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.
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.
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.
Yet these cannabis cafes persist. The setup is usually fairly standard. Pool, graffiti and cannabis. Some owners ensure that all customers are signed up as members. At others, you can pretty much walk in. However, they are nearly always down a quiet side street, through an alley or on an industrial site.
An intrinsically countercultural phenomenon, it's nice to romanticise this trend as a grassroots movement with some sort of key principle at its core. However, in addition to the 350 arrests, Operation Continuum also saw £350,000 of cash seized. Sadly, perhaps it is the enormous amount of money to be made that forms the main reason these cafes still operate to this day.
Featured image: @greengategas