This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Last week, a head shop in Leeds won a landmark appeal to overturn a conviction for selling smoking paraphernalia, including bongs and grinders.
Hassan Abbas, 35, had been running his shop, Fantasia, in Leeds since 2009 when police raided it in May of 2013. Following the raid, he and his assistant, 29-year-old Owen Allerton, were charged under Section 9A of the Misuse of Drugs Act, which prohibits the sale of any article that the seller knows will be used to administer an illegal drug.
The seized stock included bongs—or "water pipes" to your nan and other busybodies—decorated with cannabis leaves. Police argued that they had only seen such items used in a drug user's home, and that the cannabis leaf emblems would encourage users to buy and consume cannabis.
"We've got bongs here with positions from the Kama Sutra on them," Hassan tells me over the phone. "Does that mean it will make you want to try that position?"
Nevertheless, a magistrates court found the pair guilty and Hassan was fined $1,230 and ordered to pay $800 costs and a victim surcharge of $123, while Owen was given a conditional discharge and ordered to pay $153 in costs with a $23 victim surcharge.
Hassan has 17 years of experience in the head shop industry, having worked at his father's store in Bradford after leaving school, before opening his own one in Leeds. He is, therefore, well-versed in keeping on the right side of the law. His staff receive months of training and, he claims, never promote the use of illegal drugs when making a sale.
"It's just nonsensical," he says. "The fact it has a leaf on or not is actually irrelevant. Head shops around the country have got hundreds of thousands of pounds of stock with leaves on it, so it's a massive part of their business."
The pair could have accepted the relatively small fines and got on with their lives, but instead they decided to fight the conviction with the representation of QC Rudi Fortson, an experienced barrister in the field of drug laws.
Last Monday, February 23, after an appeal hearing at Leeds Crown Court lasting less than four hours, the pair emerged victorious, their convictions overturned.
"We were in a position to be able to fight, but someone else not in our financial position might not have been able to do something."
Hassan believes the ruling represents a landmark case for head shop owners all over the UK.
"If we had lost in the appeals court then that would have set a precedent where the police can go to the magistrates court and say they found them guilty with hardly any evidence," he tells me. "We were in a position to be able to fight, but someone else not in our financial position might not have been able to do something. When you are running a business you can't get legal aid for this sort of thing anyway."
Hassan says he and Owen invested $64,000 in fighting the case to defend their estimated $230,000 worth of stock. Another unnamed head shop in the UK gave them a small donation towards their legal fees.
Despite the expense involved, Hassan insists he had a duty to take a stand.
"We decided to do it more for the industry than anyone else," he says. "Sometimes you have to say, 'I've had enough of this rubbish and I'm going to fight it.' They're talking about all these issues of freedom of speech in the media, and you don't have the right to go out and buy something with a cannabis leaf on it. They had no evidence against us that we knowingly sold those items for consumption."
Hassan and Owen also received legal advice from non-practicing solicitor Darryl Bickler, who has also worked with Casey Hardison, a US citizen sentenced to 20 years in prison for running an LSD lab in Brighton.
"It was great to see the police stuttering their way through this ridiculous position," Darryl told me the evening after the successful appeal. "It's really an attempt to censor freedom of expression. They are basically going round saying, 'We advise you to stop selling these things, and if you don't we will close your shop.' They start whinging about children and safety, but it's not their job to appoint themselves in that capacity; their job is to apply the law."
Darryl claims the police did not do a test purchase, but simply relied on the fact that some people leaving the head shop were found to have had cannabis on their person.
"For someone to strike back and show the police up for the nonsense they have done in this action is really great," adds Darryl.
Darryl argues that head shop owners should be allowed to give advice to customers about their products, especially in the case of legal highs, which can be "exceedingly dangerous if misused"—as was the case with those kids from Luton who took them before school last week and didn't even make it to first period. One local authority, Lincoln, has even banned the taking of legal highs in public places.
"What you need is experienced, clever people in shops who can tell you what to do, but if you do that you get locked up," says Darryl. "You can't criminalize people who think they are on the right side of the law. But you get some police officers who want to abuse their power and make up the law as they go along."
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