'When it was secretive, people were violent. There were more muggings'

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The Independent Online

Nine o'clock on Friday night and Brixton high street is buzzing. Everyone is on their way home or on their way out for the night. But just a minute's walk away, in Coldharbour Lane, there is another group of people who are not going anywhere: the dealers. Hoods up against the cold, they lean against shuttered shop fronts and railings, checking out the passers-by.

Nine o'clock on Friday night and Brixton high street is buzzing. Everyone is on their way home or on their way out for the night. But just a minute's walk away, in Coldharbour Lane, there is another group of people who are not going anywhere: the dealers. Hoods up against the cold, they lean against shuttered shop fronts and railings, checking out the passers-by.

Coldharbour Lane has always been the place to go in Brixton if you want to buy drugs. Since last summer, the drug trade has become a lot more visible. In a 100-yard stretch, there are at least 20 people carrying out "business".

Nine months ago Lambeth police announced that possession of cannabis for personal use would no longer be an arrestable offence. Officers were frustrated at wasting valuable time hauling people off the streets when they could be arresting cocaine and heroin dealers instead. So they decided on a new approach: officers would just hand out on-the-spot warnings.

December last year was the original expiry date for the scheme but senior Met officials were so impressed they urged colleagues in Brixton to carry on for the time being. Whether residents in the area are as impressed as the police will become clear next month. This is when the Police Foundation is expected to publish its findings.

Talent Mundy Castle, 48, runs a fruit and vegetable stall. "When it [cannabis] was secretive people were violent," he said. "Now the number of muggings has reduced. This was the most dangerous part of Brixton. You couldn't stand here for long without being attacked. I don't smoke but my husband does. He is 96."

An off-duty policewoman, who did not want to be named, has lived in Brixton for five years. She said: "I am new to the Lambeth force and wasn't here before the experiment started but it has saved an enormous amount of time in paper-work. I'd prefer not to hassle people for smoking cannabis. I have lived here for five or six years, and everybody knows that people smoke it and that it doesn't bother anybody."

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