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Despite 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.
Prime Minister 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 people.”
Remember ‘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.
I 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.
I’d 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.
If arrested, 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.
Two white guys in anoraks were loitering suspiciously on the pavement, and one stepped forward as I approached.
“Excuse me sir,” says he, flashing an identity card. Plain-clothed cops.
“Are you aware that you are just leaving an area where prohibited drugs are on sale?”
His mate sidles up next to me.
Yes,” I reply, irritated by this sudden invasion of my privacy.
“Oh,” he says. “Well… have you got any?”
“Er… Can I see it?”
I hold out the minute plastic packet in my hand.
A bit surprised, he takes and looks at it.
“You’re under arrest. Anything you say will be taken down –“
“Skip it. I said I had it.”
Tweedledum 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 van.”
“I’m not a criminal,” say I indignantly. “Why are you hanging round here arresting innocent people? There’s nothing wrong with smoking cannabis.”
“Personally, 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.
At 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.
A couple 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.
“Shall we dance?” says one pig, lasciviously groping the lad while his arms are raised for a body search. The others snigger.
My disgust rears and I can’t hold back.
“Forgive my fellow countrymen!” I apologize loudly.
The cops turn surprised glares on me.
“Who’s this?” barks one. “Some left-wing comedian?”
But they stop the teasing and go about their business, slightly ashamed at me having drawn attention to their abuse.
I’m released with a summons to appear the following morning at Camberwell Green Magistrates Courts.
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’.
I’m ushered into the box and offered a Bible to swear on. I refuse – following Jesus’ advice on to swear on anything. Instead I’m allowed to ‘affirm’.
There are three magistrates, one female.
The charge 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.
“It depends what you mean by guilty,” I reply.
“Did you hear the question?” he asks.
“I don’t consider smoking cannabis a crime. So I don’t feel guilty.”
There’s a murmur from the crowd in the visitors ‘gallery behind me, and a few titters.
“Are you pleading guilty or not guilty?” demands another magistrate sharply.
“I haven’t done anything wrong. How can I say I’m guilty?”
Again a breeze of whispers from the gallery.
“Enough of this!” barks the middle magistrate. “Or I’ll have you up for breach of court! Do you plead guilty or not guilty!?”
“I admit that I had the stuff. Does that make me guilty?”
“Guilty! A thirty pound fine. Next!”
I’m escorted 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.
“What if I don’t pay it at all?” I ask.
“That would be rather silly,” he replies, pointing to the words at the bottom of the page –
‘IMPRISONMENT BY DEFAULT’.
I decide to be silly.
Finding 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 the Press.
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 law”.
Sean mailed 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:
SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS
“If you don’t think smoking cannabis should be illegal, what do you do?
MICHAEL 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.
But Dickinson 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 be.
This is 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…”
Months passed 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!
Outraged, 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!
The embarrassed 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 search.
A letter 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.
But anyway, 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.
Me 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.
“It’s D-day,” 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 out.
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.
“Are you MICHAEL DICKINSON?” asks the driver, leaning out the window.
“We believe you’re wanted for non-payment of a fine. Get in.”
Is there a choice?
To think 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 of Fine’.
Rachel, an 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.
(I heard later that when Rachel got the recorder back she found that the taped interview had been wiped by the police – ‘an accident’ they said.)
Meanwhile 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.
The Irishman shuffles out and it’s my turn in the dock. Lord Snooty looks at my papers.
“I see you’ve had difficulty paying your fine. How much more time do you need?” he asks.
“I don’t intend to pay,” I reply. “It’s a protest. The law against cannabis is wrong.”
His nose and brow wrinkle in distaste.
“Seven days imprisonment. Take him down,” he says, without even looking at me.
“Jail me, 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.
In 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.
Shortly we’re 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.
Then suddenly, there’s the grim edifice looming into view.
Pentonville – 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 quartered.
No hope of mercy now – we’re inside the maw of the beast – at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – and she likes to see her subjects crawl.
Lined up 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.
Blocks of carbolic soap are doled out and we’re made to shower in cold water with the cubicle doors open.
Afterwards, 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 yourself.
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.
Then we’re 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.
“I’ve brought 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. “Have fun!”
The door clangs shut, the key turns, and I feel like crying.
The room 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.
There’s a tiny washbasin next to the door with a plastic bucket under it.
“That’s the toilet,” says the black guy, leaning forward and offering me his hand. “My name’s Vernon.”
Relieved by his kind tone, I introduce myself, and we smile at each other in sympathy. Fellow victims.
He shows 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.
I make my bed and lie in it. I want to sleep and forget where I am.
Vernon, however, lies back and soliloquizes.
When 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.
“I promise not to shout, sing, or sleep on the floor, but I might laugh if you tell the occasional funny joke,” I reply.
He laughs and asks why I’m in. We share stories. I’m relieved to hear he’s not in for anything violent or dangerous.
He’s already 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.
Vernon, presuming 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.
Unfortunately 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
I fucked her lying
If she had wings I’d fuck her flying
Now she’s dead but not forgotten
I dug her up and fucked her rotten’
Eventually Vernon was quiet, and I somehow managed to drift off to shallow sad dreams on the hard lumpy mattress.
Woken at 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 attention.
That first 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.
They seat 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.
A little 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…
Another landmark 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 Time.
The exercise yard to which we were escorted for our allotted daily exercise was tiny, and we walked around and around for the hour– in pairs or singly.
Vernon opted not to come; I wondered why at first, but after my first experience I decided to follow suit.
The pale 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.
Along the 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.
Constipation became a big problem for me.
I couldn’t 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.
There was only one w c in the corner of the washroom where all the prisoners on our landing were let out at the same time for ten 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.
Being locked 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.
The week after, City Limits magazine published a report on my case by Douglas Campbell entitled ‘Jailing the Joint’. He ended his article with this paragraph:
“The likelihood 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.’”
Twenty eight 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.
It’s 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.
Paul McCartney 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?
This 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. But they’re building lots of new prisons…
DECRIMINALIZE CANNABIS!! FREE THE WEED!
MICHAEL DICKINSON, whose artwork graces the covers of Dime’s Worth of Difference, Serpents in the Garden and Grand Theft Pentagon, lives in Istanbul. He can be contacted via his website http://yabanji.tripod.com/ or at: email@example.com