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Meet the Activist Who Opened the First Upfront UK Cannabis Café

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We’ve all been there: a quick pack of a bag, a long search for your passport, and your one cheap flight – plus £50 for printing out the boarding pass you forgot – away from enjoying the delights of a tolerant Dutch cannabis policy. It certainly is a rite of passage for most weed enthusiasts.

Going to Holland and getting high in a regulated cannabis café is highly beneficial and not just because you won’t get hassle off the police. You can get reliable information about the product you are buying (hello informed decision about what you’re consuming), you don’t have to put yourself in a compromising or dangerous position just to score some weed, and you’ll never be pressured into buying hard drugs. It’s just a much more all-round palatable experience.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just rock up to a similar establishment, without having to endure painfully expensive junk food and terrifying near misses with trams/bicycles, at home? ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, I hear you cry, ‘that’s not happening while the archaic Misuse of Drugs Act is in force’. But that’s not true, there have been cannabis ‘coffeeshops’ over here. Not because we have ever had a rational drug policy – perish the thought – but because some mavericks have decided they’re going to flout the law to make a point.

Having a tendency to gravitate towards these sorts of characters, I reached out to Chris Baldwin who opened Worthing’s first Dutch-style coffeeshop Quantum Leaf back in June 2002. Chris is an unrelenting veteran of the cannabis activism scene. “In 1969 I sent cannabis to the then prime minister, Harold Wilson, in the 70’s I joined the Legalise Cannabis Campaign, and in 2001 I joined the Legalise Cannabis Alliance and stood for parliament,” he told me earlier this week.

Just over five months, two police raids, and a court case later the shop was forced to shut due to mounting pressure from the council. I wanted to find out exactly what it’s like to open a cannabis café in a country where, um, it’s just not the done thing.

“I went to rallies and protests; I lobbied MPs and wrote letters, all sorts. But in the end it just got to the point where I thought that the only thing left to do now is to open up a coffeeshop and challenge society. I wanted to prove that cannabis doesn’t harm society.

“We had a glass-fronted menu on the wall with bags of weed and hash in and a dealer’s booth. We basically opened the coffeeshop to get busted. It was for political not financial gain.

“It was a very nice place to go; we had quite a lot of disabled customers who said that they didn’t feel safe going into pubs but they felt very safe going into our coffeeshop. We contributed towards the Christmas lights in the town and on Christmas Day we opened the coffeeshop up to the homeless. We gave them hot tea, coffee, cakes, there were bowls of weed on the tables, and when they left I gave them all a £10 bag of weed. We tried to give the money back to the community as often as we could.

“I was trying to get other people to open shops because when they busted me they had to get outside forces in to help them. So I figured if we had five coffeeshops in Worthing – and a union where we all helped each other – there’s no way they could have busted us all. We would’ve won through eventually. That’s how it became tolerated in Holland.”

Considering what he was doing was highly illegal it’s a bit strange that the police didn’t swoop on Quantum Leaf straight away. Chris believes that’s because they were testing the tolerance waters, so to speak. They wanted to see if letting some adults have a smoke would result in the collapse of civilisation (spoiler: it didn’t). “I knew a man called Eddy Edison who used to be the head of the drug squad at Scotland Yard. He said that basically somebody up in the corridors of power told the local police ‘look, keep your eye on the place but we want to see what goes on so we don’t want it busted just at the moment.”

That’s interesting, so who are the main types of people that frequent a UK coffeeshop? Do the clientele consist exclusively of hardcore smokers, or was it a wider representation of society? “It was a complete cross section,” Chris explained, chuckling to himself. “We offered ten per cent discount to nurses, firemen, doctors, and police. We had all sorts coming in there, all walks of life. If you take a look around, there is no such thing as a typical toker.”

Five months is a long time to get way with selling weed for, especially if the police know about it. So presumably Chris, who ended up owning two cannabis cafés in Worthing at one point, was living a pretty nice lifestyle when it was all over and done with? Maybe not: “I needed other people to help me make it work [that’s what you call a joint effort, sorry] but some of them just saw it as a place to line their pockets with money. There were plenty of rumours going round after it finished that I went away loaded but the fact of the matter was that I came out of it broke and in debt. It took me seven years to pay off the debts.”

Ouch. So he got into debt and ended up in court, did he think it was worth it in the end? “Oh yeah. It was worth it just in the sense that not long after that it went down to Class-C. It went back up but at least, for a short period of time, we got some progress you know?

“I’ve learnt not to do it again in a hurry. But it was quite an interesting time in my life and of all the jobs I’ve done it’s the one I enjoyed the most, I must admit.”

Fast forward to 2016, Durham’s police and crime commissioner, Ron Hogg, has insisted that he will not pursue cannabis users, in a bid to cut costs and keep users out of the criminal justice system. That’s a policy that, if rolled out nationally, would look very much like de facto decriminalisation to me. Maybe the idea of opening more coffeeshops would be ripe for development then – there’s already more than a whisper of a few operating out of East London. But, as the cannabis legalisation movement in the UK is prone to sudden, seismic shifts in public perception and more ups and downs than a hyperactive yoyo, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

“The one thing you’ve got to guard against the most is the criminals who want to try and get in and make money out of it,” were Chris’ parting words.

Look out for part two where we’ll be chatting to medicinal cannabis oil manufacturer Jeff Ditchfield.

Photos courtesy of Vincent Gallagher

Simon Doherty

Simon Doherty has written extensively about youth culture for a number of publications including NORML UK, VICE, and Mixmag.

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