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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Stockport goes Dutch
Smoker photo by SPL
Not legal, but smokers no longer risk arrest (SPL photo)

Dutch entrepreneurs are preparing to test the UK's soft drug laws by opening up to 50 cannabis cafes. But there is already one such British establishment defying the police... in Stockport.
The opening of a so-called cannabis cafe in Stockport last September seems not to have caused the drab town on the outskirts of Manchester to descend into reefer madness.

Despite the media attention surrounding an establishment which openly flouts UK drug laws by allowing its customers to consume marijuana, many locals are unaware of its exact location.

"I've worked here for eight month and have never found it," says one man standing, as it happens, just a few hundreds yards from The Dutch Experience.

A cannabis protest in Westminster
The Dutch Experience is taking on Westminster
Close by a council flower planter boasting a few (unsmokeable) errant hemp leaves, a group of teenagers is even less help. Their ignorance of the cafe seems to suggest the town's youth are barely interested in - let alone being corrupted by - their proximity to soft drugs.

While not signposted, The Dutch Experience turns out to be no secretive drug den.

Situated in a cobbled arcade, the cafe's neighbours include a hairdressers, a jewellery shop and a fitness centre, where sandwiches can be ordered by those hungry for something more substantial than the cafe's crisps and chocolate bars.

Caffeine and cannabis

Inside the air is not exactly heavy with the odour of hashish. In fact the smell of instant coffee seems to be winning the day.

Making a marijuana cigarette
The cafe is discreet, but not hidden
The serious smoking takes place in a members' room, into which you can only enter once you have provided two photos, shown your passport and signed a declaration that you are "not in anyway a police officer or informant of the police".

The form is useless in any legal sense, but is an act of defiance for a place raided three times by the local constabulary and whose creator, medicinal cannabis advocate Colin Davies, is in Strangeways Prison for his troubles.

Despite this, at least three customers are waiting in the public cafe to join up, the whole process of filling forms and issuing laminated cards going as efficiently as can be expected from a business conducted in a dope haze.

Softly softly approach

The walls are covered with graffiti, mainly variations on the theme "weed is good".

Any spare space is given over to "Free Colin Davies" posters, a photo of Mr Davies giving the Queen a bouquet laced with hemp leaves and a picture of Brian Paddick - the London police officer who pioneered leniency towards soft drug use.

Stacked beside the stereo are exactly the sort of CDs you'd expect to be on heavy rotation. Bob Marley, The Chemical Brothers, Bob Dylan... and er, Chris Rea.

Commander Brian Paddick
Pot pin-up: Commander Paddick
Berry - a young clog-wearing Dutchman who once guided tourists around Amsterdam's government-tolerated cannabis coffee shops - says the 1,200-strong clientele doesn't really fit the stoner stereotype.

"This place is busier than any coffee shop I've ever seen in Amsterdam. In the day it's mainly medicinal users - people in wheelchairs and on crutches.

"We have the suits popping in at lunchtime. Then at night it's a bit more recreational - nurses, teachers, that sort of person. Our youngest member is 18, the oldest 90-something."

Berry is keen to stress the cafe's service to those who say their use of cannabis eases the symptoms of serious illness. "We have people with cancer, Aids, multiple sclerosis - not drug scene people at all. It's criminal that the government makes them go to street dealers who sell harder drugs too."

Pot for pain

Though many of today's smokers are fit and healthy (though hardly bright-eyed) young men, Caroline - who smokes because of a crippling spinal problem - backs up Berry's argument.


It's the only thing that lets me get out of my wheelchair

Caroline
"I was always dead against cannabis. I even shopped my son to the police when I found out he'd taken it. But now it's the only thing that lets me get out of my wheelchair and walk with my crutches."

Caroline says she doesn't mind sharing the cafe with recreational users. "As a woman, I wouldn't go into a pub alone. Here I feel comfortable. We're a community that looks after one another."

The community spirit doesn't extend to the cafe's landlord - who is said not to be keen on his outlaw tenant and is no longer cashing the rent cheques. So what do the neighbours think of The Dutch Experience?

Marijuana
Some smokers seek pain relief
Hardly a tourist Mecca, the cafe has at least raised Stockport's profile.

"We had lots of enquires by phone and in person when the cafe was first in the news," says a woman from the nearby tourist information office.

Further upwind from the pungent extractor fan which services the cafe's members' room, one shopkeeper professes to not understanding what all the fuss is about.

"They're no trouble. You get some people hanging around, but they're too spaced out to cause any trouble."


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06 Jun 02 | Wales
30 Oct 01 | Politics
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