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The Rise and Fall of UK Cannabis Social Clubs

Plumes of smoke waft through the air as teenagers and 50-somethings sit puffing on joints. Much of the cannabis being consumed here is from an array of high-strength strains – candy kush, strawberry banana and vanilla ammo – on sale at the UK cannabis social club in Teesside, England.

More than 850 Teesside Cannabis Social Club members pay £120 a year to use the club’s “Exhale Harm Reduction” facility near Stockton-upon-Tees in Northern England, which is open five days a week. The cannabis – mostly grown by about a dozen members – is sold for upwards of £20 for 3.5g, below the illegal market rate. 

Those relaxing and smoking the product explain what attracted them to the establishment. “It’s a safe space,” an 18-year-old man says. “If we weren’t here we’d be in a house where other people would be smoking harder drugs.” His 18-year-old female friend says she smokes cannabis because “it makes me feel happy when I’m sad,” while a 25-year-old guy playing guitar says, “I started smoking it cause the music sounds better. I get stressed really easily and it chills me out loads.”

 

What makes Teesside different

Teesside Cannabis Social Club is one of the only such clubs to have survived the pandemic. In 2019, when I visited, there were dozens – including a few that were said to be run in a similarly professional and ethical fashion – but many could not pay their rents as Covid measures kept people at home. Infighting, divergent visions, and arrests also put the movement into a tailspin. What also made Teesside different was that it was the only club that operated with the consent of authority.

“We were always unique,” says founder Michael Fisher. From the outset, he received backing from the late Durham Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Ron Hogg, and also enjoyed support from other senior policing figures such as former North Wales PCC Arfon Jones. “There were multiple people involved over the years of creating the model that I operate.”

The independent social club sits in the backrooms of a disused CBD store, between a pizzeria and a pet food store on a high street. They moved here from their previous premises on an industrial estate.  Written above the shop front is ‘#ifyouknowyouknow’ next to a painting of a man resembling Fisher in the style of Bob Marley, as well as a notice to enter by the side entrance. The pungent aroma of cannabis drifts into the vicinity from the patrons inside. 

Fisher established the club in 2014, inspired by the Spanish social club scene, in which hundreds of clubs are dotted around the country, with members growing the weed. The resilience of the Teesside club is not solely explained by the support it has enjoyed. Its success might be down to factors as simple as cheap rents, a particularly strong community and Fisher’s personality. Fisher, a father of four who also works as a consultant, has defiantly stood the test of time, while others have come and gone from the UK cannabis activism scene; some went into government, business, and institutional advocacy, others were disgraced and jailed, another ended up in prison for running a cannabis cafe, while poor health caused others to take a step back.

 

The Teesside Cannabis Social Club. Source: Exhale.

A divided cannabis movement

A resistance to campaign as a united front is what punctured the rising movement, according to Greg de Hoedt, who founded the UK Cannabis Social Clubs, a federation which helped inspire the founding of a disparate collection of enterprises in 2011. “It was amazing to see people replicating what we were doing in Brighton, but the downside was the lack of cohesion,” he says. “There weren’t enough clubs throwing money into the pot to help the campaign to fight for the right to do all of this legally.”

Back in 2016, de Hoedt said that consenting adults “shouldn’t have to hide away” and pretend cannabis is not part of their lives. But some of the activist-cum-entrepeneurs who established social clubs – a few of which had varying degrees of problematic illegal market involvement – seemed to resent de Hoedt’s growing reputation and were indifferent about subsidising his work, which included speaking to MPs, PCCs, the BBC, High Times and giving speeches across the country.

“He had very good intentions but he wasn’t the right person for the job,” says Fisher, who in September told the London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Drugs Commission there is demand for a cannabis social club in every postcode across the country. If all the cannabis reform factions had come together around 2016, he laments, “we wouldn’t have medical cannabis for £3,000 a month, but recreational across the board.” de Hoedt did not respond to a request for a response to Fisher’s comments.  

That might be slightly wishful thinking, but it reflects just how divided Fisher feels the scene was in the years before 2018, when extraordinary events effectively forced the British government to legalise medical cannabis after the ethical case became undeniable, and urgent. “A lot of these activists soon sold out when medical clinics offered jobs, surprise,” says Fisher.

 

New hope for cannabis clubs

But change continues to occur from the ground up, with one-in-13 adults in the UK thought to consume cannabis. Reforms in the US, Canada and Germany (which recently became the first major EU country to legalise recreational cannabis) are making activists out of cannabis consumers, who wish to assert their rights to consume a plant already legalised elsewhere. Legal medical cannabis lounges are springing up on high streets from the southwest of England to the north, providing community spaces for the thousands who have private prescriptions for cannabis flower and can legally vaporise it in public. 

Smokey Joe’s Medicinal Cannabis Consumption Lounge, which opened recently in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, says on Facebook that it aims to provide consumers of medical cannabis with “a safe, judgement free space to medicate.” Elsewhere, in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, a former hair salon is in the process of being converted into a cannabis social club, seemingly with the blessing of local police. “There are many clubs like this in the UK now,” a spokesperson told local media. “It’s not run by dickheads. There are rules and regulations in place. At the end of the day nothing anti-social will be going on, no tobacco smoking allowed.”

Police leadership appears to be uninterested in pursuing medical cannabis consumers, while arrests for cannabis cultivation plummeted long ago. Richard Lewis, UK National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for drugs, recently said in a press release circulated by medical cannabis clinic Mamedica: “Individuals that have a medical condition that could qualify them for a prescription yet are unable to obtain one can produce a card [from a third party] to officers for a quantity that they are not in lawful possession of.”

But it’s a postcode lottery: medical cannabis patients still face harassment from police in some places. Some have been arrested for possession, and public housing associations threaten people with eviction for consuming cannabis indoors, with police arriving at homes to issue anti-social behaviour orders. And at least a dozen people have been taken to court, mostly in relation to driving. Gary Youds, owner of the Chillin’ Rooms in Liverpool, was just released after a year of his third prison term after continuing to defy the law and sell cannabis openly in his Amsterdam-style coffeeshop, which first opened in 2005. He plans to reopen for this year’s 4/20, the most important date in the stoner calendar.

And with cannabis social clubs rising again, alongside medical cannabis lounges, the ubiquitous presence of ganja on high streets is getting ever more official. The winds of change smell like weed – even if the major political parties seem hell bent on leaving a multi-billion pound industry in the hands of street dealers. “Our cannabis club is not simply somewhere for people to smoke cannabis, it’s a harm reduction centre and community hub that caters to medical and recreational users,” says Fisher. “Medical is a toe in the water, but full decriminalisation and regulation is what is needed for all adult cannabis users.”

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