the 
course of a year.

Furthermore, with current tactics requiring at least eight officers per 
operation, if police wanted to arrested 10 per cent of the dealers 
currently active in the town centre, they would need to liberate some 
6,700,000 more man-hours than the 1,350 the experiment has produced so far.

There are other worrying signs. The standard indicator for the size and 
health of any drug market is street price. When drugs are in short supply, 
the price goes up - when they are plentiful, it falls. Since the experiment 
began, the price of cannabis had climbed from UKP27 per ounce to UKP30. 
Over the same period of time, the price of crack cocaine has fallen.

'People complain that the dealing takes place openly, but it has always 
been like that,' said Dennis. 'I've been clean for two years but the 
dealers who are out there now are the same people who were there when I was 
using. Nothing has changed in that sense. The market has grown, but the way 
it operates is the same.'

In an attempt to beat police tactics, dealers now carry fewer rocks in 
their mouths than they used to in order to make it easier to swallow them 
in the event of a raid. They have also brought in 'mouth-to-mouth' dealing 
where customers place the drugs in their own mouths the instant the 
transaction is complete. The danger this practice represents makes it 
impossible for undercover officers to take part in sting operations.

Although street crack dealers are a major problem, chiefly because of the 
violence associated with them, they are only the tip of the iceberg. There 
are currently 74 crack houses in the Brixton area, most of them in 
buildings belonging to the most vulnerable members of the community. 
Dealers prey on the vulnerable and mentally ill and in some cases take over 
their properties. When a crack house is raided and shut down, the 
vulnerable person is left waiting for another group to arrive and resume 

Use of heroin has also spiralled in Brixton. The numbers of syringes, 
needles and other items associated with addicts is now so high that last 
week Faith Bowman, Chief Executive of Lambeth Council, announced a plan to 
introduce Britain's first refuse team dedicated to cleaning up drug 

The feeling among local drug policy workers, who feel unable to speak 
openly, is that Paddick was allowed to carry out the experiment because the 
Met wanted to test public opinion before introducing the policy more 
widely. Paddick, not Scotland Yard, would carry the can if it all went wrong.

Campaigners say the real difficulty is that Lambeth was simply the worst 
place to try the experiment because the problems were so extensive. Indeed, 
many senior police officers seem to be all but blaming Paddick's experiment 
for making things worse.

In the latest twist, Moore is calling for new police powers to allow him to 
detain suspects who are believed to have swallowed crack until the drugs 
pass out of their systems.

'These are the powers that customs officers have. When you walk though an 
airport you don't see customs officers rolling around on the floor with 
people trying to force their mouths open, yet they deal with people who 
have swallowed drugs every day. They simply detain them and let nature take 
its course. If we had the same powers, we would be far more effective.'
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