More MS news articles for Nov 2001

A tea, a coffee and two joints, please...

Business is on a high at Britain's first cannabis cafe, Dutch Experience in Stockport. Ian Herbert joins the crowds and discovers that the proprietor Colin Davies already has ambitious plans for the future

Nov 20, 2001
The Independent - United Kingdom

The first hint that something mildly taboo lies near Marge's Tarot Studio and the Uniline gymnasium, in backstreet Stockport, comes from schoolboys skulking around the corner in Bridgefield Street. "Go in and get some for us, mate. I've got the tenner," pleads Dave, whose complexion and companions - three uniformed fourth formers - do little to advance his brave claim to be 18.

"Get what?"

"What they're selling in there."

He means the weed. Every self-respecting Stockport schoolboy knows that Dutch Experience, Britain's first Amsterdam-style coffee shop, is downstairs from Marge's place, though they're learning from painful experience that they won't get their hands on so much as one of its Mars bars, let alone a pounds 15 packet of Lebanese gold resin or skunk grass.

There's already a designated graveyard for forged ID cards behind the coffee bar - testimony to the rigour with which an over-18s rule is policed. Dave's ID lies within it: he'd evidently gone it alone some time earlier. Amid animated chatter and a delicious, late afternoon fug of marijuana smoke, 44-year-old Colin Davies, the proprietor, looks like a man who could use a joint. The under-age teenagers have been trying it on since lunchtime; someone's jammed the table football and the relentless call on his 40p teas and 50p coffees has taken its toll on his milk supply, with a full six hours to closing. "We started out asking the milkman for four litres a day," he says, watching one of his coffee bar-staff stagger in with bottles of semi-skimmed. "We put it up to 12 and it's still way off."

Davies stumbled on a goldmine when he set up the cafe in partnership with Nol van Scheik, the creator of Amsterdam's founding cannabis cafe, two months ago. He's currently attracting 500 patrons a week and there were never fewer than 50 between noon and 10pm (closing time) last Friday. A second Dutch Experience opened in Worthing last Wednesday, and outlets are planned for Dundee, Preston, and neighbouring Manchester.

A report published today by the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Findings for the home affairs select committee will do no harm either, calling for more such establishments to solve many of the drug-related deaths and health problems traditionally associated with cannabis use. For Davies, this is all a long way from the patients' smoking room at the Sheffield spinal injuries unit where, on Christmas Eve 1995, he was lying flat on his back, dosed up with morphine and temporarily paralysed by breaks to three vertebrae, caused by a fall. There, he met a paraplegic car crash victim who first told him to try cannabis for the pain. He shared her joint and was beginning to appreciate the benefits when his father arrived to wheel him back to the ward.

He could have used more cannabis immediately but since the accident had done for his promising career in carpentry and state benefits were providing him with just pounds 65 a week to live off, he started growing his own. Within a year, Davies had encountered four patients in the same predicament and each started chipping in for seed which he grew in a back room and shipped out by secure mail order. He established the Medical Marijuana Co-operative, the kind of venture he'd read was working in the US. Davies was already attracting the attention of the medical fraternity when a police raid resulted in him being tried at Manchester Crown Court, charged with intent to supply, in 1996. His spectacular acquittal on the testimony of patients from Edinburgh and Leeds was a turning point - "one of those things that life deals you," he says.

It meant word was out about his co-operative and dozens suffering the pain of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis realised that the embarrassment of their covert trips to street dealers was no longer necessary: 200 signed up with the necessary authorisation certificates, signed by their GPs. Many of them would still rather receive their cannabis in brown envelopes than step into the bohemian cafe, with its external faux Victorian lamps, salmon pink roller blinds and pea green tables, which were shipped in from Amsterdam, but the sight of wheelchairs being pulled from vehicles is now familiar in Bridgefield Street.

They belong to people such as Jane - Davies's "resident miracle" from north Manchester, who was registered blind in 1986 when MS took hold. A note from her GP remarks on the "remarkable improvement" of her health since she began taking Davies's high quality cannabis 12 months ago. "It's the quality of the stuff - much better quality than what you get on the street," she says. "I've been sold Oxo cubes so many times but this stuff is free and it reaches my bones better - the pain relief's better than anything the doctor gives me. I couldn't afford to buy it."

Other customers include Kate Bradley, a former drugs squad officer with the West Midlands police force, who has smoked cannabis since her MS was diagnosed in 1991 and supports his project. And there is Laurence Brearley, a 57-year-old former lorry driver currently in care 15 miles away, who makes weekly visits by taxi at Davies's expense and regales the house with stories of his long-distance days.

"It's the MHS - the Marijuana Health Service," laughs Davies, pleased with the joke, the eclectic bunch he has gathered and the fulfilment of his cafe's purpose - to use the money made from social users of cannabis to provide it free or at cost price for medicinal users. Co-operative members now just get a note, asking for a contribution to funds if they feel able. "People in wheelchairs shouldn't have to pay for their medicine, they should get it free, and that's what we're doing," said Davies.

The cafe's number of recreational users increased sharply to around 300 a week after the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced that cannabis possession will no longer be an arrestable offence.

"They're feeling great because they can walk around with weed in their pocket," says Davies, puffing away in front of a coffee bar adorned with his cannabis memorabilia, including a framed photograph of the moment he handed the Queen a bunch of flowers with reefers inside, last year.

Local police seem resigned to Mr Blunkett's effective decriminalisation of cannabis, too. Their attempts to arrest Davies on the morning the cafe opened in September, ended in scuffles and loud chants of "We want to smoke weed", sung to the tune of Queen's "I Want to Break Free". But though an estimated 500 joints a week are now exchanging hands, officers have since visited just twice: once to assist after a burglary, once to hand back property seized in the raid. "We recognise there is ongoing debate and research into the medical benefits or otherwise of cannabis," said Greater Manchester Police, in a statement. "The police, in appropriate cases, exercise discretion and judgement."

Stockport council seems equally relaxed. It didn't reply to a letter from Davies, which set out his plans two weeks before opening, but sent him a rates bill instead. The establishment is not being disturbed because it simply does not attract trouble. "No alcohol, or drunk and disorderly persons on the premises," states a sign inside. "Alcohol is not a part of the mature cannabis culture and the cafe is giving us the chance to educate people about that," says Davies. To date, he has not goaded drugs squad officers by selling cannabis openly through a booth with a menu, though this is in his plans.

Dutch Experience won't become a franchise operation but individuals who seem committed to the cause - such as MS sufferer Chris Baldwin in Worthing - will be given the knowledge and back-up to open other outlets, with a "10 per cent override" to Stockport. At least one North West commercial developer has also approached Davies to point out the value of the upper- middle class market in the south Manchester suburbs five miles away.

"He said I could be selling cappuccinos for pounds 3 instead of 50p Nescafe instants and flog pounds 15 bags of weed for pounds 30," Davies reveals. "But it's not my thing, really. I'm just desperate to get Dundee up and running in the New Year. We've got patients on our co-operative list from the Orkneys and it means we can transfer them up there."

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