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UK: 'Cannabis has been left behind': the extraordinary life of Lee Harris, the hippie London mayoral candidate
Tuesday 22 Mar 2016
Lee Harris mentions so many jobs in the course of our interview that it becomes hard to keep up. “Once I told my children I’ve done about 40 jobs”, he laughs. That list includes: actor, washing machine salesman, freelance journalist, playwright, house father for delinquent boys, market researcher, mortuary attendant, youth theatre group leader, dishwasher and supply teacher at a secondary modern girls’ school. To denizens of London’s counter-culture, Harris is best known as a spoken word performer, the publisher of Europe’s first cannabis magazine, and the owner of Alchemy, Britain's oldest head shop.
Now Harris, who is 79 and a grandfather of three, wants to add another occupation to that eclectic mix: Mayor of London. At the moment, he’s not even on the ballot. By the end of March, Harris needs ten nominations from each of London’s 33 boroughs. “It’s a bit tense,” he tells me, “but very exciting.”
Late last year, Harris won a four-way primary to be the mayoral candidate of the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol Party (CISTA), which was set up last year by Paul Birch, the founder of the social network Bebo. The party contested 32 constituencies at the general election: its best performance was in West Tyrone, where the candidate won 528 votes.
Dressed in a smart blue blazer and a stripy purple shirt, with only an orange scarf and a beady necklace to hint at a life less ordinary, Harris says he wants to use a place on the ballot to draw attention to the adverse effects of the criminalisation of cannabis.
“One of the products of prohibition is that people had to learn to be guerilla growers – growing small plants, usually strong. And in the late Seventies, some American genetically modified a strain so he could come up with stuff that was high THC and very strong-smelling: skunk. And that’s like bootleg whiskey. Skunk is the product of prohibition.”
But would skunk really disappear were cannabis decriminalised? Harris is adamant: “Skunk would not be there any more. If you legalise it, control it, regulate it, get it sold only in licensed premises, where you know [about] quality, skunk would go. At the moment they call it a controlled drug, but it’s not controlled, it’s a black market. They’re allowing such a lot of criminality to go on. We want it at licensed dealers.”
Harris’ concern isn’t just about ensuring quality for recreational users. He is a proponent of medical marijuana, which he says might leaven the effects of seizures and epilepsy. He also worries about “criminalising whole generations of young people”, and says that as Mayor he would issue an apology to the Afro-Caribbean community for over-zealous police searches for drugs.
It’s 60 years since Harris got on a boat in Cape Town bound for London. Born Eli Harris into a family of orthodox Lithuanian Jews in Johannesburg (though he is now a Buddhist), he was “politically and personally liberated” by the anti-apartheid struggle. Working in a clothing factory aged 18, he met members of the South African Indian Congress, who introduced him to the broader struggle.
Harris began to sell political publications for the Congress movement, and met Trevor Huddleston, the English bishop and anti-apartheid campaigner, as well as Nelson Mandela and his legal partner Oliver Tambo. In 1955, he was one of the few white attendees of the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto, where the ANC drew up the Freedom Charter.
Though Harris was “brought up in white South Africa, conditioned to the racism, calling all black people boy or girl, while they were our servants and they went in separate buses”, he nevertheless experienced prejudice of his own. “I would go [on] Sunday mornings with other left-wingers to townships where Africans lived, and everywhere we would go there’d by the Special Branch police. And they’d say in Afrikaners ‘These fucking Jews.’”
In fact, Special Branch was beginning to take an interest in young Eli. Harris recalls with pride that the same police officer who would go on to capture Mandela seven years later knew him by name. “I knew I would not be able to go abroad. There were so many police raids, and we had to hide our books, in case you were raided in your home.” So in 1956, Harris decided to come to London to make it as an actor.
As a drama student – he was a contemporary at Webber Douglas of Terence Stamp and Steven Berkoff – Harris was yet to become part of the counter-cultural scene of which he is now an archetype. “I’d heard of cannabis and junk and cigarettes, but I was a left-wing groupie. So instead of listening to music, in my first year here I went to Downing Street to see Khrushchev and Bulganin come to meet Anthony Eden . . . For us left-wingers, cannabis wasn’t an issue, because anti-apartheid [activists] were extremely puritanical.”
Soon, though, Harris began spending time in the West End: “I loved Soho, these dives and clubs where lowlife hung round”. Yet rather than partaking himself, Harris became a driving force behind the prohibition of drugs. “I came across all these kids, 16 years old, 17, 18, and I noticed they were hanging around in their thousands. They all had very dilated pupils and I found they were all high on taking pep pills [amphetamines]. Taking so many of them that six of them at a time were having horrors and seeing spiders on the walls and having big comedowns.”
The jobbing actor contacted Ben Parkin, Labour MP for Paddington, who had made a name for himself exposing the slum landlord Peter Rachman. According to one criminologist, Harris’ intervention was the first in a chain of dominoes leading to the 1964 Drugs (Prevention of Misuse) Act.
Harris quickly regretted his role as a “moral crusader”. He remembers “a friend of mine who’d helped me, he managed a club in the West End, he was raided – the Mods threw their pills on the floor – and he did 15 months in prison for running a disorderly house. I gave an affidavit for him, I went to visit him in prison, and I felt I’d done something terrible . . . I thought ‘Oh God what have I done to get rid of all this energy?’”.
Around this time, Harris – by now in his late 20s – began to experiment with cannabis. It’s also around this time in the interview that Harris’ life story begins to intersect at a frenetic pace with luminaries of the counter-culture and much else besides. In the space of a minute, he mentions Ronald Laing, the radical psychiatrist, Feliks Topolski, the Polish expressionist painter, and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg – who Harris brought to England for one of his last performances.
Later on, he talks about John Lennon and Yoko Ono (he was too nervous to speak to them so they just stared at each other “like cats”), Ted Willis, who wrote Dickson of Dock Green, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, the comedians Mark Thomas and Arthur Smith, the novelist Ken Kesey, the actor Nigel Hawthorne, the graphic novelist Bryan Talbot (who Harris “discovered”), and Christine Keeler (“we did an erotic dance together”). That’s before we get to Margaret Thatcher, who Harris inadvertently supplied with Royal Jelly via Fortnum and Mason, and Sharon Osbourne, Diana Ross, Marco Pierre White and the Sultan of Brunei’s son.
Not long after first using cannabis, Harris began to sell cannabis paraphernalia in a stall in Portobello Market. In 1972, his stall became a shop, Alchemy – named after the Alchemical wedding, a 1968 event at the Royal Albert Hall, where “three and a half thousand hippies” congregated.
In 1977, he published Homegrown, Europe’s first cannabis magazine. “After the first issue came out, it got a lot of publicity, worldwide publicity. Oh it was a difficult time. Everybody wanted to know about it. The first 12,000 sold out in 2 days, and then we couldn’t find distributors or printers . . . It caused so much fuss. I had to leave London after a while because I had a young family.” He published two issues a year for five years, distributing them himself at festivals, and the archive has recently been digitised.
It was because of the shop that Harris was briefly an inmate at Wormwood Scrubs. After being caught selling extra-large cigarette papers in 1990, Harris wasn’t especially worried: “It was only going to a magistrate, was going to be a summary offence, and I had a good barrister. And the magistrate said – though you have a good criminal record and a wife and family, your shop’s an Aladdin’s cave and I’m sending you to prison for three months.”
He chuckles as he relates arriving at the prison: “I found myself in the unreal place of coming into Wormwood Scrubs and changing into prison gear, and watching all these people who haven’t paid their motoring fines taking the cannabis out of their jeans and rolling up. And the police turned a blind eye! I saw more cannabis rolled up there than I knew outside.” Harris was bailed after just one day behind bars, and his conviction was quashed on appeal.
I ask Harris what he thinks of his rival candidates for Mayor. He gives his answer via a characteristically eccentric story about an evening a decade ago when he performed, dressed as Aslan, at the 19th birthday party of an Etonian. “I spent the whole evening with girls from Marlborough and the whole sixth-form of Eton in Dorchester in a big country house with a moat . . . At four or five in the morning I realised that all of the Eton boys had been eating hash cookies all night. So David Cameron . . . Zac Goldsmith, Eton is part of their upbringing – having cannabis is part of their . . . ” he tails off.
Is he saying that Goldsmith, who he earlier pointed out “was expelled from Eton for smoking [cannabis]”, is a hypocrite for not advocating legalisation? “Yes. There’s a lot of hypocrisy. Do as I don’t say. Cannabis has been part of most the upper-class children’s life from early days at school.”
Harris is palpably excited by the mayoral campaign. Nervous, too: he has taken up smoking again. Standing behind the counter of his shop, surrounded by bongs and herbal remedies, alongside his assistant, who moved to the UK from the US after dodging the Vietnam draft, it’s hard not to be charmed by this ornament of a receding vintage. “Looking back on it, all of the things in the Sixties we wanted changing, most have happened,” he says. “Homosexuality has been legalised, abortion was legalised, women’s rights came about. But the one issue of all those things we all thought is cannabis. It’s been left behind.”
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