Get your skunk here!

Observations on drugs

Just in front of Brixton Tube station in south London, not far from the police station, a number of informal drug shops have been set up at the bus stops. Men selling all sorts of drugs, but mainly the potent form of marijuana called skunk, advertise their wares only marginally more discreetly than market stallholders.

All day, every day, whether the street is full of mothers shopping with their children or teenagers on their way to school, the call is the same: "Skunk? . . . Weed? . . . Pills?" A shift system seems to operate, with younger boys holding the fort during the day and an older crowd taking over in the evening.

Are they trying to get arrested? I put the question to one of the dealers, who says his name is Walls. He beckons me into his "office", so I sit down on the bus-stop bench next to him. "It's not really about that," he tells me, thumbing an expensive phone. "Yeah, the police take us down and process us, but then you is straight back out again with any luck."

He peppers our conversation with foghorn-like cries of "Skunk! Skunk!", but though one elderly man gives a world-weary shake of his head, no one else seems to notice. So, I ask him, do you work in gangs? Do you get in fights with the men at the other bus stops? Is it all about "owning the street"? He looks at me as if I'm mad.

In the short time I have been here, three or four people have stopped to buy something, and, as Walls explains, this is what it's really all about. Not territory, not gang warfare, but money. And trade is booming at this commuter junction, where, by the look of them, nearly all the customers are middle class - commuters wanting a smoke after work, or students and young professionals on their way out clubbing or to a gig.

The middle classes can be two-faced when it comes to drugs. They like to consume them without restraint (cracking down on cocaine dinner parties figured recently on a Guardian list of "gaffes" committed by Sir Ian Blair) but affect to despise the dealers from whom they must buy.

And you can see that ambivalence on the street, the customer conspicuously drifting past several times until the vendor - who can smell the fear - subtly reels him in. The deal is negotiated, the cash changes hands, the goods are pulled from a bag under the bench, and the customer scuttles away as fast as he or she can.

The cash matters here. The customers may move on to jobs, families and better things, but the bus stop and its secondary purpose remain. Brixton is vibrant, fun, multi-ethnic and interesting, but it also has high unemployment, low educational achievement and a lot of crime. The skunk trade may be part of the problem, but it is still a trade.

This article first appeared in the 28 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blogs plc