Sunday March 17, 2002
More than a dozen Dutch-style cannabis cafés are being planned from Brighton to Glasgow in a major movement across the country. They range from converted warehouses to upmarket cafés in London with budgets of £250,000.
Less than a week after the Government's top drugs advisory committee called for cannabis to be downgraded from Class B to Class C - severely reducing penalties for possession - campaigners are setting up coffee shops confident that such a move is now all but inevitable. Last week the Liberal Democrats became the first mainstream party to adopt a policy of legalising the drug.
The cannabis entrepreneurs setting up the coffee shops include an affluent retired businessman, an internet pioneer and a wheelchair-bound victim of multiple sclerosis living on disability benefits. Many have been attending a special course in the Netherlands to teach British people how to run a coffee shop, including how to tell the difference between types of weed and the best tactics for dealing with police and local authorities.
The movement has taken its cue from the Dutch Experience, Britain's first cannabis coffee shop in Stockport, which has been raided by police three times since opening last September. However, repeated mass protests made the police back off, and the coffee shop still attracts around 200 people a day. In the next fortnight, Dutch Experience 2, which is in the process of being decorated, is to open its doors in Bournemouth.
Other coffee shops are set to follow in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cumbria, Liverpool, Rhyl, Anglesey, Milton Keynes, Braintree, Brighton, Taunton, Worthing, and Lambeth and Hoxton in London. Britain is on course to follow the Netherlands in having a public cannabis café culture.
The campaigners have been encouraged by rapidly changing attitudes to the illegal drug, and the prospect of the Government downgrading it from Class B to Class C. All say they would like to co-operate with police and local authorities, but are prepared to go to prison if necessary.
Jimmy Ward, who went on the coffee-shop course in January, is currently working 16 hours a day with eight friends to prepare the Dutch Experience 2 for its opening in the next fortnight. Ward, who used to run a haulage business, was unable to persuade any landlord in Bournemouth to rent a café to him, so he is converting a storage unit he owns.
'We're studding the walls, putting in water, and a false ceiling,' he said. 'Ever since my girlfriend and I met 14 years ago we wanted to run a coffee shop. We thought we'd have to go to Holland, but with everything happening here, we thought we could open one in the UK.
'Everyone locally loves it - I've had so much support from the public. But no matter what the authorities do, I am determined to open this. I am not worried about going to jail, so long as when I come out it is still open.'
Ward has recruited pensioners to grow cannabis for him, supplying them with seeds and growlights, and has had expressions of interest from dozens more. 'It helps them to pay the winter fuel bills. They are angry about being lied to all these years about how dangerous cannabis is,' he said. A report last week from the Government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs concluded cannabis was less dangerous than alcohol or tobacco.
Jeff Ditchfield, who went on the coffee-shop course with Ward, spent last week looking for a property to buy in Rhyl, north Wales, to convert to a coffee shop. 'I don't want it in a residential area or near a school or McDonalds, because the kids will try to come in,' said Ditchfield, who retired two years ago. His café will stick to the strict Dutch coffee-shop rules of banning all alcohol, hard drugs and anyone under 18.
The Deputy Mayor of Rhyl, Glyn Williams, said the plan 'beggars belief', prompting Ditchfield to name his coffee shop 'The Beggars Belief'.
Williams said: 'We are not in the process of helping people break the law. I firmly believe that, if you downgrade cannabis, then there'll be so many more parents who'll come forward with tragic stories about their children.' However, the Chief Constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, has publicly called for drugs to be legalised.
David Crane, the director of an internet company for seven years, is in the process of raising £250,000 for an upmarket coffee shop in Hoxton, London. 'We've been speaking to a number of different people in the music business and media, and they are very keen, largely because they smoke dope themselves. I absolutely believe that coffee shops are a benefit to society,' he said.
Many of the cannabis entrepreneurs are veterans of protests at the Dutch
Experience in Stockport. Almost 100 people, including the local MEP, went
to Stockport police station holding cannabis and demanding to be arrested.
After arresting 28 people, the police gave up, prompting protesters to
declare cannabis had been legalised in Stockport.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002