On the fringes of the City of London, where the glassy empyrean of finance capital dulls down into the lowering skies of the old East End, and Bengalis now run the sweatshops and shmatte outlets formerly the preserve of Jewish immigrants, there’s an inconspicuous door beside a shop window in which headless dummies model colourful saris. Up steep stairs, through another door, there’s a room with several tables in it and a glass-topped counter in one corner. R&B music flutes and chunters over speakers, four smartly dressed young Asian-British men sit at a table chatting – at another there’s a group of Black guys. The whites present are young and in athleisure gear – despite the proximity to Shoreditch, this is no hipster venue – or at least, only in an obsolete sense.
For beneath the glass counter are little baggies of marijuana and hashish, together with ‘edibles’ – gummies and chocolates saturated with cannabis. The men behind the counter ask their customers – who queue in an orderly fashion – to put the cash down first and not grab at anything, but for the most part the atmosphere is chilled, if smoky. In a second room there’s a small snack bar offering soft drinks, rolling papers and sweets – up some stairs there’s a further smoking area. Given the absolute illegality of everything transpiring here, there must be some hefty muscle lurking in the background, and some lens-eyes-on as well, but withal the vibe remains peaceful.
These are, so to speak, the facts on the ground: there is already a thriving, entrenched and even semi-legitimate cannabis culture in London. The police cannot but be aware of this venue given the numbers using it – and presumably many others like it, both throughout the metropolis and in larger provincial cities. A fortnight ago the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a new programme that would allow for those in three London boroughs who’re found by the police in possession of the Class B drug to receive counselling and education rather than being prosecuted – it’s weed awareness for smokers, along the lines of speed awareness for drivers.
Predictably, the initiative has kicked up the same idiotic old brouhaha about the dangers of cannabis – psychiatrists at the Maudsley Hospital have pointed out that referrals for marijuana-induced psychosis are on the rise; not just among younger people but also middle-aged tokers. Strong skunk-style strains of weed are blamed. Other politicians have lined up to condemn Khan’s initiative – there are the usual warriors against drugs, but some more latitudinarian critics are suggesting that there’s something inherently racist about the scheme, which will inevitably target young Black men in these multicultural boroughs, rather than the whites huffing green behind their privet hedges out in the ‘burbs.
My feeling is the legalisation of cannabis in all its forms is almost here – all done bar the shouting. In California the normalisation of CBD extracts (the non-intoxicating cannabinoid, which has marked benefits for a number of
conditions) was the precursor of a quasi-medicalised regime whereby users could be prescribed the drug; but this gave way in a few short years to the full-scale commercialisation of marijuana production, distribution and retail sale.
Has it been a good thing? Yes and no: the profits are being hoovered up by the same old corporate entities, while legalised cannabis culture seems pretty childish and silly when you examine it – almost as if the drug’s well-known propensity for inducing the ‘munchies’ has this objective correlate: silly names for different kinds of dope and garish packaging. Moreover, Californian users have upped the strength of the drug massively by producing smokable extracts such as dab and shatter, which are as to the humble weed as crack-cocaine is to the coca leaf.
I don’t doubt that smoking high-potency marijuana can drive young Black men psychotic – young Black women, old white women and everyone else, too. But for the former moiety in particular there are so many other deranging factors – not least the institutional racism among the police that’s led for decades now to them being harassed on a daily basis: not a week goes by when I don’t see a young Black man being stopped and searched in my neighbourhood. It’s also worthwhile remembering that all immigrant communities have higher rates of mental illness than their majority host populations.
A drug culture is ultimately like any other: it thrives and thus nurtures when it succeeds in transmitting best practice down the generations. There will undoubtedly be a fairly substantial increase in problematic marijuana use
once it becomes legal, but if we take responsibility for educating our youngers properly in the use of what is an extraordinary and highly beneficial plant, this will be only a phase.