Illustration: Hannah Blackman-Kurz / @hbkurz

It’s Friday night and we’re on our way to a secret location. A phone call IDs us, the gate is opened and, after paying our day membership, we’re in and walking straight into the ultimate speakeasy. A long hall with benches, tables and chairs either side of a central walkway. The air is thick with sweet-smelling smoke and down the far end there’s a stage area. It’s open mic night and the place is buzzing.

We’re invited to take a seat and a friendly face brings us a skinning up tray and the chance to get a soft drink, tea or coffee. Looking around the venue, there are spaces for around 120 people. And it’s a full house tonight. Somebody offers me some organically grown sativa – perfect. Just what the doctor ordered. This isn’t a night for indica’s couch lock introversion – this place was made for an energetic, euphoric and cerebral high.

People are talking to each other and to complete strangers. Phones are on the table but no one is looking at them. The music is a great mixture of classic and current and the venue is energised in ways that I haven’t seen at many open mic nights. But this isn’t Amsterdam, Arizona or Colorado. This is Kensington, Liverpool and this is THE CHILLIN’ ROOMS, first set up in 2002, and a Mecca to those in the know.

OK, I have to be up front and say that I’m not entirely impartial in this. A few years ago, I made a film about the birth of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, and the growth of the ‘green’ cannabis industry (The Green Avalanche – Official, it’s on YouTube). At the time, I wondered if the rest of the world could ever follow the Dutch lead on toleration. And since then, Portugal, Spain, Canada and the USA have all changed laws, reaping serious financial and societal benefits. But the UK seems stuck in a different mindset, as if they prefer widespread criminality, an overrun judicial system and full prisons.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a change in the air. Following on from the cannabis clubs in Spain and the medical co-operatives in the States, a series of cannabis social clubs have been opening up across the UK – places where you can go and smoke in a friendly welcoming place, with like-minded individuals. Members pay their memberships and new joiners have to be recommended by a friend. It’s a club for smokers and The Chillin’ Rooms is, and always has been, at the vanguard.

Gary, a former pub landlord, has been running the club for over 17 years, on and off, depending on the changing whims of the local constabulary. “It’s all about having a positive impact,” he tells me. “It’s a social enterprise. We’re creating jobs and paying above minimum wage. We’re all above board. If people didn’t come here, they’d be sitting at home or having a quick puff in the garden, looking inwards and alone. Here, everybody is together. We’re all looking forward and talking to each other face to face. There are people who travel from the other side of the country to come here. And we’re not in this to make loads of money and drive round in big cars. What we’re doing here is building this community up and spreading that out into the local area.”

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Promoter of the music night is Ste Weevil. “The night is called the Backbone, ’cos Gary’s always said that what we’re doing and the people that are coming – we’re the backbone of the UK. And we feel that the music community here has become a backbone of the Liverpool music scene as well. Bringing the music has brought a lot of people in, and helped to promote the club. We’ve been doing the Fridays and building it up slowly, and Barry Sutton has started a night called the Baby Backbone, which is on Thursdays. Look how many people are here. There’s no alcohol, but the drinks are flowing and a creative business is thriving.”

We know how much talent there is in this city, and tonight its musical spotlight is on full beam. Reggie Lloyd warms the crowd up, before handing the mic to Scarlet, who plays a mixture of classics and original material. Both are excited to have played. “It’s a saving grace of a place, and playing is a badge of pride,” says Reggie. “The set up’s fantastic.”

Another act is Johnny Taylor from The Sky, who plays his own material and a blistering cover of Johnny B. Goode: “Because of the weed thing, it adds to the whole atmosphere. Everyone’s just relaxed and chilling. They listen a bit more and they’re inclined to take in what you’re doing, instead of getting pissed and talking and not being arsed.”

The stand-out act is Resonator Force, who play harmonic Merseybeat/West Coast indie rock. Jamie (vocals), Luke (guitar) and John (bass) have been coming to the Backbone for a couple of months. “We heard about it a while back but we just assumed it had gone, dead and buried, but we turned up for an open mic and it’s the best place in the world,” says Jamie. “There’s the little door – the secret knock, all that caper, and I get in here and my face is smiling that much there’s nowhere else for my cheeks to go. It hurts after a bit. I mean, what more do you want? No one bothers you. You can talk to people if you want but if you don’t want to it’s all good. It’s beautiful. What do you see around you? Do you see a roomful of criminals? Technically, yeh, but in reality, no. These people are the mellowest people around for 10 miles. How many people 50 yards away from here are throwing shit at the telly, screaming at the footy, downing Stella, kicking the cat? All kinds of stuff that stoners just can’t be arsed doing.”

That question of illegality and criminality is discussed in full the next day, when we travel to the 271 Cannabis Club in Moreton, Wirral for a meeting of the UK Cannabis Social Clubs. The UK CSC organisation has been running since 2011 and has upwards of 70 clubs registered with it. It’s professionally run, and lobbies in Parliament for changes to cannabis drug laws. Delegates have come from all over to listen to a well-polished presentation about cannabis legality, the grey area that currently exists and what can be done to stop big business from taking over.

Currently, cannabis is a class B substance, meaning that possession could get you five years at Her Majesty’s convenience, and supply and production up to 14 years. This seems illogical and draconian when 33 states in the USA allow medical use and 10 allow recreational drug use. The reality is that UK police often turn a blind eye. Depending on who you talk to, they seemingly won’t prosecute if you grow a number of plants in your home, and smoking in public usually warrants little more than a slap on the wrist.

UKCSC policy analyst Stuart Harper tells me: “If I’d have been asked 10 years ago if cannabis was going to be legal in the near future, I would have said no. If someone asks me now, I can say that I think in the next three to four years it will be legal. So, it’s about how we can take that momentum that we see before us in politics about medical cannabis and use that for social good.”
Chairman of the UKCSC, Greg de Hoedt, began using cannabis medicinally to help a serious medical condition. “I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2009 after a year’s battle trying to find out what was wrong,” he tells me. “I was getting really ill and had a really bad flare up in 2010. The doctors told me they were going to operate on my intestines and that I’d probably die within two years. I had friends in dispensaries in America, so I went there and I got access to an abundance of cannabis products, from chocolates to oils to the right flowers for my condition, just because I was in a community that knew about it. And I was thinking, ‘Wow! Why is this not in the UK? How did I not know about this and the benefits of it? Why are we so behind?’”

In the UK, currently, the dealer is king. Consumers don’t really know what they’re smoking, because they aren’t offered a choice. Visitors coming back from Amsterdam will rave about the different kinds of weed on offer and the varied effects. You’ve got your indica strain, which is high in cannabinoids (CBD), often a deep muscle relaxant. You’ve got your sativas, which are usually high in THC and provide the user with a clear and euphoric high. And then you’ve got your skunk and haze varieties – which are magical crosses between the two. And research in the USA suggests that different combinations work for seizures, glaucoma, stress, depression, insomnia, as a painkiller… the list goes on and on.

The UKCSC is currently lobbying members of parliament, with Stuart Harper a regular in the House of Commons lobbies. “Most political people that I speak to, whether it’s an MP or an aide, or a member of a think tank – they all have the same point of view, that the drug laws in the UK are an aberration; that they happened quite by accident at a specific point in time where public attitude was set a certain way. And the whole world signed up for a set of rules that no-one really wanted then, and they definitely don’t want now.”

Although no one at any level of government is talking about legalising cannabis for recreational usage, there are definite moves to legalise some sort of medical marijuana. Interestingly, the investment firm owned by Theresa May’s husband, Philip, the Capital Group, is the major investor in GW Pharmaceuticals, which mass produces CBD oil in the UK for export, and Tory drugs minister Victoria Atkins’ husband is also involved with a legal cannabis farm.

However, nothing is straightforward. “If anything they are looking at additional legislation to restrict CBD sales, so they’re going in the opposite direction,” says Stuart. “What they want is control of the medical cannabis market, which is what they’ve been sold by the investment groups that are bankrolling the medical cannabis movement in the UK. They want the Canadian model, which is going to be pretty much mail order. And if you’ve got a mail order facility, one of the things that it blocks out is small vendors. It’s going to be big corporate contracts that are awarded. But in this next two years there is a window of opportunity for the social club model.”

“There are fantastic people who are being lost to society because of our backwards attitude to cannabis, and I want to change that” Gary - The Chillin' Rooms

Although politicians seem wary of any backlash that could accompany change, the real groundswell towards toleration seems to be coming from the UK police, in particular Police Crime Commissioners Ron Hogg (Durham) and Arfon Jones (North Wales).
Michael Fisher has been running the Teesside Cannabis Club, on the high street in Stockton-on-Tees, since 2014. They employ staff through the local Job Centre, pay tax and National Insurance, and are a registered company. “Durham police and PCC Ron Hogg got in touch through the media and we arranged to go and meet at their headquarters,” Michael explains. “On the back of that, we stayed in touch and still speak today. It’s a business relationship. But you’ve got to always think that the police can’t condone an illegal activity, regardless of how good a friend I am. It’s so black and white to them. So, I operate on a very thin line, in the grey area.”

“Before we were legally registered we were just a group of people who were committing a crime. Once we created the company we became an actual legal entity. Everything that we do is legal, apart from the consumption of cannabis on the premises. We don’t have people vending or selling cannabis in our club. The only people selling cannabis is the club itself. It sells the members’ homegrown cannabis back to the collective. Everything else in the club is entirely legal and above board.”

Greg says that he’s had similar talks with the crime commissioner of North Wales, Arfon Jones. “He came up to me in Parliament and asked me if I would help to set up cannabis social clubs in his area. He said, ‘We need to change the situation and I think this is the way to do it.’ There’s more than enough people that want to have access to these kind of facilities.”

Back at The Chillin’ Rooms, Gary is adamant that he could go into any economically repressed small town or neighbourhood and provide employment for all who wanted to work in the cannabis industry. “From 18 to 80, everyone could have a job, and receive above national minimum wage, just by growing in their spare room or by working in a cannabis social club. There are fantastic people who are being lost to society because of our backwards attitude to cannabis, and I want to change that.”

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Indeed, there are plans to use profits from the club to bring about regeneration to Kensington, beginning with cosmetically improving the appearance of the road and moving on from there. Jamie from Resonator Force: “I grew up around here and the fact that it’s here is just incredible. It’s a haven, basically. Why should we be skulking round the corner in the shadows? I could get nicked for a spliff in my pocket, get a fine, get a criminal record, or a fella could go out and get four cans of special brew, have a piss on the phone box, throw up in the street, start singing footy songs and swearing – no one would say nish. Not a fucking word. They’d walk past him to strip search two kids in hoodies. It’s ridiculous.”

Gary introduces me to Gabby, who is a DNA scientist. She and her boyfriend have travelled from the other side of the country to attend the Backbone music night. She gives me her insight: “For thousands and thousands of years we’ve been experimenting with drugs. We are the most cognitive species on the planet, so what are we going to do but exercise our minds?”

At 11pm, the lights come on and everyone politely leaves. There are hugs at the door, and ‘see you later’s. As the last stragglers file out, Gary muses on the night and the club members who have helped to make it. “When I used to run the pub, I saw some horrible things. Family arguments that resulted in glassings. Fights over nothing. And in The Chillin’ Rooms, there is none of that. It’s peaceful. Everyone is sociable. It’s civilised. I have never had trouble in here.”

Whatever your preconceptions are about cannabis, there’s energy, drive and a feel-good vibe there which should be experienced even if you don’t smoke. It’s a model for how things could be. A night out with old friends and new, in a safe environment with great music and quality cannabis. What more could you ask for?

There is no doubt in my mind that changes in the cannabis laws are coming, definitely for medical and maybe for recreational. But we have to decide whether we want big business or small community businesses running things, and if it’s choice between Theresa May’s husband or Gary, I’m with Gary all day.

 

Further information about the UK Cannabis Social Clubs can be found at ukcsc.co.uk.

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