Pubdate: Sun, 01 Feb 2004
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Tom Lappin


The opening last week of a cannabis cafe in Edinburgh, in the shadow of the 
Scottish executive, attracted all the usual suspects, discovered Tom Lappin

It's an unlikely place to start a revolution. But then it's an unlikely 
cause. The vociferous crowd gathering on a Leith street late on Thursday 
afternoon wasn't interested in storming any Bastilles, merely on finding a 
place where they could partake of a prohibited weed. Perhaps it's 
indicative of the current level of political engagement in Scottish society 
that the cravings of a small band of dedicated dope smokers could kick up 
such a heady cloud.

All that seems to distinguish the - let's just call it 
the Purple Haze cafe shall we? - from any other basement greasy spoon is 
the corny Jimi Hendrix reference. Otherwise the tatty decor, with its 
cracked paint and sagging posters, doesn't quite convey an atmosphere of 
thrilling revolt so much as snatched lunches eaten on the hoof.

Amsterdam's famous brown cafes are instantly recognisable by the narcotic 
fug that defies all attempts by the air-conditioning to dispel it, and by 
the pockets of American dope tourists fixing their glazed eyes at the wall 
and groaning "maaan". Scotland's first cannabis cafe already has its own 
telltale aroma, redolent of Scotland's drug of choice for generations: the 
deep-fat fryer.

This was the week when Purple Haze attempted to make the far-from-seamless 
transition from being a snack bar offering several calorie-soaked 
variations on the hamburger roll, to become a testing ground for the 
supposed new liberalisation of the cannabis laws.

Thanks to the keen presence of the constabulary, it didn't quite pan out 
that way, but then first initiatives are rarely roaring successes. What was 
remarkable, though, was the level of opposition to the project. If they 
said it couldn't happen here, well they may have been right. In the event, 
it looks like marijuana nirvana might still be some way in the future.

San Francisco? Sure. Amsterdam? Definitely. Edinburgh as a haven for 
third-generation hippie bohemia? Unlikely. Putting aside all moral, legal 
and health aspects, Scotland's capital simply doesn't seem to have the 
panache to become a spliff-roller's sanctuary.

Yet Purple Haze, a short trip from the Scottish executive's offices by the 
Leith shore, was hoping to make a little psychedelic history at 4pm on 
Thursday. That was when the drug was reclassified as a class C narcotic and 
the decreed hour for Purple Haze to offer a tentative challenge to authority.

The idea was to turn the premises into a private club where members could 
bring small amounts of cannabis for their personal use. Paul Stewart, the 
owner, while half expecting his own arrest, emphasised that the club would 
have a "responsible attitude", placing an emphasis on providing drug 
education (some leaflets) along with facilities for members to use the weed.

"We recognise people use cannabis and want to provide an environment where 
they can do that as safely as possible," he said, nurturing, it seemed, a 
romantic notion of the place as a cool den of cerebral relaxation. "People 
will be able to bring their own cannabis here and smoke it while playing a 
game of chess or sending an e-mail," he added, identifying a potential 
benefit: quick access to your dealer, or lawyer, if and when required.

In a curious twist, the club has banned the use of tobacco on the premises. 
In addition, pre-empting some of the complaints from health fanatics that 
cannabis users can suffer the same risks as tobacco smokers, those wanting 
a cannabis hit were invited to make use of vaporiser machines. These 
contraptions look a little like overgrown asthma inhalers and reportedly 
filter out most of the carcinogenic substances in the drug.

If some of these particulars seem surprising, events began to unfold with 
grim predictably. As official spliffing-up time approached a media scrum 
ensued, with hopeful users joined on the streets by three ranks of press 
photographers taking drags on their cigarettes in between snatching shots 
of the murky interior.

The putative members of the club seemed to have been assembled by a casting 
director looking for a shiftless squad of dope fiends, with plenty of 
goatees, grins and those woolly hats beloved of mountaineers and social 
refuseniks. The numbers were too small to suggest a broad grassroots demand 
for cannabis cafes, but numerous enough to show it wasn't just a fad among 
a small clique of dope heads. The determination to register as members was 
impressive given the firm presence of the authorities.

One of them, identifying himself only as "Davie, because that's not my name 
like", was laughing at the inescapable comedy of the scene, but wanted to 
show some support for those brave enough to defy the law.

James Duthie, a labourer from Leith, was disappointed that the police 
presence prevented him lighting up a joint, but he still found solace in 
the scene. "Even without smoking the place is so mellow," he said. "You 
wouldn't get this atmosphere in pubs. They are far more dangerous than any 
cannabis cafe."

So much for the patrons - what of the police? As the hour of freedom grew 
closer, the force began to be felt. It started early on with a discouraging 
picket line of three officers handing out leaflets. Issued by Douglas 
Watson, a chief superintendent with the Lothian and Borders police, the 
statement made the legal position fairly unequivocal. "The possession and 
supply of cannabis continues to be an offence under Section 5 of the Misuse 
of Drugs Act 1971," it read. "The management of premises also commit an 
offence if they knowingly allow any person to smoke cannabis on their 
premises, allow persons to supply cannabis on their premises, or offer to 
supply any article which may be used in the administration by any person of 
a controlled drug."

That clause looked an effective way of stitching up the Purple Haze 
operation, outlawing those ingenious vaporisers, and delivering the message 
that while the authorities in England and Wales might be relaxing the 
policing of cannabis users, Scotland would remain thoroughly intolerant.

But for all their strong words, the police avoided searches and seemed 
reluctant to take firm action. Nevertheless three arrests for drugs 
offences were reported. The big test is likely to come in the weeks ahead, 
unless the Lothian constabulary plans to have officers on permanent 
assignment. Perhaps this may even call for the revival of that 1960s 
archetype, the narc; an undercover officer in street attire that is just a 
couple of telltale years behind the times. And an Afro.

That's the problem with cannabis, its whole image is wrapped up with a kind 
of benign idiocy. As a drug it is analogous with a dumb, furry freak 
brother loser ineffectualness. It's very difficult to take it 
seriously,either as a threat to western civilisation or as a campaigning 
issue worth getting exercised about.

At one end of the spectrum you have those who maintain cannabis is a 
"gateway" drug leading inexorably to the abuse of more harmful narcotics; 
at the other you have those who boast of its efficacy as an alternative 
medicine. Both extremes have supporting evidence that just isn't strong 
enough to win the day.

One of the first members on the Purple Haze roster was Tommy Sheridan, the 
ubiquitous Scottish Socialist party leader. If his political starting 
point, campaigning against the poll tax, might have been his zenith as a 
public figure, standing up for the rights of dope smokers might well prove 
his nadir.

"We want to take drugs off our streets," he said, slightly mysteriously, 
because gangs of slack-jawed dope smokers on street corners are hardly a 
constant social problem in Scotland.

Sheridan said he didn't partake himself, but he had turned up to show 
solidarity with the cafe's campaign. The fact that there were numerous 
camera crews and TV interviewers around wouldn't have put him off.

Those who haven't been systematically eroding their brain cells may recall 
a time when the doctrine of socialism was about equality, the rights of the 
working man, grim-faced marches from Jarrow, that kind of thing. Now it 
seems that a pillar of the SSP's struggle is the right of the average 
stoner to lounge around in a basement getting off his face without being 
molested by the forces of state oppression.

Kevin Williamson, the SSP drugs spokesman, whose incoherent protest in the 
Scottish parliament against George W Bush last year might as well have been 
the product of an altered mind, explained that his party's aim is to 
establish a network of tolerance zones across Scotland. To that end he has 
launched the Scottish Cannabis Coffee-shops Movement (SCCM) alongside 
Stewart and drugs researcher Neil Montgomery. The idea, Williamson 
suggests, is "to bring it into the open. Let's show that cannabis users 
aren't the deranged psychotics in the way the newspapers are trying to 
portray them".

Williamson wants Purple Haze to be the first in a Dayglo network of such 
cafes across Scotland. This, he suggests, is only a holding measure until 
Holyrood has the powers to decriminalise the drug and Scotland can become 
one nation under a dope haze.

Frances Curran, his party colleague, is a fellow traveller. She asked: "Why 
not legalise cannabis now and stop another 100,000 young people going 
through the criminal justice system? It would save a fortune in the 
courts." Sure, and while you're at it why not just legalise crime?

There doesn't seem to be much sense coming from any quarter. In parliament 
Margo McDonald, the Independent MSP, offered a typically idiosyncratic 
view, worrying about the contents of Purple Haze's dessert trolley.

"There will be people there eating cannabis cakes," she said. "That could 
mean the police have to test all the cakes in the shop, which would be a 
waste of time and money."

As it turned out, the constabulary took only a cursory interest in Purple 
Haze's pastries, and managed to resist the temptation to impound a tray of 

The problem with all this hot air, accidentally entertaining though much of 
it might be, is that it is expended on such a pointless argument. In truth, 
the prime selling point of cannabis cafes in Amsterdam is that they are 
illegal in the rest of the world.

Hence they are full of tourists giggling at the right to get off their 
faces in public without being arrested. It's not unlikely the legalisation 
of cannabis use would make the cannabis cafe redundant in that it does not 
encourage social interection to the level that alcohol does. Stewart and 
his colleagues are guilty of a certain degree of disingenuousness in 
failing to acknowledge that ultimately, the essential point of a cannabis 
cafe is as a point of supply.

In the same way as there would be no future in cafes where customers came 
along to consume their own coffee and steak pie suppers, the only viable 
path for cannabis cafes would be to follow the Dutch pattern. There it 
involves sampling every variety of the potent homegrown variants fresh from 
the hydroponic producers now occupying the Dutch hinterland that used to be 
devoted to innocent tulips.

This is where the plans of those who support such ventures as Purple Haze 
collapse or rather come smacking up against legislation that is never going 
to budge on the issue of supply or production, even if it might give the 
occasional grudging inch on possession.

In any case, it is questionable whether those people who use cannabis 
regularly really need to partake of it in a dingy mauve basement when it's 
far more comfortable to do so in the seclusion of their own homes.

Sitting in Purple Haze last week, I was far from convinced that there was 
enough going for the project to make dreary Leith a touch more colourful on 
a Thursday afternoon. But hey, you can still get a hamburger and chips or a 
roll and sausage.
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman