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Cannabis in Context: In loving memory of Black The Ripper

By Kusai Rahal:

I woke up on Monday 6th of April in utter shock. On my twitter timeline, all I could see was R.I.P Black the Ripper. I could not believe it. He was still very young, only aged 32. The cause of his death was unclear - all I could find out was that he had died at his home in Montserrat. A flood of memories rushed through my mind… Watching his early freestyles on BBC 1XTRA, listening to his mixtapes and songs, from 'Motivation Music' to 'Doe or Die' and the art he created with Jaja Soze, Lowkey, Chip and so on. His whole music catalogue was either about cannabis or raising consciousness. His music was not only his way of communicating his thoughts, but also relaying a revolutionary message to us.

He was by far the most prominent cannabis legalisation activist in the UK. Even those who did not know his name could recognise him as ‘that weed guy’. Both his brand, Dank of England and his overall message for the legalisation of cannabis were powerful. In his track ‘Weed Is My Best Friend’, he opens with:

Look what they doin to us people

How can you make a plant illegal

I don’t give a shit

I roll like it’s legit

Smoke like its legit

Grow like it’s legit

He was an unapologetic and uncompromising individual who was determined to make his voice heard. I remember thinking ‘WHAT THE #@*&’ when I saw the picture of him standing outside Scotland Yard with two massive weed plants and the video of him hotboxing the London Eye. There were numerous videos of him casually smoking a zoot in full view of police officers, whilst they either arrested him or refused to pay him any attention. When he was arrested, he would take the arrest because it was a statement in itself; a form of civil disobedience, a protest.

His death has hit me hard. Reflecting on his life and message has made me think more about the wider context surrounding the criminalisation of cannabis. There are many known benefits to the plant and it is used for its medicinal properties, including to help regulate seizures, relieve chronic pain and alleviate anxiety (Health Europa, 2020). Although there are no recorded deaths from smoking or eating the plant, possession of it is a crime. If we compare this with the impacts of alcohol and tobacco use, their legality appears to be quite puzzling. Alcohol use claims approximately 7,700 lives per year and tobacco use claims approximately 78,000 (ONS, 2020).

Although cannabis is criminalised, the UK is the largest producer of legal cannabis in the world (Release, 2020). According to the International Narcotics Control Board, the UK accounted for 44.9% of global supply in 2016, producing 95 tonnes (INCB, 2019) (which is fourteen times the weight of a full-grown elephant). The UK is also home to GW Pharmaceuticals - a company which enjoys a monopoly over the legal supply of cannabis as one of the largest producers in the world. Victoria Atkins MP, who was the Drugs Minister in 2018, is married to the Managing Director of British Sugar, which maintained a 45 acre cannabis farm (in partnership with GW Pharmaceuticals) during her tenure (CLEAR, 2020). The irony is that Victoria Atkins MP posed as a “hard on drugs” minister. She was even quoted saying,

"We are talking about gun-toting criminals, who think nothing of shooting each other and the people who carry their drugs for them. What on earth does my Honorable Friend think their reaction will be to the idea of drugs being regulated? Does he really think that these awful people are suddenly going to become law-abiding citizens? I do not share the optimism of others about tackling the problem through regulation" (They Work For You, 2017).

Victoria Atkins was a leading figure against the regulation of cannabis whilst directly profiting from its production. Furthermore, Theresa May - who was the Prime Minister at the time - also benefits from the cannabis industry. Her husband, Phillip May, is the Relationship Manager for the Capital Group, who has a subsidiary company called Capital Research Management Company, that holds the majority of shares in GW Pharmaceuticals (Market Screener, 2020).

The government position simply does not add up whilst those leading the country benefit from cannabis. The criminalisation of cannabis does not make sense… unless it is understood in context as a tool to oppress the Black community. History reveals the use of drug prohibition to aid and further the persecution of particular racial groups across the world. (The House I Live In, 2012). The global war on drugs has had a well documented disproportionate impact on poor, Black and marginalised communities.

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is one of the main tools used to justify the constant harassment of Black and ethnic minority communities in the UK. In regards to cannabis possession, the guidelines issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (‘ACPO’) advise police officers to take an 'escalating' approach to its policing. This means that where officers believe they have found an individual in possession of cannabis for personal use they should issue a warning, then a Penalty Notice for Disorder (PND) and lastly an arrest. Police can use their discretion, which means only rarely will first time possession result in an arrest. That is, unless you’re a young Black man of course.

The impact of cannabis criminalisation on the young people we support at The 4Front Project is overt and disturbing. I cannot count the number of times a 4FRONT member has brought me a stop and search receipt where the grounds for the search were “a strong smell of cannabis” or “drug hotspot”. This is the case, despite the fact that according to their own guidance, neither are sufficient reasonable grounds for a search.

One 4FRONT member who had no prior criminal convictions or arrests was constantly being harassed by the police. On one of the many occasions that he was stopped and searched, he was found in possession of one zoot. Despite the ACPO guidelines, he was arrested, taken to court and convicted. The police then used this conviction for Possession of Class B, to file for a Criminal Behaviour Order (CBO). The CBO resulted in a two year ban from his local area. The same area where members of his family live. The same area where he accesses support at 4FRONT. CBOs are being used more frequently with severe consequences. The imposition of these orders creates a far reaching personalised criminal code for particular people. The breach of a CBO can result in up to five years imprisonment.

In another case, a 4FRONT member was arrested for possession of a single zoot following a stop and search and remanded in custody until court. He spent two days in a police cell. It should never be justifiable to put a child in custody for such a minor crime when the consequences of this (including the trauma inflicted as a result) are so severe.

More recently, another 4FRONT member was stopped by the police and he told the officer that he had a draw (£10 worth of weed) in his pocket. Despite his cooperation, the officer immediately tried to handcuff him and then called for back up. This encounter resulted in five officers throwing him to the ground, where they proceeded to punch, knee and suffocate him. After repeatedly telling them that he could not breathe and was in pain, he was eventually taken to the police station and charged with possession of class B and breaching the COVID-19 lockdown guidance.

According to the police guidelines, during the coronavirus pandemic, officers should engage with the public, explain the social distancing regulations and the responsibilities we all share, and encourage those who are out without good reason to go back home. Enforcement is only to be used as a last resort (College of Policing, 2020). But if you’re a young Black man the police don’t engage, explain or encourage - they just enforce.

The debate concerning the legalisation of weed, is not just about the plant itself, but about the people who use it and are persecuted for it. It is not simply about the impact it has on the human body, but on the over-policing and harassment of marginalised communities. Whilst our country’s leaders continue to have private interests in the monopoly of the legal cannabis industry, Black children and communities must not continue to face oppression and criminalisation.

Black The Ripper took matters into his own hands. He understood that there’s only so much that can be done through dialogue and took action by making political statements about the absurdity of government policy. Black the Ripper will always be remembered as much more than just an artist. He was an activist. He was a campaigner. He was someone who stood up for what he believed in - and he believed in the power of resistance.

Rest In Eternal Power Dean West a.k.a Black the Ripper a.k.a Samson. You will never be forgotten. #LEGALISE IT

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