Sunday May 19, 03:16 AM
By Michael Holden
STOCKPORT (Reuters) - Amid thick clouds of smoke and thumping reggae music, groups of Britons happily flout the law, puffing on marijuana joints in the country's first Dutch-style cannabis cafe.
The Dutch Experience, in the bustling northern town of Stockport, is the first of about a dozen illegal outfits expected to open in the next few months as entrepreneurs gamble that the government will change the law and go easy on cannabis users.
"This has really taken off. It's not going to stop, it's just going to be a matter of the government controlling it," Berry, the Dutch Experience's manager, told Reuters.
"The estimation is that there are soon going to be 12 coffee shops open all over the country."
Berry -- who wouldn't give his full name -- is seasoned in the cannabis cafe trade, coming from the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where liberal authorities allow the drug to be openly sold and smoked in licensed coffee shops.
Before he moved to Britain, he used to give guided tours to American tourists around the city's best coffee shops.
Now he plans to use his experience to turn Stockport into a beacon for pot smokers.
"We have got about 500 members, and they are all kinds of different people. We get a lot of medicinal users, people with MS (multiple sclerosis), people on crutches and in wheelchairs who use cannabis to stop their muscle spasms so they can pick up their cup of tea again," he said.
"It's completely disgraceful that a person with MS has to go and buy cannabis off a street dealer who probably sells ecstasy ... he might have heroin as well."
One customer John, a 50-year-old former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier, shook his head in disbelief when asked about the country's drugs laws.
Rolling a large cannabis cigarette against a backdrop of brightly coloured walls covered with scribbled messages from the shop's regulars, he explained that he had taken up the habit at 13 and had smoked cannabis throughout his adult life.
"It's a ludicrous situation, a joke. Loads of people smoke dope and it goes right across the social board," he said.
ROYALTY DABBLES WITH DOPE
Opinion polls suggest he is right.
An ICM survey said five million Britons used cannabis regularly, while more than half of those aged 16-24 had tried illegal drugs.
Even royalty has tried it. Prince Harry made headlines this year when it was revealed he had smoked cannabis.
For years the country's two main political parties, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party and the Conservatives, wouldn't countenance a debate on the legal status of cannabis, sticking to traditional tough drugs policies.
Now a change in the law looks on the cards. Under a Home Office (Interior Ministry) approved pilot scheme in Lambeth -- a crime-ridden area of south London -- police only issue a warning to those caught with cannabis, concentrating instead on dealers in hard drugs. Locals have heralded the scheme as a big success.
Home Secretary David Blunkett says that he wants to make possessing cannabis a non-arrestable offence and to allow its use for medical purposes. Providing the Lambeth experiment was a proven success and members of parliament agreed, the change could occur this summer, a Home Office spokeswoman told Reuters.
"Depending on the parliamentary timetable, we are looking at another two to three months," she said.
POLICE GIVE MIXED MESSAGE
However, Don Barnard of the Legalise Cannabis Alliance -- which has fielded candidates in national elections in a bid to change the law -- said he didn't expect Blunkett's plans to pave the way for a flood of cannabis cafes. Yet.
"The government's not for it, they've made it clear they do not want coffee shops," he said. "But I think public opinion will force them into such a situation that they will have to accept them."
In the meantime, the police themselves have been sending out mixed messages to those planning on following in the footsteps of the Dutch Experience.
The shop, which makes no secret of its business, has been raided three times since it opened last September and its owner, pot pioneer Colin Davies, has become a cause celebre after being arrested and charged with supplying cannabis. He is in jail.
But despite the setbacks, the coffee shop opens every day for business and has been left in peace for months.
"The police should come in here every day and arrest people for possession," Berry said. "But we don't cause any problems unlike the pub next door which has fights every Saturday night."
Part of the confusion stems from the top cops themselves.
The Association of Chief Police Officers says there should be a more relaxed attitude towards people carrying small amounts of dope, but has stopped short of advocating decriminalisation.
Barnard says the Dutch way is the future.
"The government has to move," he said. "Everyone in Europe is going
this way now."
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited