Phil "Smokees" Staples, my brother-in-law, was brought up in Herne Hill, South London by a single mother with six other children. Phil lived just above the poverty line growing up, and after an adolescence and young adulthood spent broke and in and out of jail, he set up a chain of head shops called Smokees, selling smoking paraphernalia and legal highs.
Now that legal highs are due to be banned, I sat down with Phil to discuss the effect this move by the Tory government will have on his business.
In my childhood, I always wanted more. Security wise, I had a bed to sleep in and food to eat, but it's the financial side that I really missed out on. I never had computer games, I never had nice trainers – I had all the "broke" things. I had to wear lost property clothes. We just used to clean, because my mum came from a background where she had it 10,000 times harder than us. We couldn't chill and watch telly; it was just housework and homework. We couldn't even go out for Halloween. I remember one time my siblings and I used black bin liners as costumes and my mum said, "Where are you going? Nah, we don't do those things – that's devil worship."
I went to college and did electronics and engineering, because that's what my dad studied. I tried working as an electrician under my dad's company, but it was so much work for very little money. I decided to quit, and that's how I got myself involved in "illegal activities".
I used to sit down and smoke with all these guys who smoked so much, because I was bored, and then I saw the business side of things – I could buy weed in bulk and sell it off to them. After a year and a half I was high-flying selling weed; at one point I had five different phones. That only lasted until 2000, though, because mad cow disease kicked in. We used to get our stuff transported to London via the cow shipments, so when that happened the chain shut down. My team and I started running out of money, then one of the guys said, "Oh, I know, let's do a quick robbery."
I'd never stolen in my life, but if you're part of a team and you're respected in that team you can't start saying no, because you'll look like an idiot. I was just the get-away driver, but during the process one of the car windows got smashed. We got pulled over by the police, and I wasn't going to start racing through Fulham in a Fiesta against them. They didn't know at the time that a robbery had taken place, with firearms. It started off as a normal stop and search, but then the robbery came through on the radio. I was looking at ten years in prison, but luckily I only did six weeks shy of a year. I was 21 years old at the time.
I got out of prison and thought, 'Let me just go straight.' My partner had given birth to our first baby while I was locked up – I had a spliff in my cell to celebrate. I went back to working with my dad, because no one is going to hire an ex-con, but there was still no money in his business. I called my friend who was still working in drugs and was quickly back on the streets. That carried on for about three years, but then I got arrested again because I was so active. I got busted in my car with my mate, and they traced the car's registration back to my older brother's house. They obviously found drugs at his property: about two kilos of cannabis, 2,000 pills and about a half ounce of cocaine. I had to plead guilty; this time I was facing six years, but I did 14 months and three months outside with a tag.
I got back into it once I was out. My brothers and I were running things, and that's when some men started to get jealous. One night, I was getting in my car – I had one of those fly Golfs – and saw ten to 15 men coming towards me. I lost my car that night, and almost my life. They said it was because I was playing with some man's girl, but I know it was out of envy.
After I went to the police and tried to report it, they took me into custody. They said it was for my own protection and that I could only be released if I agreed to re-locate outside the M25. My mum's friend had a house in Luton, so I moved there. I sat down for nine months, but then I started to run out of money. I thought, 'Let me just grow some weed to pay off my rent.' I went to this market stall to buy seeds. They just used to wrap your stuff up quickly like it was an illegal activity – that's the government's fault.
After that, I thought of setting up my own shop, Smokees. We sell grinders, bongs, shisha pipes – even gothic products, like dream catchers and crystals. We also sell legal highs – we were one of the first shops to do them. A guy found me on Facebook, came into my shop, said, "You need to be selling this," and gave me a packet of Herbal Haze, and now we sell them all. Black Mamba, Exodus, Pandora's Box, Cherry Bomb – they're all on my Instagram page. That's what made me blow up, from small money to now four high street stores. You can buy a gram of legal highs for £2.50 and easily sell it for £10.
Everybody buys legal highs from my shop. We have people on benefits wanting them, to working professionals high up the ladder – even police officers. All of the people who work in the public sector, too, because they have to have their urine tested for drugs. Everyone is chasing escapism, but get tested positive and that's your job gone – and some people have mortgages to pay. A lot of people who have just come out of prison buy them as well, because if they're caught with illegal drugs, that's it: straight back to the pen. Legal highs mimic all of the banned drugs, so you get the high without the backlash.
Of course, not everyone is so lucky. I know quite a few people have died from taking them, but, to be honest, there's no blood on my hands. But I'm not heartless – the fact that we can't even tell people how to consume legal highs is wrong. We should be able to say, "You're not supposed to take it like that." That's why people are dying. The packets do say "not for human consumption", though, so if you're reading that and still taking it – sorry, but that's on you.
I've actually spoken to the sole manufacturer I work with about the ban on legal highs. He sells Kronic, a certified legal high from New Zealand. He knows that sales are going to go down, so he's looking to expand. He's going to drop the legal highs and branch out into selling refills, pens and vapours. Other people aren't that smart. I know a lot of head shop owners who are wondering what they're going to do now. When legal highs became popular, people were making a hell of a lot of money. Now it's going to be like the recession – there are going to be "To Let" signs on all those shops.
Any legal high products that aren't destroyed are going to end up in the hands of the people who work underground. The price is going to skyrocket as well. If it's £10 a gram now, I can guarantee that, in a couple of years, that figure is going to triple. When people have access to drugs – like in Amsterdam – they can relax. It's when they don't have access that the demand goes up and everything starts to spiral out of control.
Once legal highs are banned, my business is going to take a big cut. I'm not fretting about the government trying to crack down on anything else I sell, though, because everything else is paper, glass and plastic. I'm going back to focusing on making Smokees about smoking, because I'm a weed connoisseur – that's what I do. I've created a movement – I call it O life. It's all about taking that negative stigma away from smokers. I might even open a Smokees in Amsterdam – spread O life over there.
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