Gang crime: another approach

Charities like Aasha Gang Mediation provide the things that working parents and the state can't.

A short walk east from the gleaming glass of the RBS building by Liverpool Street station, through Brick Lane, through the low rise red brick and concrete blocks of flats that make up the Spitalfields Estate, there's a big Victorian building, which looks like an old school. Outside, there's a small football pitch, and there are kids of all ages and races playing on it, with a crowd gathered round, screaming encouragement.

Next to this old building is a newer one. At the top floor of this, three Bengali men are talking to a room full of local youths, housing professionals, youth workers and others. Harun Miah is a short, stocky man in his 30s. Next to him is Abu Mumin, a slightly taller, bald man with a beard, and beside him Udjal Kamrujzaman. None of them look like criminals. But they have a fascinating story to tell.

Abu moved to England aged seven, and as an 80s child remembers a tough childhood - bricks through the window, kids riding through his estate on bikes looking for Pakis to bash. His friend would stuff copies of the Yellow Pages in his shirt when he walked down Brick Lane. His gang was originally formed to combat racists, but as the years went by it started to get involved in other things - drug dealing, battles with other gangs. One of the gangs with whom there was a particularly vicious rivalry was Harun's: "I wanted to track him down and do him some serious damage."

The Bengali gangs of Tower Hamlets became increasingly territorial and violent. One night in 1997 it all came to a head. Udjal describes the aftermath of a brutal clash between the main five gangs: "All of the tendons in my hand were cut with a meat cleaver. My friend's ear and fingers were hanging off. I wasn't sure if I was going to live. In hospital my mother and sister were crying over me, but I was already plotting my revenge. Harun came to me and offered a new perspective: it was time to forgive. The community set up a meeting between the different gangs. I didn't want to go: I was crying because all I wanted was revenge. But I sat down, and we talked, and we forgave each other."

Following a meeting in the East London Mosque, the young gang members turned into youth workers. At first they were based in a Portakabin; then they squatted in the Victorian building next to the one in which they're talking. Aasha Gang Mediation, as the group was now called (Aasha means hope in Bengali) began to work with gang-involved youths - mediating in disputes, holding excursions and doing outreach work. Now it does much the same work and much more, in far more opulent surroundings, thanks to a council grant. It's half term, and Aasha's facilities keep the local kids out of trouble. Besides the football tournament, on the ground floor the kids are playing Playstation 3, on the floor above that pool and table football, and on the floor above that there's even a boxing tournament taking place.

This is what voluntary sector groups do up and down the country: they provide the things that working parents and the state can't. It's not really the kind of work that can be quantified - you can walk around Aasha's building and see it in action, but how do you know how many stabbings or shootings they've stopped?

This is one reason why, year after year, charities like Aasha find themselves struggling for money. About a third of their funding comes from the council, but for the rest they have to apply to others like Comic Relief or the National Lottery. The Gherkin and the shimmering lights of the Square Mile loom over Aasha's centre, but very little funding comes from private equity - at the last count, they'd managed £10,000 for the "Canary Wharf room". The group's building, which keeps hundreds of kids busy every week - and will for years - cost slightly less than Operation Trident's gang initiative. I was recently talking to a senior civil servant who said to me: "I'm amazed the banks aren't getting involved in funding projects in Tower Hamlets. There's so much poverty there, it's right on their doorstep and if ever there was an institution that needed the positive publicity it would bring, it's them."

The problem with the kind of funding a charity like Aasha gets is sustainability. At most, a voluntary body gets money for a project for one or two years. Let's say you want to employ a gang member, because he's got a good insight into the culture you're trying to subvert. How easy is it to employ someone like that on a six-month contract? What future employment prospects does he have once that's ended?

There's another problem with how the funding is granted - more often than not it involves the filling out of huge, abstruse forms, rather than monitoring in person. But a quick walk around Aasha's base reveals that the work they do isn't easy to express in terms of concrete aims - one day it's stopping a fight breaking out, the next it's talking a kid through his employment prospects.

Aasha's work will never generate the headlines that a police operation will. But in the long run, early intervention isn't just the best way to banish gangs for good: it's the only way.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, the Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity