Last week, DRCNet reported on Manchester's Dutch Experience cannabis cafe, noting that it had remained open for two months as authorities turned a blind eye and suggesting that it represented yet another sign that Britain's drug war was on its last legs. (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/211.html#ukdrugwar). The British anti-cannabis law may be dying, but even in its death throes, the beast can still do damage. Manchester police showed as much when they raided the Dutch Experience on Tuesday, arresting owner Colin Davies and two others on drug distribution charges and nine customers on cannabis possession charges.
That the raid came as BBC-TV interviewed Davies about whether the law was ignoring his illegal business is more than coincidental. Davies had operated quietly with the knowledge of Manchester authorities since September, with police noting that "[t]he police, in appropriate cases, exercise discretion and judgment." But after widespread press attention to the cafe last week, the police modified their earlier stance.
In a statement released after the raid, Superintendent Richard Crawshaw of the Greater Manchester Police said: "It would be unwise for anyone to make the assumption that flagrant defiance of the law has or ever will be tolerated by the police. The police in appropriate cases exercise discretion and judgment with regard to certain offenses of simple possession of cannabis, and each case is taken on merit. However, in the face of overt and challenging behavior which amounts to intention to break the law, our stance will be one of enforcement."
Well, sort of. While Davies and the others face charges, the Dutch Experience reopened the same day, and according to press reports, the doobies are burning furiously. Mark Chadwick, 39, who hurt his arm in a motorcycle accident and was enjoying the cafe after the raid told a New York Times reporter he loved the mellow atmosphere at the cafe. "It's nothing like going to a pub," he said. "It's like going to the theater instead of going to a movie. In a pub you spend all your time worrying about who's looking at you, who's going to throw a bottle at you."
Because the cafe bans hard drugs and alcohol, its neighbors are mellow, too. They told the Times they preferred smiley stoners to unpleasant drunks. "They always look so pleased, and they're really friendly," said Becky Lees about the Dutch Experience customers. Lees, who works the front desk at a health club across the street, said she welcomes cafe customers who come in search of food after their smokes. "We get a lot of business out of it, because they get the munchies and come and eat in our cafe," she said.
The broad social acceptance of the cannabis cafe at the same time it has been raided is indicative of the weird twilight zone in which British cannabis laws now exist. Although Home Secretary Blunkett has announced plans to stop arresting cannabis users come spring, the government has not yet dealt with the issue of cannabis distribution, and in the meantime, the current laws remain in effect. At the same time, cannabis enthusiasts such as Davies are pushing the envelope and forcing the authorities to make decisions on an ad hoc basis.
And Davies isn't done yet. The day before the raid, he was talking up plans for a similar cafe in Dundee, Scotland. Davies, whose Medical Marijuana Cooperative discreetly mails cannabis to patients as well as subsidizing their use at cafes through recreational sales, told the Courier newspaper that plans are well underway. "I believe the plan is to open a Dutch Experience style cafe in Dundee shortly after the new year," he said. "Plans are at an advanced stage."
Two out of three Dundee-area Scottish parliament members gave conditional support to the idea of a cannabis cafe. Dundee West MSP Kate Maclean, who has admitted to being a former cannabis user, said she would be "happy" to see cafes established if current laws were relaxed, while Dundee East representative John McAllion agreed that in those circumstances a cafe would be "fine with me."
Maclean said, "If the law is relaxed then I would be happy enough to see these types of regulated establishments set up in Scotland."
Scottish police are not so sanguine. In a statement issued Sunday, they said: "We have no knowledge of any plans to open a cannabis cafe in the city. As the law stands, anyone doing this in Scotland would be acting illegally."
But the law may not stand much longer. The government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs issued a report this week calling for the legalization of cannabis and its sale through a network of licensed cafes (http://www.drugscope.org.uk/druginfo/evidence-select/cannabislegislative.htm). The report, written by Mike Ashton, editor of the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Findings, said the battle against cannabis can never be won.
But Ashton also found positive reasons to support a regulated approach to cannabis. "More liberal policies toward the possession and use of small quantities of cannabis do not seem to have increased cannabis use," he noted. In fact, "[c]annabis use has remained relatively unaffected by different legislative frameworks," Ashton found.
Ashton also pointed to the danger under current policy of cannabis users encountering hard drugs. "Regulation may also break the linkage between cannabis and other illegal drugs, thereby disrupting the link between the cannabis market and the market for other illegal drugs," he wrote.
Such a disruption would presumably lessen the progression from cannabis to hard drugs, wrote Ashton. It would also be reasonable to assume that following regulation, cannabis would replace alcohol as the drug of choice among some members of society. "Should this occur, then the total damage to individuals and society may be less, as the medical and social risks of alcohol have been shown to outweigh those of cannabis."
The Labor government of Tony Blair may have thought it could silence the rising chorus of calls for reform with its move to reschedule cannabis, but instead it has only raised the noise level.