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UK: Lee Harris, the moral crusader turned cannabis activist vying to be London mayor
Saturday 12 Mar 2016
If Lee Harris fails to pick up a single vote in the London mayoral election, he can be certain of winning the prize for best campaign launch party. The Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol party (Cista) candidate raved until the early morning to roots reggae and dub at the Mau Mau Bar on Portobello Road. He is 79.
“Lee for mayor!” performers and crowds chanted throughout the night. Their exuberance contrasted with the softly spoken, unassuming character who has run Portobello’s Alchemy head shop for the past 45 years.
Earlier that evening, over coffee in a nearby Italian restaurant, Harris sat flanked by two supporters, aged 72 and 19, leaning forward over the table as he outlined his mayoral campaign agenda. You can guess what comes top of the list. “The archaic laws that have gone on here, the last 70 years of drug prohibition, have caused more harm than good,” he said.
“People should not be penalised or criminalised for possession of cannabis or growing a few plants. Young people in their hundreds of thousands have had job prospects, travel prospects ruined and they have a criminal record and I think it’s time that stopped.”
Cista sprang on to the political scene last year with a last-minute bid for seats in the general election. Bankrolled by tech entrepreneur Paul Birch, who made millions from the sale of the social network Bebo to AOL, the party’s aim is to push the issue of cannabis law reform on to the political agenda.
But Harris’s candidacy, and indeed his career as the proprietor of London’s oldest head shop, stems from an extraordinary mea culpa. He was originally a moral crusader and believes his actions played a pivotal role in the criminalisation of drug possession.
Originally from South Africa, Harris fled to the UK in 1956, aged 19, after his leftwing politics and anti-racist views made him a target of the apartheid regime. He trained for the theatre and acted with Orson Welles. But his early adventures in the UK club scene left him horrified.
“I discovered all these kids in the West End who were on purple hearts [amphetamine pills], 80 or 90 a weekend, and I became a moral crusader and I helped change the law,” he said.
Harris wrote to the Labour backbencher Ben Parkin, who asked questions in parliament and passed his number to Anne Sharpley, a reporter on the Evening Standard. He took her around the West End clubs and she began the press hysteria that was to lead to the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1964.
“It was quickly hurried in, amphetamines were banned, and personal possession was made a crime,” Harris said. “Personal possession has been a crime since then. It’s one thing I bitterly regret.”
For soon after, following a mind-blowing encounter with the poet Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall, Harris went on to become a key player on London’s underground scene. After writing a couple of critically acclaimed plays, he helped found the influential Drury Lane Arts Lab and wrote for International Times. Later he was to found and edit the UK’s first ever drug culture magazine, Home Grown.
By the 90s, he was connecting generations by arranging Ginsberg’s last ever UK performance at the psychedelic rave club Megatripolis. He opened his Portobello shop, Alchemy, an emporium selling pipes, bongs, posters and books, in 1972 and continues to run it to this day.
Harris was also to find himself a victim of the very law he had helped to pass. “I’d gone in this little dive, this was February 1967, and I’d bought a five shilling deal of cannabis, it was so tiny,” he remembered. “And I walked out the club and I was grabbed by these plainclothes police and spreadeagled against the wall and they found the little piece.”
It was just the first of several brushes with the law that Harris has suffered over the years. But he counts his difficulties as nothing compared with those faced by London’s African Caribbean community since their arrival, alongside his, in the 1950s.
He said: “They came, and everywhere in this area [Portobello Road] and in Brixton there were signs saying ‘no coloureds’. Kelso Cochrane was murdered in 1959 by the skinheads, and no one was ever charged. Then the police persecuted them for smoking ganja. The riots of 1980 in Brixton and Bristol started from raids in cannabis clubs.
“I think London, which I would represent, owes a deep apology and a thanks to the Afro-Caribbean community who came with their lovely music and their warm personalities to cold, grey, unfriendly London.”
In the event that he does wake up on 6 May to find himself installed in City Hall, Harris does have other plans for the city. He wants an end to gentrification, with residents properly consulted about changes their area. He wants the city to make more use of green energy. He says London’s transport strategy is confused and needs to be rationalised.
It is clear though, that his main focus is drug decriminalisation, not just of cannabis. LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics should all be available, without fear of arrest, for people who want them. Those who have problems with harder drugs should be helped, rather than criminalised. “Condemnation doesn’t help, it only oppresses,” Harris said.
His prospects of victory are not good. The London mayoralty is a two-horse race between the Conservative’s Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan of Labour. And even some of Harris’s own supporters don’t want him to win. One woman, speaking later in his closed shop as we waited for his party to begin, said she feared that the pressures of the top job would be too great for a man of his age.
The locals gathered in the Mau Mau Bar treated Harris like a hero. Performers paid tribute to a man legendary for his kindness, his tolerance and his parties. Harris held court, introducing each act, welcoming guests and connecting strangers. He drank only water, but ventured outside several times for a cigarette.
Several days later, I received a call from Harris. He’d dialled a wrong number, but it nevertheless became a chance for a catch-up. “I’ve been aching all week, recovering from that lovely party on Saturday night,” he said, adding that he had been out until 4.30am. “Thank you so much for coming, it was lovely to meet you. One love!”
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