No-one is claiming the cannabis laws caused the riot in London on Saturday night (pictures from the Guardian) but something was clearly apparent from the events that unfolded; there is a lot of resentment of the police from sections of young people of that part of London. The over use of stop-search is probably a significant factor if my experience is anything to go by.
Rewind over 30 years – back to 1976 – 1980 when I was in my early 20’s living in North London – Finsbury Park actually. I was recently arrived having just graduated and landed myself a good job. I was not from an inner city deprived background, I had wide horizons, was well paid and living a far from pressured, downtrodden lifestyle. However, in the four years I was there I lost count of the number of times I was pulled up by the police and searched. This would happen mostly at night or on dark evenings, but really quite randomly and in all honesty as far as I could tell without much in the way of real due cause.
Now there were other pressures building in my life which eventually conspired to make me want to leave London which were unrelated to the stop-searches, but they wre a major factor and by the time I chucked it all in and escaped back to Norfolk I had developed a deep distrust of the police and it took a long time for that damage to heal. It was a real, deep distrust that these stop-searched had caused, make no mistake.
It was shortly after I had left London – in 1981 – the Brixton “uprising” riots happened, largely blamed on the old “SUS” laws (wikipedia) with their over use of stop-search, especially against black youth who apparently had it much worse than I did.
A large part of the real – although usually unstated – reason for my encounters with the police were drug searches. I did look the part I suppose, long hair, jeans and so on and I have always suspected that was the “justification” for being turned over; the police were looking for cannabis. After the riots of 1981 it reduced greatly, but it’s happening again now – thinly justified this time by fighting terrorism. This sort of thing is incredibly corrosive to police/community relations and especially so for some sections of young people.
Stop searches may have a role against such things as knife crime and few would object to weapons searches if that is all that happened, but when the police claim to do a search for weapons and then bust you for a bit of weed it just doesn’t wash. Just about everyone who’s had their pockets turned out in the street by the plod in this way has had a lesson in mistrust and because of it the police are seen by a large section of the young, volatile, population as the enemy.
Just to make the point again, this is not to suggest searches for cannabis are the sole cause of the violence we saw the other night, of course it’s not, but it is one of the factors adding to the alienation felt by young people and it’s something the police are – or should be – aware of. Indeed it was an acceptance of the barrier to good police/community relations the cannabis laws were causing that lead to the Brixton experiment in the early part of the last decade. The only thing that’s changed since then is a lesson which had been learned has been forgotten.
The social harms caused by the drugs policy go way beyond alienation of young people of course, only a couple of weeks ago the Liverpool Echo featured (uncritically) the claims of the police to the effect that the gun battles seen on the streets of that city in recent times were caused by cannabis – seemingly blissfully unaware of the role of prohibition and its enforcement has in creating the criminal supply side in the first place.
Come on now, the police are not that thick, so why do they still come out with this nonsense?
The reason all this is happening is because of what prohibition is. As the Drug Equality Alliance (DEA) likes to point out prohibition does not even try to control drugs like cannabis, it tries to control what people do. Prohibition is not “drug control”, it’s “people control”. Hence the only way to enforce prohibition is to constantly check up on what people are doing, which means tactics like stop-search, and to prevent open and accountable supply which gifts the whole thing to organised crime and leads inescapably to the violence such as gun battles we’re seeing in Liverpool.
Sadly it’s not only the police who seem unable to understand the problems prohibition causes and why it causes them. The Labour and Tory parties are both utterly wedded to the idea of a war on drugs and everything that goes with it. This week, however, saw the first glimmer of hope that the LibDems might be about to break the consensus and actually have a policy worth consideration.
The LibDems have been making intelligent sounding noises about drug law reform for years of course, only to throw up their hands in horror at the idea of being anything but hard line prohibitionists when push came to shove. But this time it might be different as a policy of decriminalisation is due to be put before the LibDem conference in September, which would lead, apparently, to it becoming official party policy. The motion also proposes a properly regulated legal trade for cannabis, so this is quite a move.
The full text of the motion can be seen in full on the Transform blog here, but the proposals it makes are:
a) The Government to immediately establish an independent panel tasked with carrying out an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, to properly evaluate, economically and scientifically, the present legal framework for dealing with drugs in the United Kingdom.
b) The Panel should also consider reform of the law, based on the Portuguese model, such that
i) possession of any controlled drug for personal use would not be a criminal offence;
ii) possession would be prohibited but should cause police officers to issue citations for individuals to appear before panels tasked with determining appropriate education, health or social interventions.
c) The panel should also consider as an alternative, potential frameworks for a strictly controlled and regulated cannabis market and the potential impacts of such regulation on organised crime, and the health and safety of the public, especially children.
d) The reinvestment of any resources released into effective education, treatment and rehabilitation programmes.
e) The widespread provision of the highest quality evidence-based medical, psychological and social services for those affected by drugs problems. These services should include widespread availability of heroin maintenance clinics for the most problematic and vulnerable heroin users.
The reaction of the Daily Mail was perhaps predictable, but the reaction from readers was largely supportive of the LibDems proposals. We can only hope this is the start of the sensible debate we have waited so long for.