[End of Part One]Stoned, and they are still only ten
by Keith Dovkants
The train was crowded but the group of 11-to 13-year-olds was clearly visible. They were laughing, jostling and smoking cannabis. As the train passed through Lambeth the smell of the drug filled the carriage. Across the borough, in a playground, two school children were slumped in a stupor on a bench. Close by, at a youth club, a visiting VIP halted in mid-conversation, sniffed the air and turned towards several boys, none more than 13 years old. They were buying sweets at the tuck shop, but the odour of cannabis clung to them like a miasma.
'Working-class children are being turned into stoned, imbecilic illiterate criminals'
These are snapshots of scenes from Lambeth, where an experiment in allowing cannabis users to escape the full sanction of the law has been running for almost a year. Some, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, have hailed it as at least a qualified success, and there are plans to extend it in one form or another to the rest of London.
The project was founded on what appeared to be a reasonable premise: that adults using cannabis for their own consumption should not tie up valuable police resources by being subjected to arrest and detention.
But, in introducing a policy shaped to this argument, something has been forgotten - the effect on children.
Stories of children strung out on cannabis are recounted by community activists, youth workers, a GP and a church minister.
These individuals - backed by teachers, parents and, behind the scenes, police officers - are in the vanguard of a popular backlash that says the cannabis experiment is sacrificing a generation of children who are being drawn into a culture of drugs.
Not only are children gaining the impression that it is perfectly acceptable for them to use cannabis but, under the Lambeth experiment, the action taken against them is actually less severe than it is for adults. No one is more aware of this uncomfortable fact than the man who drafted the policy, Detective Inspector Graham Chesterton.
The softly-softly line on cannabis was conceived by Commander Brian Paddick, who was moved from Lambeth pending inquiries into allegations by a former gay lover that he smoked cannabis and allowed people to use it in his home.
DI Chesterton worked out the policy's detail and has responsibility for its day-to-day management. A former paratrooper who joined the police seven years ago and moved swiftly through the ranks, DI Chesterton defended the cannabis policy. He said: "It has been misunderstood, partly because the media have presented a distorted picture. I get drug workers, academics - even other police forces - ringing me up saying, 'I want to talk about your legalising cannabis policy'. It's exasperating."
He said the idea behind the experiment was to issue drug users with a formal warning rather than arrest them to free up police officers' time. This has allowed police to devote more of their time to more serious matters.
"All we are doing is enforcing the law in a different way," he said. "We are victims of our own success."
You detect in his defence a sense of the police having gone too far to admit now they were wrong. But he does agree there are problems with juveniles.
The difficulty arises because of the special rules that apply to the treatment of suspects under 17. The formal warning given to adults caught with cannabis is a legal sanction that can lead to more serious action if the individual persists in reoffending.
But the warning cannot be given to juveniles unless a parent or "appropriate adult" is present. This usually involves taking the juvenile to the station, tracking someone down and waiting for them to turn up. Any saving of police time is lost.
So, in Lambeth, police merely tell juveniles they will be reported to the Youth Offending Team. This is not, by any standards, a serious deterrent. Dr Clare Gerada, a GP practising in Stockwell, said: "They think they are being let off. The kids, and we are talking 10- and 11-year-olds in some cases, are smoking this stuff and collapsing into a stupor.
"I've seen them crashed out on park benches after having a smoke. They've got the message that suddenly it's all right, the police won't do anything to them and, anyway, all their friends are doing it.
"As a health professional I find it terrifying. How can it be right that we, as a society, agonise over the MMR jab, but calmly accept that the police won't take serious action against children using a potentially harmful drug?"
There is concern at Scotland Yard about the effect the experiment is having on young people. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Mike Fuller, head of the Met's drugs strategy, has questioned elements of the Lambeth policy.
He said: "I think that, because of the vulnerability of children, a different response is needed for them than adults, and I think that needs to involve parents. It is not enough that children should just have their cannabis cigarette taken from them. The emphasis should be on preventing them from getting into potentially harmful situations.
"One of the problems with young people taking cannabis is that it brings them into contact with criminals they would not normally have contact with. There is no neat dividing line between cannabis dealers and crack dealers."
Indeed there is not. But there is a strong sense among the residents of Lambeth that the police have drawn a dividing line between them and the rest of London.
Similar to the Mail's, just slightly toned down on the suburban shrillness. But exactly the same sources and method of argument, on the surface worded a little more "liberally" to avoid directly pissing off city dwellers too much, but propaganda wise with exactly the same intentions.There is a belief among Afro-Caribbean families that the experiment has been dictated by white liberals who imagine them to be culturally disposed, as a group, towards cannabis - although anecdotal evidence suggests white children are just as likely to use the drug. The Rasta-Ganja tradition continues to thrive but the majority of black families want nothing to do with drugs. They suspect that Scotland Yard is tailoring its policing to what it sees as their special needs. Some have detected in this an undercurrent of racism.
Youth worker Julie Fawcett said most support for the policy came from the ever-expanding white middleclass element of Lambeth's population. She said: "It's all right for them to have a relaxing smoke in their gentrified drawing rooms but workingclass children are being turned into stoned, imbecilic, illiterate criminals. They have been written off as an acceptable loss. But they are our children and we don't want to lose them."
Others with an unimpeachable record of social responsibility share this view. Their argument is that the easing of the antidrugs regime has created an El Dorado effect - dealers and users have flocked to Lambeth to exploit the new freedom. Whether or not they have interpreted the change accurately, their presence promotes an anything-goes atmosphere.
A highly-respected volunteer, who works in Brixton with young people at risk from drugs, said: "Kids are very quick to pick up on what's new. Suddenly they find themselves in the middle of a revolution and they want to get involved."
The volunteer asked to remain anonymous but he speaks from deep experience, saying: "The big worry at the moment is the under-16s. The message they read into the new policy is that cannabis is OK. Suddenly, it's a must-have. The dealers know this and they target them. The kids often don't have the money for a £10 or even £5 deal, so the pushers say, 'All right, run a little errand for me and I'll give you a freebie'."
"So the kid does the delivery, gets his bit of gear and goes off with his mates to have a puff. He likes it and wants some more. Before long he's drawn into the whole culture of criminality that surrounds drugs. And the dealer is going to say he has to start paying for his gear. Where is he going to get the money from?"
According to Ros Griffiths, whose Employment Cafe is a Brixton institution, dealers are pouring into Lambeth to take advantage of the new laxity. She said: "This experiment is madness. A 16-year-old walked in here the other day and said he wanted advice on setting up a Ganja cafe.
"The youngsters are all into alcopops and spliffs, and there is a feeling that law and order has broken down. The police have lost the war and they have handed over the streets to the bad guys."
Can it be true? The evidence suggests it may be. On Coldharbour Lane, the busy shopping street that runs through the heart of Brixton, dealers stand shoulder-to-shoulder. On a weekday evening I was approached by half a dozen over a stretch of less than 100 yards. All offered skunk at £20 for a small bag of a few grammes. This is currently the drug of choice for schoolchildren. Skunk is cannabis resin grown in artificial conditions. It is very potent and, according to some experts, can lead to dependency.
The dealers operate quite openly and one told me he occupied the same corner every day. As we spoke two police constables strolled past, apparently unconcerned.
The Reverend Chris Andre-Watson - minister at Brixton Baptist Church, where almost all the congregation is Afro-Caribbean - despairs of the perception that Lambeth promotes a laissez-faire policy on drugs. He believes the cannabis experiment is to blame and wants it dropped.
He said: "I see parents who feel undermined by this policy. They are trying to keep their children away from drugs and they find themselves surrounded by this culture of laxity and tolerance. Children are being drawn into cannabis use at a very young age. Some as young as 12 are arriving for school stoned. They are smoking it for breakfast."
Labour MP Kate Hoey, whose Vauxhall constituency takes in most of Brixton, has campaigned hard against the Lambeth cannabis policy. She said: "I have been to meeting after meeting, and listened to the despair of people whose lives are blighted by drugs. But no one is listening.
"Why can't the police see the message that this policy is sending out? People here are fed up with being guinea pigs. They really have had enough."
Scotland Yard is presently evaluating cannabis policy and it is widely expected that, if Home Secretary David Blunkett downgrades cannabis from Class B to Class C on the controlled drugs list, all of London will follow Lambeth's lead.
But what of the children? Mr Blunkett's decision is expected on 15 July, and a regime that revolutionises Britain's policing of the drug laws could be in place in a matter of months.
It's a tight schedule but it is still possible to look at the lesson of Lambeth and ensure that, this time, the implications for children are carefully thought through.