Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

London: an old-world experiment in common sense

Playboy  April 1, 2003


London: Constables Gary Featherstone and Phil Williams stroll down Electric Avenue in Brixton past teeming markets of fishmongers and produce stands, discount stores and drug dealers. Stereo speakers in open doorways blast out hip-hop and reggae, providing a soundtrack for the officers as they make their rounds in this largely working-class Caribbean neighborhood in the Lambeth borough of south London. Kids working as scouts run ahead to warn the dealers hanging out in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken on the corner. With their white skin and trademark domed helmets, Williams and Featherstone are not expecting to surprise anybody. They are simply making their presence felt.

The mild-mannered pair raid two or three crack houses a week but are more inclined to give street sermons. Williams likes mentioning to crack users that what they are smoking has likely been through someone's system already (dealers keep their contraband in plastic in their mouths so they can swallow it if searched). In an alley, Featherstone spies spent needles on the ground. He laments that the heroin addicts didn't use the nearby trash cans.

For more than a year the officers have virtually ignored casual pot smokers. At worst, they issue verbal warnings and confiscate the dope. Since the summer of 2001, the Lambeth borough has been engaged in a controversial experiment: Police no longer arrest people for possessing a small amount of grass.

That's just fine with Williams. "I've never seen someone go berserk on cannabis," he says.

Brian Paddick, the former commander of Lambeth who initiated the non-arrest experiment, has a similar view unbiased by years of U.S. antidrug propaganda. He told a parliamentary committee: "There is a whole range of people who buy drugs--not just cannabis but also cocaine and ecstasy--with money they earn legitimately. They use a small amount of these drugs, a lot of them just on weekends. It has no adverse effect either in terms of the people they socialize with or the wider community. They return to their jobs on Monday morning and are unaffected for the rest of the week."

The revised priorities reflect a harsh reality. The Brixton area had the highest street-crime rate in the country, and the force was already running 100 men short. A single arrest for marijuana possession took at least three hours of an officer's time in processing and paperwork; prosecution devoured close to $ 14,000 of public money. Although violators faced up to five years in prison, most paid fines.

The logjam created by enforcing marijuana laws was not limited to south London. Sixty-five percent of drug-related arrests in Britain in 2000 were for possession of marijuana. The new policy was unassailably rational.

While the Brixton experiment was seen as a resounding success, it was not enough to convince U.S. drug warriors. When Asa Hutchinson, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, toured Lambeth streets in the summer of 2002, he saw a scene of depravity. Hutchinson, a former Arkansas congressman who made his name prosecuting Bill Clinton at his impeachment trial, blamed the Brixton police department's decision to not bust marijuana users as contributing to the neighborhood's hard-drug problems. Marijuana is "a gateway to the world of illegal drug abuse," Hutchinson says.

Despite Hutchinson's claims that the Brixton experiment has led to more drug use and crime, policing has, in fact, improved. According to a September 2002 assessment of the Lambeth Cannabis Pilot Warning Scheme by the Metropolitan Police Authority, the program has been a success. While the police stopped more than twice as many people for smoking weed, they only issued warnings. That saved thousands of hours of manpower that officers devoted to pursuing narcotics dealers. Police activity related to "Class A" trafficking increased 19 percent from 2000 to 2001, compared with a three percent decrease in the neighboring boroughs. Lambeth officials also reported a decrease in street crime, although the fact that the police department had recently put more officers on patrol played a role.

The movement to ease up on pot gained momentum on the national level three years ago when Home Secretary David Blunkett announced his intention to remove cannabis as a policing priority. He was backed by a select parliamentary committee, which concluded that while millions of people use drugs, "most of those people do not appear to experience harm from their drug use, nor do they cause harm to others as a result of their habit. We believe that drugs policy should primarily deal with the 250,000 problematic drug users rather than the large number whose drug use poses no serious threat either to their own well-being or to that of others." The proposed reforms will come to a vote this summer, and are widely expected to pass. A likely caveat is that police will be able to arrest pot smokers if there are aggravating circumstances or if children are involved.

An opposition call for zero tolerance went up in smoke when seven top Tories admitted publicly that they had smoked reefer. And another prominent Conservative, Peter Lilley, suggested that while he had never been a pot smoker, he felt it should be legalized and regulated much like alcohol and cigarettes are. Others who took up the cause included the former chief of Scotland Yard's narcotics unit, the former chief inspector of prisons and the former ambassador to Colombia. The press called for change, too: One editor, Rosie Boycott of the Independent, earned the nickname Rizla for her efforts, after the brand of rolling paper.

Asa Hutchinson acknowledges neither the grassroot actions of the police nor the clearheadedness of British politicians. Instead, he defends the millions of dollars that the DEA wastes each year on pursuing marijuana smokers. As the English are fond of noting, the Puritans who founded the New World--and whose repressive attitude toward intoxicants still influences American drug laws--have been tossed off the island.