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In Search Of London’s Secret Cannabis Cafes

Attitudes towards cannabis are changing. In vast swathes of North America, it is now decriminalised or legal. In the UK, it remains a class B drug. But it’s not just lawmakers who are effecting change.

In London, there are now Amsterdam-style cannabis cafes quietly operating behind closed doors. With police intervention almost inevitable, the owners of these establishments are taking an enormous risk. Whether deliberate or not, they are bringing about change at street level and creating a bolder attitude amongst those who use cannabis.

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One particular cafe in east London has moved location several times due to police busts and tabloid exposés. “Journalists are the main reason we get closed,” one of its staff tells me over WhatsApp.

My first foray

First entering one such cafe through a nondescript door on a quiet side street, I am questioned by a security guard who then asks for ID. Considering they are exposing their operation to you, this is probably the least you can do to create mutual trust.

Feigning some sort of connection to a regular, I’m allowed in. Up a flight of stairs is another steel door which, like the first, is remotely unlocked by unseen eyes watching CCTV. Inside, I find a large room with spray-painted murals, Sky TV, a PlayStation, a pool table and plenty of customers sat around on the bench seating.

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Behind the counter is a bank of screens showing live feeds from around the building and down the street. Drinks, sweets and snacks are available in addition to OG kush and amnesia haze. If you have never seen this in the UK, it makes for an otherworldly experience.

I sit down, and a member of staff attentively comes over to wipe the table. This isn’t the drug dealer’s living room I had expected to find. Perhaps most interestingly, the customers seem to be from all walks of life. Those wearing tracksuits sit next to others in button-up shirts and brogues.

It’s a nervous endeavour, especially the first time. However, despite the subtle but persistent paranoia of knowing you’ve put yourself in the middle of something highly illegal, these cafes are replete with good vibes.

A change of location

I head to another cafe, this one secreted in a converted railway arch. On entering, I realise the owners have gone all out on the decor. The curved brick arch above the cafe plays host to another enormous mural. Meanwhile, the seating area is flanked by two six-foot fish tanks.

There’s a menu of cannabis products for sale — including hash and cookies — and a healthy number of patrons enjoying the freedom to consume them. Again, they are all different ages and from many different backgrounds.

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Some, you feel, are here to pose — at least to some extent — but others are just here for a good time. If it weren’t for the loud music, you would hear lots of laughter. Lighters are loaned and cigarette papers are gifted between people who might otherwise never mix. There’s a communality to cannabis culture.

Some arrive in large groups, bringing beer from the local off-licence. Others go it alone. One man studiously practises calligraphy while another seems to have taken something a bit more psychedelic. Nonetheless, he’s happy, chilled out and in good company.

Police intervention

Regularly having to lock down the building due to police knocking at the door, it seems the owners of this cafe were acutely aware of the growing police interest. Sometime after my visit, a huge bust led to several arrests and £20,000 of drugs being seized.

This was part of an 18-month investigation codenamed Operation Continuum which saw more than 350 arrests. “There is no hiding place for those who peddle drugs,” Detective Superintendent Mike Hamer said in relation to the incident.

There are joints across London.

Is cannabis illegal in UK and where is weed legal to smoke and buy?

  • 28 Dec 2019, 18:30
  • Updated : 20 Apr 2020, 13:39
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MARIJUANA has been illegal in the UK since 1928 – but will laws around the Class B drug be relaxed?

Here’s everything you need to know about drug laws on cannabis as they currently stand.

Is marijuana illegal in the UK?

Cannabis remains illegal to possess, grow, distribute, sell or grow in the UK.

Being caught with cannabis comes with a maximum of five years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

While being convicted of producing and supplying the Class B drug carries up to 14 years behind bars, an unlimited fine, or both.

Police can issue a warning or on-the-spot fine if you’re caught with a small amount – generally less than one ounce – if it is deemed for personal use.

Is it illegal to smoke cannabis in your own home?

Like all drugs in Britain, weed is regulated extremely stringently by the Government.

As the punishments suggest, it’s completely illegal to smoke weed anywhere in Britain – including on your own property.

However, some police forces have taken a more laid-back attitude to the recreational drug, which is believed to be the most popular in the UK.

Prosecution rates for cannabis possession are as low as 15 per cent in Cornwall and Devon, while Durham Police have said they will no longer target recreational users at all.

Is medical marijuana legal in the UK?

Medical forms of marijuana are available over the counter or by prescription in the UK – but it is heavily monitored and regulated.

Doctors were given the go-ahead to prescribe cannabis products to patients from November 1, 2018.

The new rules apply to England, Wales and Scotland, Sajid Javid said in a written statement.

It follows several high-profile cases, including young epilepsy sufferers Alfie Dingley and Billy Caldwell, whose conditions appeared to be helped by cannabis oil.

In order for a cannabis product to be considered medicinal it must meet three requirements: it “needs to be a preparation or product which contains cannabis, cannabis resin, cannabinol or a cannabinol derivative; it is produced for medicinal use in humans and; is a medicinal product, or a substance or preparation for use as an ingredient of, or in the production of an ingredient of, a medicinal product”, according to Mr Javid’s statement.

In July 2019, it was ruled that the NHS could prescribe cannabis-based medicine to treat Lennox Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome.

Trials of the drug were carried out at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital on children who were having multiple seizures a day.

Results showed the drug stopped the seizures in many cases and significantly reduced them in others.

The decision by the European Medicines Agency has to be confirmed in two months, but that is expected to be a formality paving the way for the liquid medicine to be available on the NHS later this year for dozens of children affected by the two conditions.

Where is weed legal?

Weed has been decriminalised for personal use in a number of countries, including the Netherlands and Portugal, which decriminalised the use of all drugs in 2001.

Canada legalised cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2001. But in October 2018 Canada became the first G7 nation to legalise recreational use of the drug.

In Australia, Puerto Rico, Poland, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia and Macedonia it is legal for medicinal purposes.

Some US states have legalised marijuana while others allow it for medicinal use only.

New York state was the latest to decriminalise recreational use in July 2019.

Possession of small amounts of the drug will be punished with fines rather than jail time, a step short of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s goal of legalising pot.

The Liberal Democrats became the first major British political party to support the legalisation of cannabis in March 2016.

How many people in the UK smoke weed?

The use of most drugs has declined in the UK since records began in 1996, according to a 2016 Home Office survey.

It found that cannabis was by some distance the most commonly used drug, with 6.5 per cent of adults aged between 16 and 59 smoking in the previous year.

Weed was also the most popular among those aged between 16 and 24, with 15.8 per cent using it in that same time.

The next popular drug was powdered cocaine.

When did cannabis become illegal in the UK?

Cannabis was banned in 1928.

Its medical use was outlawed in 1971 and growing plants was made illegal in 1964.

Here's everything you need to know about cannabis