Behind bars for ‘a sliver of green’

There was enough grass to roll a spliff the size of a toothpick.
Maybe half a toothpick. Not enough for a drag, or even to get high on.
But that sliver of green, clinging to the bottom of the stamp-sized bankie, was enough to get a man sent to jail on a day like this. And the only reason he was going to jail was because I was there watching him get arrested.

 Assuming the position...a couple of Westbury residents get an early morning frisk.

That old position again…a couple of Westbury residents get an early morning frisk.


This was a showboat arrest.
They were made famous back in the 1930s when crime fighter Eliot Ness would invite the press to watch him smash bottles of bootlegged booze with a sledgehammer.
He never did bring down that gangster Al Capone, but Eliot sure did get kilometres of column space in newspapers.
Now on the streets of Westbury, in the early morning light, Eliot’s ghost had to be smiling.
The SAPS’s flying squad were on the shakedown.
With arms stretched and palms pressed against garden walls, pedestrians assumed the stance.
They knew the drill, they had been searched countless times. Some smiled and laughed with the cops.
They even took off their shoes, to allow the cops to search for drugs hidden there.
These were working folk, part of the early morning rush. Why they would be carrying drugs on a cold winter’s morning beats me.
Everyone knows druggies rise late.
But the cops had to be seen to be doing something, for in two hours’ time Drug Watch, a LeadSA and Crime Line initiative, was to be launched at the Sophiatown police station.
Joburg was getting tough on drugs.
In the lead-up police would be conducting raids, tackling Westbury’s drug problem.
So with that, the suspect carrying the world’s smallest bankie was pulled over on Steytler Road.
Cameras clicked; the cops on this particular patrol had gotten their only drug bust of the morning.
Surely such a minuscule amount of weed wouldn’t stand up in court. Even if he had been released after a couple of hours in chookie, the damage could already have been done.
How do you tell your boss the reason you’re not at work is that you were caught with dagga? That is fireable stuff.
A drug user losing a job – isn’t that a pathway to crime?
Bankie man wasn’t alone.
Ten others were arrested with small amounts of drugs that morning on the streets of Westbury and Newclare.
But where were the drug dealers?
“Someone tipped them off,” said a bystander, who didn’t want to give his name.
He could point to at least a dozen drug dens and lolly lounges in the area. He knew the drug dealers by name, but everyone does in Westbury.
Later at the launch, Dereleen James warned about targeting the drug users.
Three months ago, James wrote a letter to President Jacob Zuma pleading for his help in cleaning up Eldorado Park. She got her wish.
Her son is a drug user.
“The police during their operations need to be careful not to clamp down on the victims of drugs, but to go after the dealers,” she warned.
In those five days leading up to the launch of the campaign, there were 1 207 drug-related arrests in Gauteng.
Impressive numbers, but how many are users, the small fry in the drug network – the ones who need help?
If the guy with the bankie had been searched on the streets of Lisbon, he would not have gone to jail.
In 2001, the Portuguese government radically changed their drug laws. A new law kept drugs illegal but decriminalised the users.
A person can carry small amounts of drugs without fear of a criminal record.
The allowed weight for dagga is 25g.
If found to be in possession of small quantities of drugs, the user is issued with a summons. The suspect is then interviewed by a commission made up of a social worker, psychiatrist and an attorney.
There is no criminal record – the approach is to deal with the problem through therapy.
Drug dealers, however, are still prosecuted.
Ten years after the introduction of the new law, the Portuguese government noted a reduced burden of drug offenders on their criminal justice system.
There had also been an increase in the number of users taking up drug treatment while there was a drop in drug-related deaths. Drug seizures had also increased.
Ness may never have brought down Al Capone, the gangster who controlled illegal alcohol sales in Chicago.
However, his PR machine was so good that many believe he did.
Capone’s downfall came from good old-fashioned investigative grunt work – the only dogged approach that will bring the drug dealers to book and shut the lolly lounges for good.

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About Shaun Smillie

Journalist, with a love of bones, fossils and other things dug up. Fisherman and occasional beer maker.
This entry was posted in johannesburg, journalism, Media, stories behind the news and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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