Pubdate: Sun, 24 Feb 2002
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2002 The Observer
Author: Tony Thompson
Note: Additional reporting by Nick Paton Walsh
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


"The Dealers Think They're Untouchable Now..."

The dimly lit waiting area of the south London cab office is thick with 
smoke and the bittersweet smell of high-grade cannabis. The controller, 
sitting behind a screen a few paces back from the door, is deep in 
conversation with a waiting group of passengers. He turns and beckons me 
over, a large spliff dangling from between his lips. 'What do you want? 
Draw? Coke? Rock?'

Brixton has long held a reputation for being the drugs capital of London 
but the past year has seen a dramatic change in the way the dealers operate 
and an explosion in their numbers.

Once hidden away in shadowy corners or dark alleyways and forced to hide 
every time a police patrol passed by, they now openly strut around like 
peacocks, desperate to outdo one another as they boast to customers about 
the greater potency of their particular product.

The triangle bordered by Coldharbour Lane, the Brixton Road and Atlantic 
Road is now the narcotic equivalent of a red-light district. Each night, 
without fail, as dusk falls, dozens of dealers appear in shop doorways, 
railway arches and street corners and it is impossible for anyone to walk 
more than a few paces without being accosted.

Since July the London borough of Lambeth has been the subject of a 
controversial pilot scheme where those caught in possession of small 
amounts of cannabis are no longer arrested or cautioned. Instead, they are 
given a verbal warning, the drugs are confiscated and they are sent on 
their way.

The radical policy is credited with freeing up hundreds of hours of police 
time and allowing them to concentrate on more serious crime, but many 
residents say it has given the dealers a new-found confidence and made even 
hard drugs more widely available than before.

Bathed in the glow of the lights from local fast-food restaurants, 
off-licences and greengrocers dotted along the main shopping strip, the 
street dealers openly sell single joints and small bags of grass. Harder 
drugs are only a few streets away and two cab firms in the area, both of 
which are busy throughout the night, have become notorious as the place to 
go to buy larger amounts of marijuana or cocaine and crack.

It is overwhelmingly clear that dealers are now exploiting the law. Buying 
enough weed or resin for a couple of joints is easy and takes seconds. 
Buying enough to last a few days is a slightly more delicate operation as 
the drugs have to be retrieved from a safe hiding place. Having such 
precautions in place, none of the dealers I spoke to seemed at all 
concerned about the police. Many boasted of having received three or four 
separate warnings since the new scheme began.

Few people living in the heart of the drugs area will talk openly about the 
trade. One shopkeeper agrees to chat but asks not to be named. 'If people 
see me talking to the press, they'll think I'm talking to the police too 
and I can't afford them to think that,' he explains. 'In the last few 
months, all the dealers have become more confident. They think they're 

The biggest cannabis dealers say they shift a kilo a week, netting them 
around UKP800 in profit. Most of the customers are from outside the area, 
largely middle-class whites. They are drawn to the area knowing that even 
if they are caught buying, they won't end up with a criminal record. It is 
good business for the dealers but the real money is made selling crack. 
Whereas dealers used to stick to one drug, increased competition means they 
are all diversifying and doing their best to accommodate any request.

'These people aren't stupid,' says the shopkeeper. 'They know that if they 
sell someone UKP10 worth of cannabis, they won't see them again for a week. 
If they sell them UKP10 worth of crack, they will come back in a couple of 

Although official figures sug gest a slight drop in violent crime since the 
scheme was introduced, many believe this is not the full picture. 'There is 
trouble all the time. The thing is, most of the victims are dealers being 
ripped off by other dealers or customers from out of town. They aren't 
going to tell the police about it, but that doesn't mean it isn't 
happening. Why take a chance robbing some passer-by when you can see a 
dealer and know he will have drugs and money on him. Why do you think so 
many of them hang around in groups?'

An internal review conducted by senior officers at Scotland Yard concluded 
that over the first six months of the scheme, 1,400 man hours were freed 
up. The number of seizures of cannabis rose by a third while seizures of 
class A drugs rose by19 per cent.

While the number of man hours liberated is seen as proof of the policy's 
partial success, the increase in seizures has left analysts wondering if 
more dealers and buyers and coming into the area. The number of arrests for 
dealing has remained constant but those figures no longer include those 
picked up for small amounts of cannabis. In the six months before the 
scheme, 278 arrests for possession were made. In the six months that 
followed, more than 400 warnings for possession were issued. For many, this 
is proof positive that the area is now a magnet for drug buyers across London.

When he first devised the policy, Commander Brian Paddick admitted that 
some people would see Brixton as the place to come and buy drugs. He hoped 
to put them off by driving home the message that thanks to a confiscation 
policy, they might not be able to leave with them. Either the mes sage has 
fallen on deaf ears or users feel it is worth the risk, particularly as all 
they have to fear is a formal warning.

Coldharbour Lane traders Neil Kindness, who runs the Dogstar bar, and 
Robert Beckford, who runs the Juice Bar, both say the scheme has encouraged 
people to come into the area and do drugs. 'Nobody from Brixton smokes 
cannabis any more,' says Beckford. 'It's all people from outside the area 
and the locals are getting fed up with it.'

The true picture of how the pilot scheme has affected people in the area 
will soon be known. A study by the Police Foundation and polling 
organisation Mori asking how it has affected the quality of residents' 
lives has just been completed but the results have not yet been made public.
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