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UK: The day the law changed... and it all went to pot

Gareth Edwards

Edinburgh Evening News

Friday 30 Jan 2004


TWO policemen flanked the doors of the Purple Haze cafe in Leith at 4pm, as Scotland's first ever cannabis cafe prepared to open its doors.

The cafe had earlier been swamped with camera crews, photographers and reporters as owner Paul Stewart outlined his proposal for the cafe.

As the doors opened, around 30 prospective punters, who had gathered outside in the freezing cold, began filing in. The police handed each one a letter explaining that the possession of cannabis was still an offence.

There was little sign of the drama that would follow when officers moved in and began charging customers.

A minor frenzy had broken out at the cafe earlier, however, as Inspector Neil Phillip, of Lothian and Borders Police, strode in to inspect the cafe to cries of "fascist".

He had earlier spoken to Mr Stewart to remind him of the law, and was satisfied that the cafe owner was acting responsibly.

He was also in no doubt as to what his role, and that of the other eight police officers present, was.

"We will be handing out letters to people going into the cafe, which simply explains that the law has not changed and that possession of cannabis is still a criminal offence," he said.

"If a person is committing an offence, we will take action just as we would have if they had been committing an offence yesterday."

The letter also stated that management of the premises "commit an offence if they knowingly allow any person to smoke cannabis on their premises".

Mr Stewart was joined by Scottish Socialist Party drugs spokesman Kevin Williamson, the cult book publisher who first suggested opening a cannabis cafe in the Capital.

On the day that cannabis was downgraded from a Class B drug to Class C, the pair were about to create a little piece of Scottish history.

Apart from the assembled press crowded into the tiny cafe, there were few things to set it apart from the average internet cafe.

A selection of bongs, pipes, rolling papers, grass grinders and hemp products were on display.

Also on show were two posters, nestled among pictures of Bob Marley, cannabis leaves and images from the film Trainspotting.

One of them offered three different types of magic mushrooms, sold fresh from the Portland Street cafe.

The other advertised the cannabis club, stating that for a 5 pounds entrance fee members would be given a discount on smoking gear sold in the cafe.

Mr Stewart, 37, said the cafe would be "tobacco-free" but anyone wishing to take cannabis would be able to use a vaporiser machine which eliminates 99 per cent of the carcinogenic substances of the drug.

"Basically it is a plain fact that 800,000 people use cannabis in Scotland and we feel that we are being socially excluded from taking part in an activity we believe is socially acceptable," he said.

"We are looking for the whole of Scotland to get behind us and we want the Executive to be supporting us on this one."

However, both men admitted they were not planning to allow cannabis to be smoked on the first night.

The press were asked to clear the cafe before the opening, with only "serious" members allowed in to sign up for membership.

"We are going to ask for some details so that we can get an idea of who wants to join," said Mr Williamson.

"We are looking for genuine cannabis smokers, not just people jumping on the bandwagon."

There were plenty to be found, with almost 100 people coming through the cafe's doors in the first few hours.

Among them was SSP leader Tommy Sheridan, who went in with fellow MSP Rosemary Burn, not to support drug use, he stated, but to support a change in the law which would make cannabis legal and stop people being treated as criminals for smoking a joint.

"The people in this cafe want to take drugs off our streets and I think most people in Scotland would want to take drugs off our streets," he said, after signing up for the members' club and spending half an hour drinking tea and chatting with fellow customers.

"What you've got here is a safe controlled environment for those who wish to consume cannabis.

"None of us in our party want to promote cannabis or any other drug but we certainly do not believe that someone smoking a joint is a criminal.

"We have to stop criminalising people for what is a victimless crime."

He then admitted that, while he had never smoked cannabis, he had taken "a wee bit too much" hash cake once, before adding that, while alcoholics were often seen attacking one another on the streets, the only thing he had ever
seen a cannabis user attack was a fridge.

His words were cheered by the assembled crowd.

Many customers stayed the distance, popping out for the odd cigarette.

One customer said that, despite the earlier pledge, customers were using cannabis on the premises.

"We were smoking cannabis, yes," he said. "There was no joint rolling or anything, just people using pipes and bongs, their own equipment. After a while the smoke started to build up so it did get a little foggy in there."

But as more and more people came out, willing to talk about using cannabis and their thoughts on the law, it became clear that many were here just to make a stand.

One man, who did not wish to be named as he is a member of the Territorial Army, said his father used cannabis to help take away the pain of multiple sclerosis.

He was not a user himself, he added, but had come to support the cafe in the hope that it would lead to a change in the law.

Among other customers were three girls in their early 20s, one of whom had travelled from Glasgow.

They said they had all smoked recreationally for more than five years, and felt the drugs laws were completely out of touch with the reality of the modern world.

"Cannabis is a lot more sociable than alcohol, and I would much rather spend an evening smoking a joint and talking to my friends than going to the pub and getting drunk," said one.

All ages and more than one profession seemed to be recognised, with stereotypical hippies in woolly cardigans rubbing shoulders with smart-suited businessmen.

Chris Cooper, 32, a technical manager for an Edinburgh company, said he had been using cannabis for more than 15 years.

"I am down here to show my support for this, as I think it is a good idea and there should be more of them," he said.

After a few hours a distinctive smell began to come from the cafe doors.

After nearly three hours of business, police officers moved into the cafe and began charging customers, many of whom had been there since it opened.

Insp Phillip later said three people had been charged and added their details would be passed on to the procurator fiscal. He said he was satisfied the "appropriate" action had been taken.

Among those caught was Mr Stewart, who will now face charges of allowing people to take drugs on his premises.

He vowed to fight the charges, saying that human rights lawyers had already contacted him offering to represent him.

"It was a good night, although with the glare of the media and all the police attention there were bound to be a few teething problems," he said afterwards.

"We will be challenging these charges, as I feel they are totally illegal. I was very happy with the way the Police handled the event, though, and there was no trouble when they charged people.

"I think we had around 50 people sign up for the club, which shows there is a significant number of people willing to support this."




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