A way to curb stop and search

Observations on cannabis

It is midday on Acre Lane in Brixton. Two policemen walk over to a stopped car and ask the black driver to step out. Considering him suspicious-looking, they decide to search him. They force him to hold out his hands, handcuff him and haul him down to the local police station for questioning. After five hours of paperwork and a court case that costs the taxpayer up to £1,000, he is given a £10 fine and sent home. His crime: possession of one marijuana joint.

Sixty per cent of stop-searches in the London Borough of Lambeth involve black people. Only 12 per cent of these stops actually result in an arrest. This means that, despite the requirement of "reasonable grounds for suspicion", seven out of eight of those searched are doing nothing wrong. In an area that has experienced race riots over the years, tensions between the black community and the local police run high. And, as Professor Marian FitzGerald of the London School of Economics points out, this is not only a London problem: in general, "black people are more likely to be stopped than white people, more likely to be searched than white people, though they are no more likely subsequently to be arrested".

In 1999, the Macpherson report labelled the British police force "institutionally racist". Clearly, unease remains.

"Undoubtedly, stop and search has been an enormous problem that has caused decades of strife between the black community and the police," says Lester Holloway, news editor of the Voice, a weekly newspaper aimed at the black community.

This is why many people such as Brian Cathcart, author of The Case of Stephen Lawrence, feel that any policy acting to minimise the use of this controversial police power would alleviate racial tensions. One such policy, he suggests, is to "stop arresting and stop prosecuting for cannabis possession".

"Some see [stop and search] as a form of licensed bullying," says Cathcart. "Whole communities are aggravated by it." He argues that David Blunkett's recent announcement that the government intends to downgrade cannabis from a Grade B drug to Grade C "is a positive step because it stops young people being criminalised unnecessarily through an uncontrollable and unstrategic process . . . My impression is that people rate cannabis possession as very low-priority."

Professor Lee Bridges of Warwick University feels that changes to legislation "could make a difference, but the real question is what the police do operationally". In response to claims by the police that they target suspect profiles, he says: "This is a self-fulfilling policy. If you concentrate police power on certain groups, you will arrest more of those groups."

As one Afro-Caribbean man from south London told me: "I have been stopped five times. You know they're blatantly looking at you, as if being black makes you suspicious. One time they put me in a cell for two hours for having only one joint. As long as cannabis is illegal, this will go on."