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The Dutch Experience opened in Stockport, Manchester on the fifteenth of September, two thousand and one, billing itself as the UK's first Amsterdam-style coffee shop. It was busted as it was opening, and the owner, Colin Davies, was arrested along with four of his Dutch associates, while ganja-smokers in wheelchairs sat around burning pipes.

Colin is a 44-year-old who uses cannabis to relieve chronic back pain, and has been supplying cannabis to friends who suffer from multiple sclerosis for some years. He had pledged to use the profits from supplying recreational users to subsidise free supplies for other medical users. Colin Davies, who for years has been an active campaigner for the legalisation of cannabis especially for medicinal purposes, entered the public eye when he presented a sizeable sprig of cannabis to the Queen. 'Keep up the good work' she said, receiving the ganja gratefully. In 1998 he was spectacularly acquitted of supplying cannabis to medical users, not because he hadn't been supplying it but because the court refused to send someone down for supplying a medicine to people who need it. Other medical suppliers, needless to say, have not all been as fortunate.

The cafe was boarded up by the police following the raid, but by that afternoon the boards were off and the shop was once again open for business. It has been open pretty much ever since, interrupted only sporadically by police action; they have abandoned their original plan to sell weed openly and have instead been paying the bills by selling legal products like tea and munchies over the counter. The cafe has been greeted positively by most of the locals, who are glad to have something that puts Stockport on the map; nearby food shops been doing booming business ever since it opened, and the local tourist information office has been helpfully directing the steady stream of toking tourists to the shop ever since.

However, cannabis is of course still technically illegal in Britain and while the police are ever more reluctant to spend their time prosecuting stoners, they still prefer people not to be too obvious about breaking the law so the cafe was raided a second time on the nineteenth of November. This time twelve people were arrested: three on suspicion of helping to manage premises being used contrary to the Misuse of Drugs Act, one of these also being charged with possession with intent to supply; and nine more for simple possession.

Colin Davies has been remanded in custody after pleading not guilty to two counts of permitting the herb to be smoked in the cafe, seven charges of possession of the drug and one relating to its importation. He is due to appear for trial in June. Since his arrest four MEPs and at least thirty other protestors have turned themselves in to Stockport police station for possession of cannabis in his support; at least fifty more were turned away when they surrendered en masse to the police as part of a recent action. Medical Marijuana Barbie has written an open letter to Prince Charles asking for his help in securing Colin's release. Protests continue.

Elsewhere in the country, buoyed by the Dutch Experience's success (albeit marred by the occasional raid), many enterprising stoners are talking about setting up cannabis cafes of their own: Similar plans have been floated for shops in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Liverpool, Brighton, Bournemouth, Anglesey, Milton Keynes, Braintree, Cumbria, Rhyl, Taunton, Worthing and Brixton, South London, where an experimental police policy which has officially been operating throughout Lambeth since the end of September in 2001 has seen cannabis users caught in possession of smallish amounts receiving verbal warnings but no formal police caution or arrest. Similar policies appear to be operating unofficially in many parts of the country, although perhaps not yet nationwide; anecdotal reports suggest that tokers in Bristol, Manchester, Norwich and Brighton among other places are overwhelmingly receiving nothing more than a mild ticking off if they get caught. A number of cafes and bars in these cities are already openly allowing cannabis smoking on their premises, apparently with the tacit support of local police (who of course know how little trouble stoners cause compared to drunks), but they are keeping this on the quiet for fear of attracting so much attention that the police feel they have raid.

The Home Secretary David Blunkett has said that he would like to see the Lambeth policy officially extended if it proves to be a success; together with his policy of downgrading cannabis from Class B to Class C, this amounts to something just barely short of decriminalisation. However, so far he seems determined to keep the drugs market underground, stating that he would actively disapprove of cannabis shops. However, with the Liberal Democrats now officially backing full legalisation and a large body of public support behind them, it seems reasonable to expect that what we are seeing now are just first steps towards further liberalisation of the law on cannabis.

The Dutch Experience Cafe remains open for business; they are located at Stockport Village, Hooper St, Stockport, Greater Manchester. Their telephone number is 0161 480 5902, and their web address is http://www.dutchexperience.org.uk/

The information in this node comes from the Dutch Experience web site and the UKCIA mailing list and news archive: See http://www.ukcia.org/
Perhaps the single most informative article: http://www.ukcia.org/new_news/shownewsarticle.php?articleid=3607
More on Colin Davies and the coffee shop, from co-conspiritor and Global Hemp Museum curator Nol von Schaik: www.overgrow.com/articles/11
The Medical Marijuana Co-operative that he founded: http://www.henryand.co.uk/mmco/
Updated list of locations 17/03/2002: http://www.observer.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,668842,00.html

This piece is reproduced with my permission at Spliff Magazine: http://www.spliffmag.com/

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