Pubdate: Sat, 03 Aug 2002
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2002 Independent Newspapers (UK) Ltd.
Author: Matthew Beard


While inner-city cafes that allow covert smoking of cannabis escape
prosecution, confrontational tactics attract police attention

The secluded lounge area is beginning to thicken with the sweet smell
of sinsemilla at Cafe Cairo in Brixton, south London. Reclined among
the Egyptian cushions soon after 7pm, a dozen or so people chat,
listen to the soft vibes emanating from the DJ booth or craft a fresh
joint on the low-slung tables.

To a passer-by the cafe appears little more than a thriving business
selling coffee, juice and vegetarian snacks to a young crowd in this
mainly working-class area of Lambeth. But it has become the archetype
for a growing number of cannabis-tolerant cafes, bars and clubs in
metropolitan areas across Britain.

While the debate continues to rage over the Government's
reclassification of cannabis and the Lambeth experiment to cease
arrests for possession, the patrons and owners of cannabis-tolerant
cafes are wondering what all the fuss is about.

David Lodge, who opened Cafe Cairo five years ago, said: "I suppose I
could be busted at anytime, but somehow it never happens. I can only
think that the police have an order from on high that we should stay
open. I think they probably view us as a kind of experiment." Although
there are no drugs for sale on the premises, Cafe Cairo risks being
shut on the basis of a 16th-century anti-prostitution law that
prohibits a "house of ill-repute". But in common with the policing of
brothels nationwide, the authorities in Lambeth appear to have turned
a blind eye.

The cafe's customers appreciate the convenience of the adjacent
Greenleaf "grocery store", which Mr Lodge estimates makes UKP 20,000 a
week selling grass from a back room to a mainly white, middle-class
clientele. A man aged 32 with a stake in the business said they were
tolerated by police provided they kept Landor Road, a mainly
residential area, free of dealers.

Constantly watching for rival dealers, the man said: "If the
neighbours don't complain then the police are not interested. They
bust us occasionally but I think that is because of the political
pressure building up. The next bust is going to be big."

The alcohol-free cafe opens from 4pm to 1am and is frequented by a
mixture of people of Arab origin, drawn by the traditional drinks and
food menu and Arabic television, and career people including doctors,
barristers and not a few police officers. Mr Lodge claims it has been
the local of choice of several MPs' sons.

Mr Lodge does not advertise the cafe and the discreet, black-painted
shopfront is free of the cannabis leaves or rastafarian colours that
typically adorn Dutch-style coffee shops. In a further sop to the
authorities, Mr Lodge felt obliged towards the end of the one-year
Lambeth experiment to stick up a few token "No Drugs" posters near the
entrance - but that rule is instantly revealed to be defied. The
owners of such establishments appreciate that they are unlikely to win
explicit approval from police forces so they simply open a cafe and
insist to newcomers they do not permit smoking, while allowing the
regulars to do exactly that.

One cannabis entrepreneur who recently met Michael Fuller, a Deputy
Assistant Commissioner and the head of the Metropolitan Police's drugs
directorate, and Derek Benson, the divisional police chief for
Hackney, was told that, while stopping cannabis offences was not a
priority, he would be arrested for opening a coffee shop. Others have
learnt that the way to success is through subtlety and steering clear
of selling drugs.

For example Cafe 1001 in Brick Lane, east London, introduced a
separate smokers' room two years ago without a bat of an eyelid from
the local authorities. Leonor, the night-time manager, said: "When
people come in and ask if they can smoke we say 'no' but it has been
allowed for about two years now." Asked whether the cafe had attracted
the attention of either the Metropolitan Police or Tower Hamlets
council, she shrugged and said: "Nothing". Such low-profile tactics
have ensured the survival of up to 30 cannabis-friendly cafes and
bars in London, the majority in liberal Lambeth but others in
Lewisham, Camden, Tower Hamlets and Hackney. Although many caf=C3 and
bar owners prefer not to publicise their enterprises, there is no
shortage of places to smoke in Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and
Liverpool =E2=80=93 to name a few.

David Crane, a cannabis campaigner planning to open an upmarket coffee
shop in north London, said: "Reclassification is a fact of life in
most metropolitan areas of Britain. The reason I want to set up a
coffee shop is to meet new people and make cannabis smoking more
sociable. It's as harmless as that." The subtle approach could hardly
be more different to the Dutch-style "coffee shops" in Stockport and
Bournemouth that have been closed and their owners arrested. Earlier
this week the controversy surrounding Britain's first coffee shop, the
Dutch Experience in Stockport, deepened with the arrest for alleged
perjury of the elderly father of the campaigner Colin Davies, who is
in prison for drug offences.

The same confrontational approach by cannabis campaigners, possibly
carried away by the pace of change in the past 12 months, has seen
plans falter for openings in north Wales, Edinburgh and Leeds. Many of
those who attended a course in Haarlem, the Netherlands, this year on
opening a coffee shop have returned to stiff resistance.

Getting high - the law in Europe


The Netherlands has been in the vanguard of change in drug policy in
Europe. In 1972 the first coffee shop selling cannabis opened in
Amsterdam and there are now about 120 such establishments. Owners risk
losing their licence if they sell to under-18s or keep more than 500g
(18oz) of the drug on the premises. Cannabis is illegal although, in
effect, decriminalised.


Tens of thousands of tourists flock each year to buy and smoke
cannabis in the quasi-autonomous city of Christiania, which was set up
in 1971. Hard drugs have been banned but there is a lucrative cannabis
trade, mainly from Swedish teenagers who visit to smoke in the
notorious Pushers Street.


Smoking cannabis in bars, cafes and even on the streets is tolerated
and in most cases is ignored by the police. There are several
"headshops", but no obvious coffee shops selling the drug. In northern
Germany, courts have been dismissing charges against people carrying
small quantities of soft drugs.
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