Colin Davies being hauled off by police after opening The Dutch Experience in 2001 (photo courtesy of HempCity)
There's been a lot of talk about cannabis recently. At the end of last year, the plant became completely legal in Colorado and Washington, possession was decriminalized in Switzerland, and Uruguay became the first country to legalize the marijuana trade. But while prohibition laws are slowly being lifted elsewhere, stoners in the UK have seen no change in their government's stance towards getting high.
What we have seen, however, are new public initiatives—individuals and groups trying out different techniques to normalize smoking weed. Activist Colin Davies is at the forefront of that movement, and this year Colin is hoping to open a cannabis cafe in central Manchester where users can congregate, smoke, and socialize. The only problem he faces at this stage is UK law.
The 56-year-old was questioned by police in 2000 after handing the Queen a "bouquet" of cannabis plants, and ended up making the papers for it. Which was kind of unsurprising, considering he'd given the head of state—chosen by God, lest we forget—a bunch of what was then a Class B drug. The next year he made the news again after launching a cannabis cafe in Stockport, Greater Manchester, which was open for about 90 seconds before he and his colleagues were arrested. The cafe, however, continued to operate for about 14 months. Colin told me, "They had 18 officers assigned to the cafe. Imagine the cost of policing that—they were wasting their money. This time around, I want it to be different."
Colin handing the Queen a "bouquet" of weed. Photo courtesy of HempCity.
Colin's latest project is The New Way Cafe, which he told me "isn't just another cannabis cafe—it's taking a new path on tackling the laws around cannabis, working with the police and doing everything in my power to do this lawfully."
Unlike the formation of his first cafe, The Dutch Experience—which imported and sold three strains of weed and two types of hash, and landed Colin three years in jail—Davies is now in talks with police in the hope that he can open his new cafe legally. The New Way won't be selling anything, but merely providing a space for weed smokers—both medicinal and recreational—to gather and smoke in public without being hassled for it.
Major figures in both the cannabis and legal worlds are now watching Colin, not least members of Britain's cannabis social clubs, who could do with a friendly venue to host their meetings.
One of the UK's bigger clubs is the London Cannabis Club (LCC), and they too have expressed interested in opening their own cafe. I spoke to head of the LCC, Orson Boon, about their plans. "The idea of the cafe would be a place where people can eat, listen to good music, and consume good cannabis," he said, explaining that he would also like to establish some kind of cannabis education center, where they would "organise talks from leading experts in the cannabis community".
Instead of following the Dutch model of smoking as much weed as you possibly can before you run out of money for coffee refills, both Colin and Orson want to apply a different approach to cannabis cafes in the UK. Orson explained, "It's not really Amsterdam's fault, but the cafes there have this sort of abuse culture where it's just [about going] in and getting absolutely fucked. We’re a professional bunch of people and a lot of us are medicinal users. I can't remember the last time I got completely off my head. It's not really what we’re into."
Colin in his first cafe, The Dutch Experience. Photo courtesy of HempCity.
Approaching the issue from a medicinal standpoint, the LCC are looking into setting up a vaporizer cafe, creating a smoke-free environment and side-stepping the smoking ban. "It's going to be a vape lounge," Orson told me. "We wouldn’t want to—and try not to—promote smoking as much as possible."
But regardless of which route they take, Colin, Orson, and others like them are always going to run into one very important roadblock: the law. Richard Parry, a lawyer with a particular expertise in drugs, told me that, even if they open BYOC (bring your own cannabis) cafes—ones that stick to the smoking laws by only allowing vaporisers—it won't make any difference. "Individual consumers could be arrested for being in possession of cannabis," he said, "but the person who runs, rents, or owns the cafe will fall foul of Section 8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act—allowing your premises to be used for the consumption of cannabis."
And even operating a venue that doesn't have cannabis on site—just a place where cannabis education is available—is illegal in the eyes of the law. Under Section 9 of the Misuse of Drugs Act, Richard explained, "They could be [seen as] inciting people to use cannabis."
The thing is, it's not as if there isn't already cannabis being grown and sold legally in the UK. A UK firm called GW Pharmaceuticals grows weed in Salisbury to produce a drug called Savitex, a cannabinoid medicine used to treat MS patients. The firm is becoming one of the leading companies in supplying a form of legal medicinal cannabis to those who need it in the UK, US, and Europe. Orson reckons that now is the time to extend those boundaries to users, as well as international pharmaceutical companies, so that any money made goes back into the British economy. "We've already had two international investors approach us and say, 'Look, we'll talk to you about this. We've got the funding,'" he told me. "Furthermore, if British activists and British businesses don't do it here, the big shots in America will be jumping on us."
Of course, there are others who don't fuss over the legalities at all, instead setting up their own undercover cafes in warehouse spaces or industrial estates. These places are always packed and they're always making money, but the problem is they're unregulated, meaning they can get away with charging you £10 ($17) for a bag that would otherwise cost you £5 ($8) on the street. And from a government viewpoint, that's hundreds of transactions skipping tax.
Photo by Jake Lewis
Understandably, the owner of the London cafe I visited didn't want to be identified and wasn't keen on talking very much, but did tell me, "We don't really let English people in. They'll give it away. That's why there are so many foreigners here." So even if there are existing cafes to go to, they don't exactly seem friendly to locals.
After many meetings and conversations with the police and council, it looks like Colin's New Way plans might now have to be put on hold. "It was going really well, especially the relationship with the police," he said. "But you have to look at both sides. On one side you’ve got cannabis consumers, and the other side you’ve got the police. They have a duty to abide [by] the law, so if they see a cannabis cafe they have to close it down, whether they agree or not."
I asked Colin what he plans to do next, now that the cafe has been nixed for the near future. "We’re provoking the discussion higher up, to the correct people," he said. "Now, I will be lobbying the government on this so they repeal this law. It’s not the police’s fault and it's not our fault. It’s the government's fault."
I contacted the Home Office to see how they would weigh in, but the only reply I got was a statement that read, "The government has no plans to legalize cannabis." But then it was hard to expect anything else from a government that's seemingly unwilling to even glance at the good cannabis can do for sufferers of a whole range of diseases.
Is the UK ready for its own cannabis model? Yes, and it has been for a while. Senior police figures have admitted the police are fed up with weed wasting their time and resources, and users are fed up with being hassled over something the police don't even seem to care about. We already sell medical cannabis here and abroad, and the argument has been made countless times about the benefits the legalization of weed would have to the UK economy.
It's unlikely that we'll see a cannabis model implemented in the UK any time soon. But if and when politicians start making moves in that direction, there are clearly plenty of people out there ready to jump aboard.