Don’t Ban The Bong

by Calum Armstrong

This morning I read an article in the Camden New Journal that reports on a local police initiative in the area. The story apparently results from a letter from police to local shop keepers who sell what could be considered to be drug paraphernalia.

The letter explains to shop keepers that the local police have been arresting lots of people for drug dealing but that there is always more drug dealers. The local neighbourhood policing team inform the shop keepers thus:

“However, the drug dealers are shortly replaced by more drug dealers. This endless tide is due to the location’s notoriety for being a place to come and buy drugs. Some refer to it as ‘London’s Amsterdam’. As such we need to create a cultural change in the public’s mentality about the Camden Lock area.”

It goes on to further blame the head shops and their display of eye-catching tourist wares for the seemingly constant supply of drugs – and drug dealers – in the vicinity.

The letter is a threat: “We will raid you and prosecute you if you do not stop selling bongs and pipes and other such paraphernalia”, they are saying.

I find this astonishing. It’s verging on farce that the police should in any way attribute these shops with the cause of local drug dealing. They seem to think it attracts customers like a pseudo-Amsterdam. Surely each of the officers in the neighbourhood team will by now know that drug dealing actually occurs in each of the London towns? Why on earth would anyone go to Camden from Kentish Town, when there are plenty of dealers just around the corner? Surely the fact that each bust seemingly produces an endless stream of new dealers is obvious to police everywhere. It’s the way things are because policing can never reduce the demand.

The offence that they refer to in this threatening letter is section 9a of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The act is notoriously rich in heavy handed powers, but this little known section was included in an attempt to prevent the supply of any article that can be used for drug taking. Section 9a has quite a history, as at one time there were attempts to use it to prevent the provision of citric acid for safe injecting. For bongs, pipes and cannabis leaf motif rolling papers, it has in the past been evoked. I have followed and studied various cases where over enthusiastic police have seized items from businesses, bringing hard working shop keepers to their knees. Temporarily that is, because the police always have to give them back.

Section 9a is impossible to prove. The standing CPS advice to police is to not bother with it. Time and time again where police have tried to use it, they have ended up giving the items back, and paying compensation. The reason is fairly straightforward. The Act states that the person or retailer who supplies the article must believe that the item will be used for unlawful purposes. For a shopkeeper to even admit the possibility that it may be used as such is not enough. It’s known in the annals of stated cases as the “Ornament Defence”. I would imagine that nowadays each one of the affected shopkeepers will be quite sure that their stock is for ornamental purposes, and for the thriving tourist trade on which Camden relies so much.

It is interesting then that the police have decided to threaten the shop keepers instead of acting. I suspect that they are well aware that section 9a doesn’t tend to end well for the police. Apart from the quite bizarre logic that they cite to justify their threat, this situation causes me some concern. The instruction to a shop to remove items like this is I think is quite sinister. “I don’t like what you sell because I think it influences other people’s behaviour” belongs in some dystopian future novel like Fahrenheit 451, not modern policing practices. I certainly hope that this is not an indication of more cultural judgement. Coming just after the dreadful policing and local authority decisions involved in the closure of Fabric nightclub, this seems to be overstepping by some considerable way how our communities should be policed.

I have written before about how our drug laws pervert Peels principles of policing. This threat to the businesses with their perverse alleged influence on local crime clearly breaches principle number 8; this is why we at LEAP UK do what we do – to try a bridge the gap in communities which the ‘drug war’ creates. By threatening the livelihood of the businesses concerned from the perspective of a judgemental approach, the police are here usurping the power of the judiciary, by judging guilt and threatening to punish those they perceive to be guilty. This is a direct threat from a flawed perception. A threat that these police should know is an empty one, as stated cases have shown time and time again, these shopkeepers, who are part of the culture of Camden, are lawfully going about their business.

Neil Woods is the Chair of LEAP UK and a former undercover Drugs Detective Sergeant. Tweets @wudzee0 

You can purchase Neil’s new book ‘Good Cop, Bad War’ here.

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