The cannabis debate: a question of choice?


Source: Sunderland Echo, UK

Pub Date: 21 May 2004

Section: Daily Feature

Subj: The cannabis debate: a question of choice?


         National Drugs Helpline



The cannabis debate: a question of choice?


DRUGS are a subject of constant social debate ­ and none more so, it seems, than cannabis.


The debate over legalisation of the recently-reclassified Class C drug is intense, and in one Wearside market town is focussed on a so-called “cannabis café”, whose owners describe it as “a little taste of Amsterdam”.


EMILY McCARRICK spoke to café owners Peter and Lynda Watson, who do not supply cannabis to their customers but who strongly promote the campaign for legalisation.


We asked why they chose to pursue such a controversial agenda and how they feel about accusations of drug dealing that have been levelled at them.


AS YOU enter Haschischins you are aware of being watched from the front door by CCTV cameras.


The walls are festooned with flags displaying the cannabis leaf logo, staff uniforms bear the familiar symbol of all things dope and the visitors book asks “mashheads” not to graffiti the pages.


It is very much a themed café, using cannabis as a gimmick ­ but many people have been upset by its lighthearted take on drug use.


Owner Peter Watson, 51, and his wife Lynda, 48, opened the café in November 2003 after seeing a niche in the coffee shop market in the little town of Chester-le-Street.


With the help of a varied menu, live music and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, the Watsons have provided residents with an alternative to a night in the pub.


Lynda said: “I am a recovering alcoholic and I know it would kill me if I start drinking again.


“I decided to open the café so I had somewhere I could relax on an evening with friends without the temptation of having a drink.”


As well as being café owners, the Watsons are fervent supporters of freedom of choice and their menus promote the Legalise Cannabis Alliance (LCA). Both admit to smoking cannabis.


Lynda said: “I suffer from spondolosis and arthritis and have been prescribed a cocktail of 28 tablets a day by my doctor.


“They don’t even take the edge off the pain. A controlled amount of cannabis, either smoked or eaten, allows me to ease the pain and lead a relatively normal life.


“I don’t agree with cannabis resin, because that has been touched by man ­ but how on earth can you ban a plant?”


Peter added: “We support cannabis in its most natural form. The stuff that is sold on the streets is brought in by organised crime gangs.


“Surely it would make more sense if we stopped financing them, plus the stuff is rubbish; it’s adulterated. They use low-grade dust or resin, mix it with coffee to give it the right colour, and turpentine to give it the right smell.


“Essentially, people are smoking potassium chloride. This is what happens when you force cannabis onto the streets.”


Both Peter and Lynda deny ever selling drugs from the premises, but do admit that initially they did have a few customers who got the wrong impression.


Lynda said: “When we first opened up, there was a rumour that we were selling heroin from the premises, which is completely ridiculous.


“We ended up with half the users in the area on our doorstep. Luckily, people now know we have nothing to do with heroin here and they have backed off.”


She added: “These days we do get people coming along and asking for advice. I am not a professional, but I will talk to people about my personal experience and try to help them.


“We also get quite a few older people looking to us for cannabis to ease the pain of illnesses, from arthritis to multiple sclerosis.


“I will tell them how to put cannabis in food and tell them not to smoke it ­ because I don’t want them getting addicted to nicotine if they don’t already smoke ­ but I don’t sell them drugs.”


Peter said: “I think some people have preconceptions before they visit the café. They expect it to be full of kids looking for drugs, but that’s not the case.


“On an evening our members come to the café to relax. They are professionals; ordinary hard-working members of society.”


The Watsons’ forthright views and tolerant attitude to cannabis have not gone unnoticed by the authorities.


Lynda said: “We know the police are watching us and we get a beat copper in every so often.


“We don’t serve alcohol or sell drugs, yet our customers leave the café after a night out with a smile on their faces.


“They are not the ones being sick on the pavement and urinating up the walls. They are not the ones starting fights and taking up police time.”


Mr and Mrs Watson have never denied that they are pro-legalisation and some residents have complained about the existence of the café. One lady even took a sample of food away, convinced it had been laced with drugs.


Peter said: “I told her she was welcome to take food away with her. We will advise people who want to cook with cannabis, but we would never put drugs in the food we serve.


“Above all else, we believe in freedom of choice and we would never take that away from someone else.”


Peter and Lynda admit there is a serious heroin problem in Chester-le-Street: they have had to deal with drug addiction on a very personal level, as Lynda’s son was a user, so they say they would never advocate the use of hard drugs.


Lynda said: “I would never encourage people to use any class A or class B drugs and that includes cannabis resin. I have seen the damage they can do to my own family.”


Peter said: “I do not believe cannabis is a gateway drug. If anything is a gateway drug, it is cigarettes ­ but I can’t see them becoming illegal.”


On the streets, we find views on the hashish controversy are still mixed


ASIDE from the small number of complaints which Durham Police say have been levelled against the café, what do residents think about the place, and the Watson’s beliefs?


Chatting to shoppers on Chester-le-Street’s Front Street, it is difficult to believe that Haschischins has provoked so many complaints.


Most people we spoke to hadn’t even heard of the café until we pointed it out.


Deborah Robson, 33, who has a seven year-old son, Luke, can’t see what all the fuss is about.


Deborah said: “The café doesn’t cause any problems in the area. Most people haven’t even heard of it, so I don’t see how it can be encouraging children to take drugs.”


Young people we spoke to were more interested in the food and unconcerned about the drugs theme of the café.


Students Natalie Dodds, 17, and Jill Hoogewerf, 18, said they had been in the café a few times for something to eat and had never seen any signs of drug taking or dealing.


Natalie said: “The food is nice and I had a quick look at the information on offer. I’m not really interested in drugs, but I suppose if I was, it would be good to have somewhere to go and get information.”


Jill said: “I have eaten in the café a couple of times. I don’t really think about the drug connection: it’s just another café.”


On the other hand some people are worried about the message the café is sending to children, especially as Chester-le-Street, like most other towns in the country, has experienced the problems associated with drug use.


Jamie and Sarah Walsh have a baby daughter, Robyn, and are concerned that a café promoting drug use has opened in the area.


Jamie said: “If people need drugs for medical reasons I think it is doctors who should be providing information and not cafés.


“The café encourages people to take drugs and once they’ve tried cannabis what are they going to take next? I don’t think promoting drugs at all is a good idea.


“We both know people who take drugs and are off their heads a lot of the time. It is not right to have somewhere on the front street where children hang around that says it is OK to take drugs.”


The Walsh family were not the only people we spoke to who thought the café was a bad idea.


Dorothy Hook, 62, has noticed a lot of children hanging around in the area and thinks the café encourages them.


Dorothy said: “This area is always full of children waiting for buses or just hanging around, so I think it is quite dangerous having a drugs café at this end of town.


“It makes children think it is OK to take drugs.”


Police say it remains a ‘gateway drug’


ALTHOUGH Haschischins is operating within the law, Durham Police are monitoring the premises and are worried about the message the café sends out to the local community ­ especially as cannabis has long been seen as a “gateway drug” that leads users to progress to classes A and B alternatives.


Inspector Dave Marshall, of Durham Police, said: “We are obviously concerned that such a premises is open in Chester-le-Street and the message it is sending to young people in particular.


“The police are watching the premises carefully. Although the owner is not breaking the law we will still be paying regular visits.”


He added: “Since cannabis has been reclassified a lot of people seem to think it has become legal, which is not the case. I have seen so many decent families ruined by drugs.


“There are no soft drugs and in my experience cannabis leads many users on to harder drugs. Chester-le-Street does have a drug problem and unfortunately the police see the destruction that is caused by both dealing and dependence on drugs in our area.


“In my opinion cannabis is a gateway drug, so the fact that the café promotes cannabis could encourage children to try it and possibly experiment with harder drugs in later life.”


Expert says don't under-estimate risks


PROFESSOR of clinical psychopharmocology at Newcastle University, Heather Ashton, has researched the effects of drugs on the body and mind ­ and warns people not to underestimate the kind of long-term problems they could face even with so-called “soft” drugs like cannabis.

Prof Ashton said: “People often make the mistake of thinking cannabis is harmless, because it has become fairly socially acceptable to smoke it, even though it is still illegal.

“It takes one month for a spliff to work its way through your system, so people who say they smoke recreationally and claim it has no effect on their day-to-day life are wrong.

“I bet if you gave them an arithmetic test they would perform worse than people who have never taken drugs.

“Heroin, which has the worst reputation of all the drugs, doesn’t effect a person’s mental performance as much as cannabis does, and amphetamines and cocaine can even improve mental performance ­ although they do have their own very unpleasant side-effects.”

Most people are familiar with the image of soap star Daniella Westbrook with half of her nose missing after years of cocaine abuse destroyed her septum.

Prof Ashton explains: “What essentially happened in this case was that the cocaine constricted the blood vessels to the nose ­ and nasal gangrene occurred.

“Cocaine has a very similar effect on the brain, as well as causing blood clotting, high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure and thus increasing the possibility of a heart attack or organ failure.

“The more cannabis you smoke, the higher your tolerance to the drug becomes, which means you need to take increasing quantities of the weed to get the same high.

“When your tolerance levels peak and the drug’s effects are limited, users could look elsewhere for their kicks.

“Drug dealers don’t usually sell just one drug. So if you’re buying cannabis from someone, it won’t be long before you’re offered something a little stronger.”She added: “Cannabis is most certainly a gateway drug which does lead some people to seek greater highs from stronger substances.

“In the same way that around five per cent of people who drink alcohol become alcoholics, five per cent of cannabis users become addicts and turn to harder drugs to get a high.

“If you think about the amount of people addicted to cigarettes and alcohol in this country, imagine how many people would suffer the same problems with drugs if they were legalised.

“We need to protect vulnerable people who could become addicted, by making sure cannabis and other drugs remain controlled substances.”


Campaigners for legalisation


THE Legalise Cannabis Alliance (LCA) was formed to make the legalisation of cannabis a major issue in British politics.


LCA press officer Don Barnard said: “Our goal is the full legalisation of cannabis, rather than winning us enough seats to form a Government, although our candidates in all elections would take the seat if they won it. “Beyond legalisation, we would like to see the increased utilisation of cannabis and its products for the betterment of society and the world.”


LCA leader Alun Buffry added: “The Legalise Cannabis Alliance campaign only for the legalisation and utilisation of cannabis, which is a wide issue that covers many aspects of our daily


Useful points of contact


North East Council on Addiction 0191 383 0331

DrugScope 020 7928 1211, National Drugs Helpline 0800 77 66 00,

Sunderland Community Addictions Team 0191 510 8933 Legalise Cannabis Alliance

Haschischins Cafe 0191 388 3332.


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