ONCE again police have been trying to get tough with the drug dealers in Camden Town, a market which gets worse and better in waves but is stubbornly entrenched. Arrests are made, progress is celebrated but dealers often return with a whack-a-mole capacity. It’s almost written into the history of the area and that’s why some think that only flattening the place and starting again, à la the blanking of street prostitution in King’s Cross woudn’t work.
To some extent, this is what’s happening in Camden Town at the moment, as you will know if you’ve crossed Camden Lock bridge recently where shady, rustic towpaths are being replaced by a new shopping centre which is unlikely to be selling bandanas, replica Big Bens and fluffy handcuffs.
King’s Cross, however, was a brown pit of land where they could’ve built anything and the architects (and the councillors who granted permission) could have claimed success afterwards. Camden Town, in contrast, has a legion fans who come from around London (and the world) in search of bohemia and, hate it as you may, this is based partly on its reputation for being somewhere to buy recreational drugs. The reality is if you run a tourist shop here, you are no going to hate one of the drivers that bring hordes of young people to the high street.
In most of the offbeat quarters of cities around the world this is the case, Greenwich Village, Montmartre, maybe De Wallen and so on, but police say shops selling bongs and grinders are perpetuating a market which in turn leads to some of the disputes that have resulted in knife attacks and murders. This chain is explained in Camden Council’s youth safety taskforce report.
So far the PR has been a bit rocky. Last year, the council misstepped when cobbling together some ‘it’s only a bit of weed isn’t it?’ bus stop posters aimed at guilt-tripping people partying in Camden. Because they had a puff every now and then, Ricky was ‘stuck working on a cannabis farm for for dealers in Camden with no idea how to get out or how to get home’. The point about about the links between A and B may be fair but were drawn too vividly in smoke rings here to avoid ridicule.
The police messaging around recent operations has also received a mixed response; some like the clean-up ambition, there are others who like a toot, there are people who like these streets the way they are. Credit to Camden police for being open and online as they spread a no nonsense message, but tweeting a photo of a confiscated spliff last week led to a semi-viral deluge of sarcastic comments.
The tweet, part of a thread explaining more serious bad behaviour (but who reads a thread?), was later deleted as cannabis smokers piled in with views about how police might else be using their well-publicised stretched resources and calling for that drug to be decriminalised.
In Camden Town, Inspector Richard Berns has been quite forthright about weed. “My view is that illegal drugs are already regulated by being just that, illegal,” he said last week as some of he . “The government has said no to legalisation. Society has said no. My job is to enforce the law. We don’t have to put up with crime.”
Whether society has really said no to legalisation may be a debatable point, and what would happen if he was to meet 16-year-old Athian Akec, Camden’s Youth MP, maybe future actual MP and official force of nature.
Earlier this month a speech he gave to House of Commons in which he said you can’t ‘police your way out’ of knife crime had nearly half a million views on our Facebook page alone. As much as I’d love to say all our posts get that amount of traffic, they don’t.
Add in the thousands of retweets on his own Twitter post and the spread of the video elsewhere, Athian was the most listened to of all our local politicians – young or old – from Camden this month. No wonder he looked a little exhausted by his contribution once he sat down in the special youth debate – see video – to a raucous ovation before being revived by a fist pump from a fellow Youth MP in the next seat.
His main point, that you won’t solve knife crime without first defeating poverty chimes, with the views of a lot of his grown up counterparts.
But what about Camden’s war on drugs? Athian was elected to his role with a ‘manifesto’ which directly called for legalisation of drugs.
“By making drug use illegal you end up filling prisons with non-violent drug offenders, which costs us a large amount of money,” he warned. “Current drug laws lead to more harm (overdoses) and target mostly ethnic minorities. We should open drug testing centres where young people can get their drugs tested.”
Be sure that there are several of our councillors who may be wary of saying anything publicly about legalising some drugs or even admitting they dabbled in the past, but, again, agree with his sentiments about where we should go next.
Akec-mania claimed another superfan last week after Georgia Gould, the council leader, went into full down-with-the-kids mode by wearing one of the youth delegates’ red hoodies. Can you spot her in the line-up of teenagers at the Camden Shout Out debate in the council chamber on Thursday?