In the latest instalment of "peculiar ways to win the drug war", police officers in Camden have handed letters to shops around Camden Lock ordering them to stop selling drug-related paraphernalia, or be faced with raids. That's right: selling that gas-mask bong your sixth form boyfriend lusted after could now actually land you in court.
As reported by the Camden New Journal, the Camden Town and Primrose Hill Safer Neighbourhoods team launched this no-bong campaign earlier in the month in an attempt to end Camden's reputation as the drug epicentre of London. This crackdown will, according to them, discourage people from coming to the area to buy illicit substances, and thus help police by slowing down the booming drug industry in and around Camden Lock. Which is, of course, mostly just guys in hoodies who whisper inaudibly at you and then try to sell you bits of wood as hash.
"It's our belief that the image of Camden Town to visitors to the area is affected by the array of drugs paraphernalia for sale on the high street," explained PC Sam Sharpley – a member of the Safer Neighbourhoods team – over email. "If you can imagine walking up the high street from the tube to the market, as many tourists do, you're flanked on both sides by shops selling bongs, grinders, rolling papers and lighters, all branded with big cannabis leaves. We think this gives the impression that it's OK to buy and use drugs here, which it isn't. Many of the people we stop on the street in possession of cannabis are tourists, some of whom can legally use cannabis in their own countries. If anything, it's somewhat exploitative."
What the Safer Neighbourhoods team is doing, essentially, is bringing into action a law from 1971 that has been basically ignored since then. The law states that objects that could be used to provide drugs are technically illegal, which means bongs can be "seized and potentially destroyed", and that shop owners who do not comply with the law "may be prosecuted", as explained by Sharpley. He also added that they are not concerned with businesses operating lawfully, and that "many of the small businesses on the high street have complained to us specifically about the behaviour of those commonly known to be involved in drug supply up and down the high street, and the detriment it has to their business – we're trying to tackle that. We need to try a new course of action to tackle the problem."
But when we spoke to Camden High Street shop owners whose stock included bongs, all of them were bemused by the accusation their products were encouraging any problems with crime in the area. One man, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had an argument with the police who gave him the letter, and afterwards actually set fire to it. He felt like the Camden region alone was being unfairly targeted because of the obvious presence of drug dealers on the Lock bridge, and that the police "make the excuse that there are a lot of drug dealers around there because we sell the grinders and stuff. But the police don't know how to do their jobs properly – their main job should be to arrest the drug dealers, but I still see them selling drugs there every day."
What did Sharpley have to say to that?
"Earlier this year, our gangs unit made a number of arrests of more than a dozen drug dealers who were involved in supply around Camden Town. Most were charged. Within weeks, drug dealers returned to the same pattern as before, some old faces, some new. This was not the first time an operation like this has taken place. We've decided to look at a more holistic approach that doesn't just look at the dealers in isolation; it's the whole context of drugs in the area."
Simon Pitkeathley from Camden Town Unlimited, an organisation that represents businesses in the area, backed up the police, saying in an email that "because of the historical association with drugs, shops selling bongs reinforce an out of date stereotype [of Camden], as well as potentially promoting an illegal activity. All the police are doing is discouraging one or two from selling a small section of their range in order to help the area as a whole."
The idea that banning bongs will stop people associating Camden with drugs is one thing. The idea that banning bongs from being sold in Camden – as they are in Soho, and Shoreditch, and behind the counter in a surprising number of London's corner shops – will somehow stop dealers from dealing there is another. But perhaps the strangest thing about this whole move is the timing.
There are an estimated 1 million medicinal cannabis users in the UK, and CBD – a compound found within cannabis – has just been deemed a medicine by the British government. This weekend the SNP declared their support for the decriminalisation of medicinal cannabis. This year alone, five British police forces have declared that arresting people for smoking – and, in some cases, growing – weed is no longer a priority. Attitudes seem to be shifting, and you'd have thought police in one of London's busiest boroughs would be keeping with the times.
Their decision to target bong sellers is also odd when you consider the crime statistics for Camden. Weed is generally acknowledged as not being linked to sexual, violent or acquisitive crime, and there are much worse things happening every day on Camden High Street than people getting stoned. Like the doubling in reports of racially-motivated hate crimes over the past year, for example. And while Camden's drug-related deaths are among the highest in London, the type of "drug culture" that police are targeting isn't lethal; I highly doubt anyone has died after using a Bob Marley bong.
Besides, said another anonymous salesman, "If we didn't sell this stuff, people would still be buying drugs and would just smoke it with a plastic bottle instead of a bong."
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