If you want it, Brixton's got it. Skunk, ganja and a heated debate on every street corner

Skunk, weed, ganja. It was business as usual yesterday on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, south London, dealers chanting their three-word mantra on a dull but humid afternoon, users stuffing packets of grass into their pockets.

Skunk, weed, ganja. It was business as usual yesterday on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, south London, dealers chanting their three-word mantra on a dull but humid afternoon, users stuffing packets of grass into their pockets.

Yards away, in white shirtsleeves and stab-proof body armour, smiling policemen and women patrolled past the colourful Brixton market. Everything was on sale here, and no one was being arrested.

Some of those opposed to Lambeth's relaxed drugs policy say one of its side-effects is that dealers – whose activities are still supposed to be proscribed – are being treated in as lax a fashion as users. If it is not policy to arrest those who smoke cannabis, why bother arresting those selling it?

"This is a slippery slope," Paula Santos, 36, who runs the Flower More shop in the market, said. "I don't agree with the argument that relaxing the attitude to cannabis will allow them to deal with more serious drugs. Drugs are drugs, and once you ignore one, you are sending the wrong message."

Up the road, in the Satay Bar, Harry Rustam, the manager, says the relaxation of police policy has resulted in more dealers operating with impunity. "There are lots and lots of them outside, and it sometimes frightens off my customers," he said.

"There are more than there used to be before the relaxation. When we are closing in the dead of night, it feels pretty scary. I feel worried for myself and my staff. On top of that, people think they can light up in the restaurant. I tell them they can't because it offends some other customers. To be honest, I think it's a mistake spreading this to the rest of the country. I don't agree with it."

But these people would appear to be in the minority. Surveys have shown most people to be in favour of the experiment, and the Metropolitan Police reported that the number of robberies and muggings in Lambeth in April was 468, down from 916 when the project began.

"I think it has been a good thing," said Jane Leaker, 32, a personal assistant, said in the trendy Dogstar bar. "Cannabis is harmless – less so than alcohol – so leaving smokers alone allows the police to concentrate on more serious drugs like heroin, cocaine and crack. You sometimes see people shooting up in gardens around here. I'd much rather the police spent their time dealing with things like that."

Wilson Jennings, a 42-year-old financial director, lived in Brixton more than 20 years ago. Yesterday, revisiting his old haunts, he said: "They were the days of the Brixton riots. I used to go to work in the City, socialise there and then come home and go straight to bed. I never went out round here. It was much more dangerous then. Nowadays, it is much more pleasant, relaxed and not scary. But whether that is connected to the more relaxed attitude to cannabis – which I agree with – who knows?"

On the green opposite the Ritzy Cinema, the air was heavy with the sweet, sickly smell of ganja. A group of middle-aged West Indian men were chatting, some drinking dark rum, others smoking cannabis.

In spite of the relaxed attitude to the drug, none would be named or photographed, claiming it would result in them being hassled. But they admitted they were enjoying their new-found freedom.

"Everyone round here has always smoked, and the police mostly turned a blind eye, but there was always the risk that they would arrest you if you answered back or if they were in a bad mood," said one, who asked to be called James.

"Now we know they'll leave us alone, there is a much friendlier atmosphere. It's a bit less of us and them, and I get on better with them now." His friends nodded, although one or two screwed up their faces in a reluctant smile.

"People have been coming into the area to have a smoke, and some round here don't like that," said another of the group. "But they don't cause any trouble. There's generally a friendly atmosphere, and there can't be much wrong with that."

The public may be divided on the success or otherwise of the Lambeth experiment. But local police are convinced the time they save arresting cannabis users and processing paperwork that often leads to no more than a caution, is time that is being well spent.

Detective Superintendent Jim Webster, crime manager for Lambeth police, said in a recent interview: "We are prioritising the areas that local people hold to be vital, such as street crime and drug dealing. There are some 450 fewer people per month becoming victims of street robbery now as compared with six months ago.

"This is the result of concentrated effort from many agencies within the borough. There is a massive saving of resources achieved by this reduction in crime."

The force estimated it had saved officers 2,500 hours of paperwork during the first six months of the Lambeth scheme.

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