Stopping the Camden drug dealers is like playing a game of whack-a-mole, another one always pops up
Borough Commander says society doesn't know what to do about cannabis
06 March, 2020 — By Richard Osley
Chief Superintendent Raj Kohli
CAMDEN’S most senior police officer has said society needs to make up its mind on where it stands on drugs, after describing a never-ending battle against dealers.
Chief Superintendent Raj Kohli said that Camden Town was “synonymous with drugs” but said arresting one dealer only led to another one moving in.
The borough commander told a panel of councillors: “In terms of activity against drug dealers and drug misuse, we do it, but the moment I take one person out, another person steps back in. It’s like that game where you have the thing on top of their heads, the whole thing pops up somewhere else.” He was referring to the seaside arcade game of whack-a-mole where children hit pop-up rodents with foam hammers only for more to appear elsewhere.
Officers in Camden Town had carried out a big operation just before he was appointed at the start of last year, “taking out a whole stream of people”, he said, but dealing had returned.
“My sister lives in America and she says Camden is the place in London to buy drugs,” he told councillors. Chief Supt Kohli said there was confusion as to whether cannabis was actually legal but if it was decided to “police out cannabis” then the force would need double or treble the amount of resources, and suggested that if the demand came for hardline measures then they might have to begin at airports.
“The problem we are talking about is recreational drug use,” he said. “These are all otherwise healthy people who wouldn’t park in a disabled bay, but quite happily buy drugs. We know that people from Europe come to Camden to buy drugs. So how risk adverse are we? Are we going to start saying to people when they come into Heathrow airport: ‘If you go to Camden, you will be arrested, patrolled by trucks’? Because that’s what we might need to do. People are coming into Camden to buy drugs. That’s the reality. It’s why people go to Amsterdam, to buy drugs.”
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The committee’s chairman, Labour councillor Awale Olad, joked that by comparing Camden with the Dutch city, the borough commander had “just written the front page of the Camden New Journal”. The comparison, however, is not a new one, and people have made it several times at meetings and in this newspaper over the past 20 years.
Chief Supt Kohli was taking questions at his regular appearance before the cross-party scrutiny committee at the Town Hall last week, where he was challenged over what was being done to stop open dealing and consumption in the borough’s streets and parks.
Cllr Olad said there was “literally no movement” on tackling dealers operating “without any fear of the law” in Leather Lane and Endell Street, while Conservative councillor Henry Newman said he had noticed open drug-taking while out for summer runs.
“There is a certain amount of drug-taking in the open parks,” Cllr Newman said. “It’s not dealing but it’s creating a permissive attitude.”
Chief Supt Kohli said: “I’ve noticed it because some of it is more overt. Some of that may be around: Is cannabis legal, illegal, decriminalised, that whole thing with Brian Paddick many years ago. Some of this stuff is starting to creep in.” Lord Paddick was a former Met Police commissioner who suggested decriminalising cannabis. He later became a Lib Dem mayoral candidate.
Current Lib Dem challenger Siobhan Benita has suggested trialling the legalisation of cannabis in London as a way to calm down youth violence over drug disputes.
The debate unfolded while police officers on the beat in Camden have posted social media messages saying they will not turn a blind eye to cannabis smoking. Officers in Camden Town have been fighting dealing in the area for decades and have been urged to do more by people who live here. In recent years they tried to dislodge its entrenched reputation by shutting down shops selling paraphernalia such as bongs.
The area, however, famed in guidebooks for being offbeat and bohemian has, by Chief Supt Kohli’s own admission, remained a go-to place for people searching for somewhere to buy drugs.
Chief Supt Kohli said: “I don’t think society really knows what we are going to do about cannabis. Half our cabinet took drugs. No one wants to say one way or another what we do with it. “f we want to police out cannabis, then you’re looking at doubling or trebling police officer activity and numbers, and put ourselves in an enforcement position and then start to criminalise a tonne of people that will never become Prime Minister because we got them a criminal record at 17 for smoking pot.”
He said police searched 300 people a week on suspicion of having drugs and around 25 per cent were carrying them.
Cllr Olad said: “Camden Lock has been a drug hotspot for time immemorial. I think that’s always going to be the case. What I’m trying to figure out is the other bits that aren’t traditionally drug-dealing areas that have become drug-dealing areas in the last couple of years where there’s literally no movement.”
Camden Council’s community safety chief, Councillor Nadia Shah, who has said in the past she herself had never taken recreational drugs, said the Town Hall was still working on trying to educate buyers about how the drug markets were linked to, in some cases, modern-day slavery and often knife crime. Several murders in recent years have been linked to disputes over drug markets.
“With Camden Lock, at one point you’d walk across the bridge and expect to be offered something, you’d be high yourself from passive smoking from walking down the road,” she said. “We’re trying to do the education for people who are coming to buy drugs because obviously there’s a demand which is why there’s a supply.”
Camden Council’s drug posters about ‘Ricky’
Two years ago, Camden funded a bus stop poster campaign, guilt-tripping recreational drug users over what lay behind their purchases. The “It’s only a bit of weed, isn’t it?” messaging, however, was criticised in some quarters for its apocalyptic tone. It showed a picture of a man blowing smoke rings and told the story of Ricky who had not fitted in at school, dropped out and was now “working on a cannabis farm for dealers in Camden with no idea of how to get out or how to get home”.
Lib Dem councillor Tom Simon said Camden should revisit the idea, although execute it differently.
He added: “Some of my friends, for example, sometimes I want to sit down and say ‘you do realise where your money is going to, don’t you?’ It’s quite a difficult conversation to have.”
Overall, Cllr Simon added: “It seems to me at a national level, most of our leaders won’t have a great conversation about this. The current government is not going to go there with a barge pole. There is a lot of work being done in other countries, lots of different models are being tried. My only hope is that one day we will get an evidence base that becomes too hard to resist and we have an approach that frees up the likes of Raj which is actually going to have a big impact.”