No smoke without ire

July 20, 2002

So here we are in Homegrown Fantasy, a coffee shop in the middle of Amsterdam run by a tall man with a pubic goatee on his chin and cannabis leaves tattooed over his luminously pale body. The blackboard offers cheese toasties and organic apple juice, but it’s the other menu we’re interested in, the one listing space cakes, chocolate space bonbons, ready-made joints and a range of skunk in five- and ten-Euro sachets.

Kevin Williamson turns a jaundiced eye on the decorated tabletops with their intergalactic vistas and all-seeing eyes. “There’ll be no cosmic swirls or 60s bollocks in my coffee shop.”

Williamson plans to open Scotland’s first cannabis café: a members-only establishment for over-18s, with chessboards, gallery space, a cinema showing non-Hollywood films, and a radical bookshop. The sort of “hang out, chill out, do-what-you-want” place that will become a fixture on the Edinburgh social scene. He’ll run the occasional literary event, and he’ll serve very good coffee.

Preparations are well advanced. He has found premises in the city centre and taken an option on the lease (the location is a secret until he’s sounded out his prospective neighbours). He has backers to help with the £40,000 start-up cost (and no, he’s not identifying them either). He has a number of suppliers lined up and has chosen the seeds he wants them to grow. Some 240 people have applied for up to eight part-time and full-time jobs. The Rebel Inc coffee shop will definitely open before the end of the year. He just has one or two details to sort out first. Whether he’s going to sell cannabis or open the café as a cannabis-friendly space where punters bring their own. Whether the police are likely to arrest him. What his chances are of going to jail. Little things like that.

And the booth. Even if he does not end up selling cannabis, he will have a booth, as a reminder of what should be. The booth is crucial to the ritualistic pleasure of cannabis-buying, with its perspex jars of bud and hash, its under-the-counter worktop equipped with scales and cutting board and those dinky self-seal plastic sachets. The booth is where the dealer (invariably, in my limited experience, a man) conducts his mysteries. Some booths also display smoker’s accessories: pipes, bongs, pouches, penknives, cigarette papers, rolling mats and other fetishistic paraphernalia.

Just as you get wine bores, so there are cannabis bores. Monomaniacs. Fanatics. Kevin Williamson doesn’t fit the mould. Yes, he’s drugs spokesman for the Scottish Socialist Party, the man who founded Scotland Against Drugs Hypocrisy and wrote Drugs and the Party Line, but he’s not an obsessive: he just sees the possibilities in the politics of pleasure. Give him the choice between a good smoke and a good book and he’d take the book every time. He’s the man everyone thinks published Trainspotting. He didn’t; but he did launch Laura Hird and Toni Davidson, start the Rebel Inc imprint and edit the cult anthology Children of Albion Rovers. He’s a countercultural entrepreneur. His website attracted 100,000 hits in its first two months. If anyone can make a go of a cannabis café, he can.

This visit to Amsterdam is the latest of many fact-finding trips for him; for me it’s a 24-hour immersion in cannabis culture. We visit holes-in-the-wall and spacious premises with floor-to-ceiling windows; a self-consciously exotic smoking den filled with brass elephants and Indian deities; a stylish example of contemporary art nouveau; a tatty former nightclub filled with pool tables; a no-frills working man’s caff. The music ranges from the trancy and trippy to head-scrambling jazz, pounding reggae and guitar-solo 1970s rock. Clearly coffee shops are a branch of the leisure industry well aware of the advantages of niche-marketing. The menus offer “bio” or “hydro” (soil-grown or hydroponically grown – connoisseurs say soil is better), and give their products names like El Nino and The Big Bang. There’s even a bubble gum-flavoured smoke. Nice and light, apparently. “Some smokes are very mongy,” Kevin says, making the face of a man who’s eaten three helpings of steamed pudding.

It may be time for a confession: I’m not a wide-eyed ingénue when it comes to cannabis, nor one of those news-room hashheids who feign astonished outrage in print; I just haven’t smoked since school. Kindly, Kevin fills me in on current argot. Stoners (serious smokers), soap bar (the low quality cannabis available in Scotland), skinning up (rolling a joint), having a whitey (feeling dizzy and nauseous). Then there are the many words for the drug itself. Bud (grass). Hash (the resinous form). Smoke. Puff. Jack Straw. There’s a two second time-lag before I realise he’s joking.

He would like the Rebel Inc coffee shop to sell between eight and ten types of bud with a range of different effects, so that people could choose between getting high and getting stoned. He won’t sell hash, which would have to be imported, with no guarantee that the workers involved in its production had not been exploited, and he won’t deal with the criminal black market. If someone wanted to smoke the strong, trippy White Widow strain in the middle of the afternoon he’d ask them why, and what they were planning on doing later, recommending that they try the lighter Buddha instead. All he’s proposing is a refinement of the current situation. Scots already smoke cannabis. He just wants them to be able to do so in a nice funky café with an element of harm reduction and increased consumer choice, instead of the pot-luck system offered by the black market.

So what sort of clientele does he expect? He shrugs. Regular smokers, tourists, locals, the curious. People in search of a civilised night out who don’t want to hang out with drunks. “In Scotland our entire social life is organised around alcohol. It saturates our society. It’s really enjoyable, but it’s a drug that’s so easy to abuse and causes so many problems. Edinburgh has become Stag and Hen Night Central. Take a walk down Lothian Road or the Grassmarket on a Friday or Saturday: it’s a nightmare. You want somewhere where there’s not going to be a bunch of pissheads staggering about.”

Somewhere like the cannabis-selling coffee shop we’re in now: “When you look around in a place like this you think ‘what’s the problem?’ People sitting around, having a chat, having a smoke, enjoying the weather – where’s the threat to public order?”

Where indeed? We’re surrounded by Gap customers. T-shirts, chinos, well-laundered denims, wire-rimmed spectacles: the homogeneously youthful style worn by just about everyone not yet eligible for a bus pass.

All journalism is censored. Not necessarily by the editor. As often as not by the reporter, neglecting to mention a fact because it would cause needless difficulty or embarrassment. Writing about cannabis, journalistic tact rapidly reaches the point of absurdity. The fact is that cannabis is smoked in Scotland’s schemes and middle class suburbs, not just by superannuated hippies and unemployed youth, but by accountants, dentists, computer programmers, catering managers, window cleaners, bus drivers, hairdressers … In most circumstances they’re quite open about this, but they don’t wish to be identified in print.

It seems a harmless hypocrisy – unless you happen to be one of the 90,000 people arrested every year for cannabis possession in the UK. Then the double standard starts to matter.

Politicians and the police are old hands at this doublethink. So Tony Blair can say he is sympathetic to users of “medical marijuana”, assuring multiple sclerosis sufferers, cancer patients, and people with serious spinal injuries that the government is conducting trials into the effectiveness of cannabis as a source of pain relief. And yet Biz Ivol, an MS sufferer on the Orkney island of South Ronaldsay, is awaiting trial for allegedly making cannabis-laced chocolates. The Scottish police are reported to have decriminalised cannabis possession through a policy of ignoring small amounts held for personal use. But possession is still against the law.

Earlier this month David Blunkett announced a shake-up of the drug laws to take effect from next July. Cannabis was reclassified from a class B to a class C drug; the power of arrest for possession was replaced by confiscation and a caution. So far so good for people like Kevin Williamson. Less encouraging was an increase in the maximum sentence for supplying from five to 14 years. The law remains riddled with anomalies. There is a two-year penalty for “aggravated possession”. In Scotland, where police do not have the power to caution, possession of cannabis will continue to be reported to the fiscal. The Home Secretary seems to be saying that smoking the odd joint is not the worst thing in the world – but if a cannabis smoker happens to meet the odd policeman who thinks it is, they could be in trouble.

Fifteen years ago, legalisation of cannabis was a fringe issue, the pet subject of a few 1960s survivors. The weed was widely smoked, but no-one bothered to campaign. Then came the dance revolution of the late 1980s, and a massive cultural shift in attitudes towards drugs, bringing an upsurge in cannabis-smoking among the young. A generation left cold by the mainstream political parties woke up to the injustice of a system which forbade them their relatively harmless drugs of choice while accepting the sale of the far more pernicious drugs, alcohol and tobacco. A majority of the population under the age of 50 now want to see cannabis decriminalised.

Several European countries are moving in this direction. In Spain and Belgium citizens are allowed to grow plants for personal use. In Germany possession is tolerated, and a number of shops sell cannabis under the counter. In Switzerland they’ll sell you hemp, as long as you pretend you want it for potpourri. In Holland cannabis smoking has been tolerated since 1976. Coffee shop proprietors are permitted to keep 500 grammes of cannabis on the premises at any one time; under-18s are not allowed in. Though Amsterdam has coffee shops which double as bars (catering to a mix of locals and the tourist trade), elsewhere alcohol and cannabis are not sold in tandem. Far from seeing an explosion in cannabis use, the tolerance policy seems to have made little difference. The 1980s saw an increase, but only in line with the trend across Europe. In recent years the number of cannabis-selling coffee shops has fallen from 1,400 to 900. An estimated 15 per cent of the population indulge. The Christian Democrats in Holland’s coalition government are not happy, but no-one seriously expects the tolerance policy to be reversed. Holland’s drug policies work.

Haarlem is a city of 160,000 souls just outside Amsterdam, in the heart of the tulip bulb area. Once it was the centre of the chocolate industry, now it’s one of those eclectic economies: shops, the Dutch business school, the mint. Nol Van Schaik is a native. “Born, raised and detained here,” he says laughing, but it’s not a joke. He served four years for an attempted bank robbery. These days he’s a drug dealer, owner of three of Haarlem’s 16 coffee shops, and it’s all perfectly legit.

He cuts a striking figure, with his semmit exposing those bodybuilder’s shoulders and that golden tan outshone by the necklace which – yes, really – is a linkage of miniature gold joints. He used to be national coach to the Dutch bodybuilding federation, but his gym went bankrupt and he needed money in a hurry, and … well, he learned a lot in prison. He became chairman of the inmates’ federation, got himself a business diploma, brushed up his English and Spanish. Never touched cannabis until he was 30. He went over to Germany with an American football team and got so stoned passive-smoking in the close confines of the bus that he thought he might as well try a joint on the return trip. It was a decision which changed his life. He opened his first coffee shop 11 years ago.

Kevin couldn’t have chosen a better mentor. Nol’s built up a thriving business. Along with his three coffee shops and his cannabis taxi delivery service, he is planning to launch a cannabis boat for pleasure trips along Haarlem’s canals, and he’s thinking of selling to the UK online. He takes all major credit cards. If there’s a queue at the booth you can drop some coins into a vending machine and get a joint. (“How cool is that?” Kevin murmurs admiringly.) He also runs the city’s cannabis museum, a loss-making venture which he subsidises for educational reasons. They see a lot of schoolteachers and foreign police.

He has customers from all walks of life. Workers, guys in neckties. They even get big cars stopping outside and the chauffeur nipping in for two bags – one for himself and one for his employer. The busiest time is between five and six when people get out of work. The local cops are meant to be discreet and take off their uniforms before they pop in for a smoke, but they rarely bother.

His relationship with the police is extremely cordial. There’s supposed to be an annual meeting to discuss any problems, but they haven’t bothered for the past couple of years. There hasn’t been a complaint involving a coffee shop in three years: what’s there to meet about? “I said ‘I’ve a complaint, I don’t like the 500 gramme rule. You find me possessing 700 grammes, do you confiscate the lot or just 200?’ They said ‘we never weigh your stuff so it won’t happen’.”

It makes him a good living, but cannabis is more than just a money-spinner. “It’s not a calling, but it’s close,” he says. He runs a training course for aspiring coffee shop proprietors; he is one of the backers of the Dutch Experience, the cannabis café opened in Stockport last year; he donated the furniture to England’s other cannabis café, in Bournemouth. Nol believes in this drug.

He’ll tell you how he provides medical marijuana at a 50% discount to people who need it for pain relief; how eating cannabis chocolate helps multiple sclerosis sufferers stay spasm-free all night; how 90 per cent of the trouble in Amsterdam originates in bars selling alcohol, eight per cent in establishments selling both cannabis and booze, and only two per cent in cannabis coffee shops. He’s been in pubs in Stockport on Friday night: he’s seen the fights break out. In his coffee shops, if people raise their voices it’s because someone’s scored at table football.

About 75 per cent of his turnover is grown in Haarlem: “The little grower in his shed took care of organised crime.” If the government ever abandoned the tolerance policy he’d have to sack his two dealers. They’d start claiming benefits and working the black market. The medical marijuana users would lose their 50 per cent discount. The government would have to do without the tax he pays. Everybody would lose. “In Holland you’ve got a right to a rush. We’re down to earth. If it doesn’t bother the community: fine, then everybody’s happy with it.”

Kevin Williamson is hoping the British government will eventually come round to this way of thinking.

The UK cannabis market is currently worth £3.5 billion. If prices stayed as they are on the black market, a 50 per cent tax would put £1.75 billion into the Exchequer. In the meantime, he is counting on the Scottish Executive and Lothian Police letting him run the Rebel Inc coffee shop as an experiment. They may wish to test his claim that prohibition merely exacerbates the problems caused by drugs while enriching the criminals. They may see the sense in breaking the link between soft and hard drugs, so that the cannabis smoker – buying in a café – never comes into contact with the dealers selling heroin and cocaine. They may think that the harm-reduction approach is the way forward.

And if they don’t?

“I don’t want to be a martyr, I’ve no intention of being involved in some kamikaze stunt, I don’t think it’s the way to do it – but if you end up in prison, you end up in prison. It doesn’t scare me, put it that way.”

Most politicians make the mistake of dabbling with this and that issue, achieving nothing. He intends to concentrate his efforts on cannabis, confident that the power of logic will win the day when the time is right. There’s a huge cross-section of society with him on this one. “I intend to see it all the way through, no matter how long it takes.”

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications