The UK’s ‘Cannabis Martyr’ Keeps Getting Jailed for Opening Weed Cafes

“All revolutionaries go to jail,” says Gary Youds, who's now been imprisoned four times.
Two photos side by side of a man holding a protest sign and smoking
Photos: Supplied by Interviewee

Throughout history, martyrs have sacrificed their lives for noble causes. Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, the list goes on. For weed smokers in the UK, the martyr right now is a 54-year-old pothead called Gary Youds.

Youds owns a cannabis cafe called the Chillin’ Rooms on Holt Road in Liverpool—a stone’s throw from Anfield football stadium—where members are encouraged to chill, smoke weed, and have a laugh. For operating this service, Youds has been sent to prison four times. In February this year, he was released from a three-year prison sentence related to the running of the cafe. And now, he’s at it again.


“The potheads have been discriminated against for too long,” Youds tells VICE. “All revolutionaries go to jail. But cannabis brings community together, that’s why I’ve always gone back to it. I want to build a golden bridge so the authorities can retreat from the war on drugs.”

His trailblazing crusade started in 2002, when he first applied to Liverpool council to convert a former taxi office into a “private members’ club” for cannabis smokers. When councillors rejected his proposals, the former property developer did it anyway, opening the Amsterdam-style coffee shop in 2005 and selling cannabis grown by himself and other locals. It quickly garnered around 400 regular members, who would hang out, play pool, attend jam nights, and “stay medicated and live the dream” as a sign inside read. On some days, Youds sold more than 1KG of weed, raking in more than $13,000.

The utopia didn’t last long, though. “We are doing nothing wrong, all we want is tolerance," Youds told the Liverpool Echo in 2005, when he first received heat from the authorities. In April 2006, he was raided by police for defying a council closure notice—it would be the first of around 20 raids on his property over the following years. Youds was sentenced to a year in prison and, in the courtroom, the nickname the “cannabis martyr” stuck.


The Chillin’ Rooms remained closed for nearly a decade afterwards, but Youds relaunched his holy war permanently in 2015, inspired by cannabis legalisation across the U.S. that he believes has shown him to be a pioneer.

He spent two more stints in jail, plus a few weeks for a probation violation, until his most recent release this year.

Two man kneel on grass showing flyers promoting cannabis growing

Youds (right) at a UK Cannabis Social Club event. Photo: Supplied by interviewee

His martyrdom motivations aren’t driven solely by a desire to get high. He medicates with cannabis for his arthritis, and has supplied cancer patients with cannabis free of charge to ease their pain. Before he was sentenced to his latest jail term, Youds told the judge he’d been “saving the city by producing the fruits of the earth for the people.”

In fact, Youds says his most recent arrest took place while he was delivering cannabis oil to a terminal cancer patient in Birmingham. Police then raided his house and found what the Merseyside police force estimated to be around £7,000 worth of cannabis. Youds said in an interview with La Vida Liverpool that the police even arrested his mum on one occasion.

On other occasions, he claims to have been manhandled out of the cafe by officers during violent police assaults, causing physical and emotional trauma. “They jump out of hire vans, like 20 [officers],” he says. “I’ve been through that many raids you wouldn’t believe it. The last time they came in here they actually sprayed me with mace and carried me out upside down and smashed my glasses. They’ve kidnapped me in the middle of the night and put me in Walton [prison] because I had a flat battery [on his tag].”


Youds says he has been treated despicably by the authorities, but that he wants to move on and focus on the positives. “I’ve given people jobs and reduced crime,” he said in an interview. “Why make me an evil person in the eyes of the law when I work hard and enjoy a smoke,” he said. “I am a good father of two, a good person in society … It is ridiculous, unfair and illogical to demonise cannabis.”

Since reopening his refurbished premises on April 20, the most important day in the stoner calendar, the father-of-two has been doing things by the book, thanks to the 2018 legalisation of medical cannabis that enshrined the legality of vaporising prescribed flowers in public. Recently, legal medical cannabis lounges have sprung up on UK high streets, providing a potential blueprint for bona fide public toking. “They’ve got to have a medical prescription,” Youds says of his patrons. It marks a departure from his previous free-for-all, but how can you blame a man for wanting to avoid a fifth prison stint?

Business is slow since he stopped selling cannabis, and visitors must now sign up via The Cannabis App. Locals are also wary of outing themselves as weed-carrying stoners in the establishment too, since previous raids have seen dozens of Chillin’ Rooms clients given police cautions. Youds is now only bringing in cash from beverage and snack sales, plus the £5 entry fee, and must close early when it's only him on shift as he is wearing a police tag again.

A man stands in a red corridor beside a sign that reads 'House of Lords'

Youds visiting the House of Lords in the UK. Photo: Supplied by interviewee

But he’s not too concerned. “I’m happy just meeting the people and providing a safe space,” he says. “Just being in there, it's out of this world. The lighting, the mood, I just love being there. It's a kind of paradise: I’m planning to run it for the rest of my life.”

The reverence in which the UK cannabis reform community holds Youds is real. A #FreeGaryYouds song was recorded by a Liverpool rapper during his most recent prison sentence, and fellow cannabis campaigners have spoken out in his defence, along with his family.

“Millions of pounds have been wasted persecuting, prosecuting, and imprisoning Gary and others like him,” wrote podcaster Simpa Carter. “The world and the British public’s attitude towards cannabis have evolved and changed over the two decades Gary [Youds] has been trying to lawfully open and operate ‘The Chillin Rooms.’” Another supporter recently said of him: “He’s the Phoenix, he’s Rocky, he just keeps on coming back.”

Judge David Swinnerton was less than impressed, though, asserting in 2023 that Youds had “deliberately chosen to flout the law time after time”. Swinnerton acknowledged that Youds partly did all this out of a genuine belief in the medical properties of cannabis – not just greed and a desire for money – but urged him to campaign in legal ways. “You are wasting your life going to prison,” said Swinnerton. “You are just going to end up going back to prison. It is not helping anybody.”

There are still risks in running legal medical cannabis lounges, thanks to the police’s apparent inability to accept that the right to vaporise prescribed cannabis in public is enshrined in law. In April, Smokey Joe’s Medicinal Cannabis Consumption Lounge in Kidderminster, Worcestershire – which aims to provide medical cannabis consumers with “a safe, judgement free space to medicate” – was raided by police and a man was arrested on suspicion of possession with intent to supply cannabis.

Many town centres in the UK are shadows of their former selves, with boarded-up shops and tumbleweeds aplenty. But legalising cannabis, which Germany just did, following other EU states Malta and Luxembourg, could create a multi-billion-pound windfall for the legal economy, according to Youds. “I want to bring the ‘high’ back to the high street, in partnership with nature,” he says.

Whether Youds will join the pantheon of eternal martyrs who changed the world remains to be seen. But he has already changed his home city, Liverpool, and written himself into the story of the UK’s continuing journey towards legal cannabis. “I’ve been constantly terrorised by the police, always worrying about undercover cops, but I will never give up, and now I’ve won.”