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Recreational marijuana use may be illegal in the UK, but that hasn’t stopped a variety of cannabis clubs from popping up nationwide. These social hangouts include clubhouses, coffeeshops, and a 420-friendly co-op system similar to Spain. While we wait for cannabis legalization in the UK, there’s plenty of places to go to socialize and smoke.
The cannabis clubs in the UK largely operate under one collective called United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs, or UKCSC. This activist group has been pushing for marijuana legalization in the UK for years. Beyond just legalization, UKCSC wants to “provide safer access [to cannabis], with the right to grow at home or in a shared space.” As of today, UKCSC has a network of 65 affiliated clubs.
Organizers at UKCSC are understandably cautious about revealing details like club locations due to the risk of law enforcement action. However, the movement is going strong, and, if you know where to look, cannabis clubs can currently be found in most major UK cities.
Michael Fisher has opened up the UK’s first legal cannabis club in Middlesbrough. The Teesside Cannabis Club, as called Club Exhale, functions legally since members bring their own marijuana from home. As Fisher explains, “We have a great relationship with our local police force, although they are not as outspoken as some about cannabis use, they’ve been very supportive.”
Fisher is proud of the club’s record and insists that they “have never had an incident of violence, any anti-social [behavior] incidents, or any other criminality at all.” He also takes pride in the legitimacy of his club as a business venture. “I rented this building in the name ‘Teesside Cannabis Club’. We are registered with Companies House,” explains Fisher, “I pay taxes on my business.”
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones fully supports and approves of Club Exhale. As long as marijuana is not sold on the premises, visitors are free to light up, play some games, and hang out. Memberships at Club Exhale are £45 per year. For Americans, a Club Exhale membership is also valid to use at the Speakeasy Vape Lounge & Cannabis Club in Colorado Springs.
An exciting cannabis scene exists in the UK outside of the social clubs. For years, marijuana activists have also been opening cannabis coffeeshops similar in style to the ones in Amsterdam. In most cases, these 420-friendly cafes are illegal and are swiftly shut down.
In 2001, Colin Davies opened a coffeeshop named The Dutch Experience in Salford. The coffeeshop was raided by police just 10 minutes after opening. The Dutch Experience was raided twice more during its reopenings in September and March. Davies ultimately found himself imprisoned.
The media sensation surrounding The Dutch Experience caused a rise in coffeeshop culture in the UK. Other coffeeshops have since opened and closed, running from the law while catering to customers in need. “I pay a lot more for my weed here, but I like the menu,” a customer from a London coffee shop explained to VICE, “I’m obsessed with trying different flavors of dro.”
One particular coffeeshop, The Beggars Belief in Rhyl, North Wales, made a large impact on the UK cannabis community.
The Beggar’s Belief was a well-known cannabis coffeeshop created by marijuana activist Jeff Ditchfield. The coffeeshop took its tongue-and-cheek name from a statement made by Deputy Mayor of Rhyl, Glyn Williams. He called Ditchfield’s plan a “beggars belief.”
Much like with The Dutch Experience, The Beggar’s Belief was raided on opening day. Ditchfield ended up on trial in Crown Court. At his trial, Ditchfield used a “necessity” argument in his defense, arguing that he found himself forced to supply cannabis to seriously ill patients under a “duress of circumstances.” After all, Jeff Ditchfield was the founder of Bud Buddies, and organization dedicated to providing “cannabis and cannabis preparations to seriously ill and disabled people throughout the UK.”
Ditchfield was found not guilty; but, the Crown Prosecution Service asked Britain’s Attorney General to review the case. Ultimately, the case was referred to the Court of Appeal. In the end, the appeals court ruled that Ditchfield’s trial judge should not have allowed the necessity defense. This ruling has excluded future defendants from making the same argument.
Ditchfield’s experience with the law did little to deter him from activism. In 2006, he found himself on trial again after mailing cannabis plants to then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his cabinet. He was convicted and handed a suspended sentence along with 250-hours unpaid work and an order to pay £7,630 in legal costs.
Bud Buddies is still operating to this day, but now focuses on treating seriously ill children. Ditchfield continues to push for cannabis legalization in the UK. Last year, he was arrested for possession with intent to supply at a protest in front of the Houses of Parliament. This occurred after informing police of his plans to supply medical cannabis oil to a terminally ill child.
"Sarah is an American expat living in Spain with her husband and little doggie. She comes from a performing arts and teaching background with a degree from the University of London. For the past 3 years Sarah has worked in and written about the legal cannabis industry both in Spain and the US. She cares about sharing her passion for cannabis, yoga, healthy lifestyles, counterculture and travel trough writing and social media."