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UK: Inside Britain's cannabis clubs where doctors, architects and bankers enjoy a joint

Cara MacGoogan and Jamie Johnson

The Telegraph

Friday 10 Aug 2018

To passersby, the monthly Saturday afternoon gathering of 150 people on Eastney beach near Portsmouth could be a family picnic or community fundraiser. From afar, you can see jerk chicken cooking on a barbecue, children playing with the pebbles and a raffle table covered with prizes.

But look a little closer and you will see the raffle numbers are attached to Rizla cigarette rolling papers, herb grinders and bongs.

A member of the group will ask those who approach to see their membership card, and there will be a telltale smell of cannabis in the air, which nearby police have chosen to overlook.

This week, a spotlight has been thrown on cannabis social clubs, where people gather to smoke and consume the drug in public venues such as town halls, office blocks, beaches, cafes and pubs, which otherwise host knitting circles and craft fairs, serve food to customers and are places of work.

Police have real crimes to sort out, we act like weed is legalSy Dingam

The clubs began seven years ago as a way for people who used the drug to treat medical conditions to socialise. Now, there are now 160 across the country, stretching from north of Aberdeen to south of Newquay.

The UK Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC) is an umbrella organisation that represents and regulates all outlets. Founded in 2011, it wants to legalise weed and introduce those who consume the drug to one another. It is modelled on the speakeasy-style cannabis groups in Spain.

They operate in a similar way to private members clubs: people must pay to join and verify their age and identity before they are given membership cards and access to the location and dates of events.

Members include everything from doctors and nurses to architects, MPs’ families, barristers and bank managers. The exact number of members is unknown, but on average each club has around 300, a figure that is growing with awareness. Brighton, the largest club, has more than 700, according to UK Cannabis Social Clubs (UKCSC).

“It’s like a pub without the drink and the trouble,” says Sy Dingam, chairman of the Hampshire Cannabis Community, which organised the event on the beach. “There’s music, tea and coffee. People mingle and have a chat. Outdoor events look like a family do: people bring their kids and it has the feel of a big picnic.”

As is typical of the clubs, members in Hampshire range from 18 (the minimum age) to 70-something, with the average person in their 40s. Up to 80 per cent use cannabis for medical conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, depression and Crohn’s disease.

The clubs largely operate with impunity, as police across the country willingly turn a blind eye. “Everybody uses it like it’s legal and the police don’t do anything; they’ve got real crimes to sort out,” says Dingam, 45.

On Friday night, at the Teesside cannabis club on the third floor of a quiet industrial estate, just a walk away from Cleveland Police station, there is a steady trickle of members, mostly men.

They’re expecting at least thirty people. A trainee barrister is out of town, but usually pops in.

Christine Taylor is sat behind a reception desk in the former call centre, joint in hand, serving hungry customers chocolate bars, crisps and on occasion, ham and cheese toasties for £2.

“Everyone looks out for each other here. We are friends, and come from all over. There has never been any trouble” she says

The club has four rooms as well as the reception. Inside a garish blue space is a pool table, while an air hockey table takes pride of place in a room painted purple. In a red room, which acts as a 'no smoking' living room, the leather sofas are facing towards a television tuned to BBC One.

An extractor fan is working in overdrive but the air still hangs thick with the smell of cannabis. You could catch a whiff from outside, but club founder Michael Fisher, 33, says the only police visit they have had in four years was from a PCC [Arfon Jones, from North Wales, who has said he is "sympathetic" to the clubs] wanting to know how it works.

The Teesside club is one of only 13 that have a permanent venue. “We rent this place for £9,000 a year. The owner is a wealthy Lib Dem supporter who is fully aware of what we are doing and has no problem," says Fisher.

Sat in the corner of the fourth room, around a table emblazoned with the club's emblem, is a young engineering student who is just about to start a masters degree.

“I’ve got a career plan, I graduated with a 2:1 and I know where I want to go. There are lots of civil engineering jobs in the North East, so I should be ok. I feel a bit alienated at university and I have anxiety, so I come here. Where’s the harm in that?” he says.

UKCSC says it doesn’t support drug dealing and that its members grow their own plants for personal use. But members admit to growing excess amounts of the drug as part of “collectives” and trading it among themselves.

Fisher admits, “Members grow five or six plants then trade the cannabis at the club.

“They don’t want to knock on ‘Nasty Nigel’s’ door who deals class As and all other drugs,” he adds. “If you need medicine, we can source it cheaply so the black market doesn’t benefit.”

The Teesside club is plastered with signs that warn, "Anyone seen dealing could have their membership revoked and will be asked to leave".

Fisher started the Teesside club after his father died. He spent around £17,000 of his inheritance creating cannabis-based medicines, including oil and creams, and distributing them to people with conditions such as cancer and psoriasis.

Then, after a holiday to Spain in 2013 where he visited a cannabis social club, he decided to formalise his work and created a franchise.

The “more upper class” East London Cannabis Club has 500 members and operates in a multi-level 1,000-sq ft warehouse.

“It has a lot of finesse to it,” says Greg de Hoedt, chairman of UKCSC. “They have a vegan chef who holds fine dining edible events.” It also hosts monthly film nights and next month has a jazz evening.

Only members and people they recommend are allowed to attend.

“Like Fight Club, members are asked not to tell anyone unless you need to,” says de Hoedt. “The location is kept secret because we want to be safe, not to boast - or become the next McDonald’s.”

Sarah, a 30-year-old sales manager and member of the Brighton club who smokes cannabis for anxiety, says events are advertised in private text messages and on social media. “Instagram is a great source for cannabis enthusiasts and a really good tool for this,” she says.

She is one of the few female members in the UK clubs, which are 70 to 80 per cent male. “I’ve talked to other girlfriends who are professional women about joining and I think the clubs would benefit from more women,” she says. “But I feel entirely safe with the guys, much more than with the drinking population.”

Rhys, a 44-year-old senior manager in the public sector, has created a franchise in Cardiff. He has been smoking cannabis since he was 16, but says he uses it now to alleviate pain from arthritis.

“I’m highly regarded in my profession and contribute to society, but I can’t come out as a cannabis user,” he says. “After 30 years, I decided I don’t want to be part of a black market, work with criminals or buy it on the street.

The Cardiff club plans to host its first event at a restaurant in the city in the Autumn, during which it will teach users how to grow and consume cannabis. Arfon Jones, the North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, will be invited as a guest of honour.

Rhys, who has an MBA and is an honorary member of a professional body, says, “I have to run it without putting my name to it, it’s one of the biggest frustrations. We’re no different to a fine wine, cigar or whisky connoisseurs club.




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