the advice of the 23 member British Advisory Council on the Misuse
of Drugs that cannabis should remain in the less serious Class
C category into which it was placed in 2004, Britain's Labour
Government has moved to tighten the law against the herb, and
have it reclassified as a Class B illegal substance. The reclassification
will more than double the maximum sentence for marijuana possession
to five years.
Gordon Brown said he wanted to send a strong message that use
of cannabis was "unacceptable", and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith
said "Cannabis use poses a real threat. There is a compelling
case for us to act now rather than risk the future health of young
'Cool Britannia'? Remember 'England Swings'? Forget 'em. It's
still the Nanny State and Big Brother, a country ruled by prefects
and squares, po-faced prudes and hypocrites, very similar to the
heydays of Maggie Thatcher's conservative Britain, when I went
to prison as a protest against the cannabis laws.
used to wonder how I'd react if I was arrested for possession
of cannabis, but I never imagined that it would ever actually
of friends of friends who'd been busted and sheepishly paid the
fines, but I decided never to do that. It would be tantamount
to agreeing that smoking pot is a crime, or a sin - and I don't.
I vaguely imagined that I might make a stand in defense of the
weed, but I never really expected to be put to the test, until
that dark Brixton night in late October 1982 when I emerged from
the tiled subway under the railway track, having just scored a
tiny piece of hash from a pub in Railton Road.
guys in anoraks were loitering suspiciously on the pavement, and
one stepped forward as I approached.
sir," says he, flashing an identity card. Plain-clothed cops.
aware that you are just leaving an area where prohibited drugs
are on sale?"
sidles up next to me.
Yes," I reply,
irritated by this sudden invasion of my privacy.
says. "Well... have you got any?"
I see it?"
I hold out
the minute plastic packet in my hand.
A bit surprised,
he takes and looks at it.
arrest. Anything you say will be taken down..."
I said I had it."
takes my arm while Tweedledee pulls out a walkie-talkie and announces:
"We have a criminal here on the corner of Sommerton Road. Request
a criminal," say I indignantly. "Why are you hanging round here
arresting innocent people? There's nothing wrong with smoking
I'd agree with you," he replies. "But it's against the law. We're
just doing our job."
The van with
the flashing blue light arrives. I'm loaded in and it carries
us to Brixton Police Station. On the way we pass the Barrier Block,
the huge sprawling complex of flats where I live. I pick out the
light of my own lounge window amongst all the other little shining
squares. I wonder if any of my squat-mates will wonder why I'm
late in returning from my errand.
All of a
sudden freedom has been curtailed, and I'm at the mercy of the
Law. Strangely I'm more irritated than afraid.
sometimes used to wonder how I'd react if I was arrested
for possession of cannabis, but I never imagined that it
would ever actually happen.
the police station the cells are all occupied, so after my particulars
have been noted, I have to sit on a bench while the dope is taken
away for analysis.
of cops barge in through the swing doors clutching a long-haired
French boy they've picked up in possession of a crow-bar, on his
way to open a squat with some friends. The others had escaped.
The officers sneer at his poor English.
dance?" says one pig, lasciviously groping the lad while his arms
are raised for a body search. The others snigger.
rears and I can't hold back.
my fellow countrymen!" I apologize loudly.
turn surprised glares on me.
barks one. "Some left-wing comedian?"
stop the teasing and go about their business, slightly ashamed
at me having drawn attention to their abuse.
with a summons to appear the following morning at Camberwell Green
A mate comes
along to give me moral support and sits in the small crowded spectators'
gallery, filled by friends and relatives of other accused, (mostly
blacks). The turnover is pretty brisk as each minor misdemeanor
is announced, and the culprit hustled away to either pay his fine
or sign up for further court proceedings if pleading 'not guilty'.
into the box and offered a Bible to swear on. I refuse - following
Jesus' advice on not to swear on anything. Instead I'm allowed
three magistrates, one female.
is read out - 'Possession of 1.04 grams of Cannabis, Contrary
to Section 5 (2) Misuse of Drugs Act 1971'.
"Do you plead
guilty or not guilty?" asks the middle magistrate, peering over
his spectacles in a bored manner.
what you mean by guilty," I reply.
hear the question?" he asks.
consider smoking cannabis a crime. So I don't feel guilty."
murmur from the crowd in the visitors 'gallery behind me, and
a few titters.
pleading guilty or not guilty?" demands another magistrate sharply.
done anything wrong. How can I say I'm guilty?"
Again a breeze
of whispers from the gallery.
this!" barks the middle magistrate. "Or I'll have you up for breach
of court! Do you plead guilty or not guilty!?"
that I had the stuff. Does that make me guilty?"
A thirty pound fine. Next!"
to an office and given a piece of paper with the fine officially
printed and the date by which it should be paid, a couple of months
hence. A policeman asks if I'll be paying immediately or by the
alternative weekly five-pound installments.
I don't pay it at all?" I ask.
be rather silly," he replies, pointing to the words at the bottom
of the page - 'IMPRISONMENT BY DEFAULT'.
to be silly.
heard of friends of friends who'd been busted and sheepishly
paid the fines, but I decided never to do that. It would
be tantamount to agreeing that smoking pot is a crime, or
a sin - and I don't.
the address of a group called the 'Legalize Cannabis Campaign'
I visit the organizer, Sean Blanchard, to tell him of my intention
not to pay the fine. He says he'll support me as much as he can,
and suggests that I prepare a statement which he'll send out to
I set to
work and produce one; praising the beneficial uses and effects
of cannabis and condemning its criminalization - particularly
proud of one of my phrases: "- this petty, archaic, and misguided
out the statement, but few publications took up the story. Of
those that did, the best article was the following, by Peter Woolrich
in London's 'City Limits' magazine:
IN THE GRASS
don't think smoking cannabis should be illegal, what do you do?
Dickinson was arrested in Brixton recently by two plain-clothes
Drugs Squad officers. He pleaded guilty to possession of 1.04
grams of cannabis and was duly fined 30 pounds when he appeared
at the magistrates' court.
thinks the law is absurd so he has refused to pay the fine. Now
he is waiting to see what the next steps taken against him will
a new tactic in the campaign to legalize cannabis and one that
the Legalize Cannabis Campaign's Sean Blanchard is watching with
interest: there have been similar in-court protests when people
charged with possession have said that they do not consider it
a crime, but this is the first time that payment of a fine has
been withheld as a protest against the laws
without the expected summons from the court; but meanwhile police
harassment of Brixton folk - fueled by the Tory 'Stop and Search'
law, was getting worse, (particularly of blacks in Railton Road.)
One hot afternoon,
on the way home from the Anarchist bookshop with a visiting friend,
we come across a wild young Jamaican guy I know, Zacka, barefoot
and shirtless, who's been stopped by two patrolling officers.
They're threatening him and he's playing dumb. People are stopping
to watch. When we get up close we discover that the cops are ordering
him to take down his trousers there in the street
so they can check whether he's carrying any drugs in his underpants!
my friend offers to drop his pants in solidarity. One boy in blue
gets on his radio, complaining about a crowd gathering, but Zack
suddenly decides to comply with their demands. On unbuttoning
and unzipping, it's immediately clear that he's not wearing underpants!
rozzers admit defeat and dismiss Zack without apology. As they
move off Zack gives me a wink and opens one of his closed fists
to reveal a little lump of hash, completely overlooked in the
eventually arrives from the court informing me that due to non-payment
the fine has been increased from thirty to forty pounds, and it
should be paid as soon as possible.
I toy briefly
with the idea of selling the TV and paying the fine to get the
whole problem off my back, but next morning I wake to find the
window's been forced open and the telly's been stolen, (only one
of many regular thefts from squatted premises in the Barrier Block)
and there's nothing else in the place which could raise more than
a couple of quid - all the rest of the furniture having been salvaged
from street skips.
how could I even consider bowing to their threats! Stick to your
principles, I tell myself! Don't give in!
And so the
showdown finally arrived.
A knock at
the front door one sunny morning late in May. It's a smartly dressed
bespectacled black guy with a document in his hand which he claims
is a permit from the council for him to take over the premises.
He is to move in today.
the wall behind my bed there's the boldly scrawled outline
of a cannabis leaf, along with the defiant slogan "FREE
THE WEED!!!" Paranoid, I wonder if this cell was particularly
chosen for me - the artwork reflecting my protest.
and my squat-mates shake our heads. That isn't the way things
are done. We're supposed to be given fair warning, and we're not
surrendering the fort just like that. He goes away, and we're
just pondering what to do, when suddenly the yard is filled with
uniformed cops and workmen in overalls, and they're banging at
the door, threatening to break it down.
jokes one when we open up, and they give us an hour to pack our
belongings and get out. The cops loiter in the yard chatting as
we reluctantly follow their orders, the flat getting darker as
the workmen hammer away, boarding up the windows.
In a short
time I've stuffed a couple of bags with all I need and carry them
A short peroxide-blonde
policewoman sympathetically asks my plans. I tell her I'll probably
go and ask some friends if I can crash with them while I look
for another place.
I wend my
way out of the gloomy grey Barrier Block, homeless again. Nothing
lasts forever. On to pastures new.
As I cross
the road outside, a police van screeches up.
Michael Dickinson?" asks the driver, leaning out the window.
you're wanted for non-payment of a fine. Get in."
they were sneakily loitering there waiting for me to leave the
building, tipped off by PC Blondie on her police phone!
So it's another
trip to Brixton Police Station to be handed a new summons to appear
before magistrates on the second of June, this time for 'Non Payment
intelligent Jewish Cockney girl who I've met at the Anarchist
Bookshop, comes with me on that day. On the steps outside the
magistrates' court she tapes an interview, with the idea of playing
it on the pirate anarchist radio station that broadcasts intermittently
from secret locations in Brixton. I'm chirpy but nervous. What's
going to happen?
When we enter
the building the recorder is confiscated. It's forbidden to bring
them inside, we're told, and visitors aren't allowed into the
courtroom where my case will be heard. Rachel has to wait, and
I'm escorted upstairs, a wave farewell from the first landing.
heard later that when Rachel got the recorder back she found that
the taped interview had been wiped by the police - 'an accident'
I'm shown into a small courtroom, empty apart from a silver-haired
magistrate sitting in the elevated podium, a humble florid-faced
Irishman in the dock before him, humbly apologizing for not paying
a drunk-and-disorderly fine, gratefully promising to pay up within
the extra time allowed by the snooty milord.
shuffles out and it's my turn in the dock. Lord Snooty looks at
"I see you've
had difficulty paying your fine. How much more time do you need?"
intend to pay," I reply. "It's a protest. The law against cannabis
and brow wrinkle in distaste.
imprisonment. Take him down," he says, without even looking at
and you're jailing Christ!" I shoot over my shoulder as a guard
escorts me downstairs to the cells in the basement.
I'm put in
one with a blank-eyed long haired guy rambling incoherently, singing
snatches of songs, and chuckling at secret jokes. We're fed with
a hamburger and carton of juice each. He's released after a couple
of hours and I'm (thankfully!) alone.
40 years since a petition was printed in the Times in 1967,
signed by famous intellectuals and artists including the
Beatles, calling for the legalization of marijuana.
the late afternoon I'm taken out to a waiting police van. We drive
to another station where I'm put in a bigger room with a collection
of disheveled male captives for an hour. Some have met before
and are chatting away, familiar with the establishment we're headed
for - Pentonville Prison.
all shepherded out to a much bigger van - a 'black Maria'. Inside
are little cubicles where each of us is installed and the doors
locked. Then it's off - Pentonville-bound - siren occasionally
blaring to clear traffic ahead. It's a summer evening, and through
the little grilled window I can see people outside walking on
the pavements, most with unhappy faces, not realizing how lucky
they are to be free. I want to wave, but the windows are tinted,
and they can't see inside.
there's the grim edifice looming into view.
- the execution place of such famous criminals as the murderous
doctors Christie and Crippen and Irish rebel Roger Casement. We
lesser victims-of-state are not to be hanged - (that nasty punishment
was abolished in the early Sixties) - but merely withdrawn and
No hope of
mercy now - we're inside the maw of the beast - at Her Majesty's
- and she likes to see her subjects crawl.
in the ugly brick courtyard before being marched in to the dingy
fluorescent lit reception area, we're ordered to strip and surrender
our clothes and belongings, which are duly listed, bundled untidily
into cardboard boxes and chucked into lockers.
carbolic soap are doled out and we're made to shower in cold water
with the cubicle doors open.
still naked, we queue for our prison clothes, too big or too small,
chosen at random by the bulldog-faced guardians behind the counter.
Baggy coarse underpants, striped shirt, dark trousers, your own
shoes with laces removed, lest you might try to escape by hanging
In our ill-fitting
raiment, (my shirt and trousers too tight, the trouser cuffs way
above my ankles) we join the queue for supper - a piece of tough
boiled smelly ugly grey liver, yellow ventricles dangling out,
dumped on a metal tray. It tastes as bad as it looks. I leave
it after a couple of bites.
marched into the lower central floor of the prison and lined up.
An officer calls out our allocated numbers and floors to which
we're escorted by subordinate screws.
Up the iron
staircase we tread, steel nets stretched out over the open space
between landings lest anyone try to escape by jumping to their
death. The screw inserts and twists a big key in the keyhole of
one of the brown painted metal doors on the second landing door
and pushes it open.
you a new room mate," he announces to an annoyed looking black
guy lounging in his underwear on one of the two iron frame beds.
clangs shut, the key turns, and I feel like crying.
is tiny and claustrophobic, lit by a low voltage fluorescent bulb
on the ceiling, each bed pressed up against the dingy whitewashed
walls with hardly any space between. There's a narrow barred window
which you'd have to stand on tiptoes on a bed to look out of.
On the wall
behind my bed there's the boldly scrawled outline of a cannabis
leaf, along with the defiant slogan "FREE THE WEED!!!" Paranoid,
I wonder if this cell was
particularly chosen for me - the artwork reflecting my protest.
tiny washbasin next to the door with a plastic bucket under it.
toilet," says the black guy, leaning forward and offering me his
by his kind tone, I introduce myself, and we smile at each other
in sympathy. Fellow victims.
me the folded sheet and blanket on the end of my bed. I can spread
them out now, but they have to be folded again in the same position
for inspection in the morning.
make my bed and lie in it. I want to sleep and forget where I
lies back and soliloquizes.
step back by the Gordon Brown's Labour government is a serious
one. It is rude to give someone something and then take
it away from them - especially freedom. Dangerous, even.
he first came he'd had the cell to himself for a week (a rare
privilege), but then another guy had been put in with him who'd
driven him nuts by his erratic behavior, sleeping on the floor,
not washing, shouting, laughing and singing to himself. Vernon
had begged the guards to move the guy, and eventually they'd complied.
Being alone all day was preferable to sharing with a maniac, and
he'd dreaded who they might inflict on him next.
not to shout, sing, or sleep on the floor, but I might laugh if
you tell the occasional funny joke," I reply.
and asks why I'm in. We share stories. I'm relieved to hear he's
not in for anything violent or dangerous.
served three months of his six months for 'Non -payment of Rates'.
He's a coach
driver, and while he'd been away on a job in Canada, demands for
payment of rates on his house had come in the post, left unopened
by his estranged wife who'd joined the Jehovah's Witnesses. When
he returned from Canada she presented him with the unpaid demands
plus the latest communication - a summons to appear at court.
the summons to be a mere formality, had dressed in his Sunday
best on the day of the trial and gone along prepared to explain
and offer to pay the rates in installments.
the lady magistrate on the bench that day hadn't even given him
the chance to speak, but sentenced him to six months on the spot
and sent him down there and then. Bitter he was now against his
wife, and planned to divorce her as soon as he got out. Only,
he was worried about losing access to his little daughter, whom
he loved dearly...
I made sympathetic
noises as I listened, but mostly for myself. The realization that
I was to be locked up in this little room and deprived of my freedom
for seven days was the most horrible thought imaginable.
On the inside
of the iron door with the peephole an ex-inmate had written a
poem with what looked like tar:
I've fucked her standing
fucked her lying
If she had wings I'd fuck her flying
Now she's dead but not forgotten
Vernon was quiet, and I somehow managed to drift off to shallow
sad dreams on the hard lumpy mattress.
seven in the morning by screws banging on the iron cell door,
hearing the same sound echoing on other doors down the corridor,
I got up and followed Vernon's example of folding the sheet and
blanket and putting them on the end of the bed and standing to
morning Vernon was a bit jealous of me because I learned that
I'd actually only be in for five days instead of seven -
a percentage is dropped off the sentence once you're inside depending
on the length of your stay - years or months for longer ones -
mine a couple of days. How glad I was to learn that! He also envied
me for getting a bit of extra time outside the cell to have my
mug shots taken, being a new inmate.
Us 'new boys'
were collected and marched down to a room on the ground floor
where we waited to go into the 'studio'.
In the waiting
room I shared a few words with a blond guy who'd been in the 'maria'
with me the day before. He'd never been in prison before - sent
down for three months for jealously breaking the windows of the
house of his ex-wife, who'd gone off with another man. Shocked
by the sentence, he regretted what he'd done, and realized there
was no chance of a reconciliation.
My name was
called, so I wished him luck and went in to be photographed for
the Pentonville files.
you on this seat resembling an electric chair with a high raised
slat in the middle that goes between your buttocks pressing painfully
against the tail of your spine and your anus; slanted at a crazy
angle, out of balance.
group of screws were smoking and drinking tea together having
a chuckle, and you're told to "Look there!" for your full face
shot - at the poster of a bare naked lady in a provocative Penthouse
pose, probably to remind straight men what they'd be missing while
within these walls...
of the prison is the big clock on the wall of the ground floor
on the way to the exercise yard. A clock without hands -
hour, minute or second. Just the numbers round the circle. Cruel.
It would have been nice to see time ticking away towards one's
release from that wretched, wretched place. Instead, time was
yard to which we were escorted for our allotted daily exercise
was tiny, and we walked around and around for the hour - in pairs
not to come; I wondered why at first, but after my first experience
I decided to follow suit.
blue sky seemed small and far away. I was partnered first with
the blond guy with the problem wife, He didn't look well, tired
bags under his eyes, and we weren't together long before a couple
of other cons had taken possession of him, whispering in his ears,
and shifted him ahead in the trundle.
side of the yard there was a red-brick building with windows -
a toilet, I think. I wanted a shit like anything, but was scared
to go inside. I could see men in there through the glass, mouths
moving silently, eyes intent, deals going on of some sort... I
didn't dare enter.
We were allowed
out of cells to collect meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner times
from the ground floor, kitchen staff doling out the most unattractive
and unpalatable portions of sustenance onto plastic trays, which
we had to take to our rooms to consume.
became a big problem for me.
bring myself to use the plastic bucket in the corner - not in
the same room with Vernon. It would be just too demeaning, farting
and shitting in the same little room, the stink permeating throughout
the night. I never saw him use it either except for pissing. I
did that too. The smell didn't seem as bad.
only one WC in the corner of the washroom where all the prisoners
on our landing were let out at the same time for 10 minutes to
empty slops in the morning, situated in an open top shoulder-high
cubicle with an unlockable door. I desperately tried to use it
one morning, but other prisoners impatiently looked over the top
and swung the door, swearing while I sat there straining, so I
was forced to give it up as a bad job. As a result I was constipated
for my whole five days of captivity.
up all day is boring, frustrating, soul-killing, and it seems
the time will never come for your release. Vernon still had months
to go after I would be freed, and he deserved to be listened to
when he related the plots of the films of his favourite star,
Audie Murphy. Vernon would gaze at the ceiling, seeing them all
again, and I would lie on the bed next to him, listening and feeling
bored and trapped.
On the day
of my release I changed my prisoner clothes for my crumpled civilian
ones and walked out of the gate of the prison. It was a sunny
day, and I walked on and on, walking away the grey, relishing
the blessed freedom of movement, not stopping apart from a visit
to a public convenience to have an equally welcome movement of
the bowel. I walked across Westminster Bridge and all the way
back to Brixton.
after, City Limits magazine published a report on my case by Douglas
Campbell entitled 'Jailing the Joint'. He ended his article with
of any relaxation in the cannabis laws retreated with the return
of the Conservatives. Only the Ecology Party contained any reference
to the issue in their manifesto - 'The responsible adult use of
cannabis should be legalized.'"
years later there is no difference between the Labour and the
Conservative parties, both capitalist clubs milking and controlling
the workers. Mind expanding cannabis is a threat.
40 years since a petition was printed in the Times in 1967, signed
by famous intellectuals and artists including the Beatles, calling
for the legalization of marijuana.
of the Beatles is now a Sir, a pillar of the community, but his
thoughts about marijuana remains the same. Would his consulted
opinion too have been disregarded like that of the Advisory Council
on the Misuse of Drugs, which reported that the health dangers
from marijuana did not justify placing it back in the higher category?
back by the Gordon Brown's Labour government is a serious one.
It is rude to give someone something and then take it away from
them - especially freedom. Dangerous, even. But they're building
lots of new prisons...
CANNABIS!! FREE THE WEED!
Michael Dickinson is an English teacher working in Istanbul, Turkey.
Dickinson did the cover art for two of CounterPunch's books, Dime's
Worth of Difference and Serpents
in the Garden, as well as Jeffrey St. Clair's Grand
Theft Pentagon. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/
or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also visit Saatchi
Politicians As Dogs
Georgie In Jesusland
Say Goodbye To Purgatory
The Pope vs Terry Higgins
Little Brother Is Watching You
The Catholicization Of Tony
Incident At Westminster Abbey
The King's New Clothes
Arrested In Istanbul
Censoring The Carnival Of Chaos
Listening To Lennon In Istanbul
The Madness Of Money