erasing clouds

Meet Purple Paul: an afternoon with the first cannabis coffee shop owner in Scotland

by anna battista

In July 1966, Scottish beat Alexander Trocchi wrote an essay titled "Problems and Pseudoproblems concerning 'Dangerous Drugs'". His work was meant to be an answer to the findings and decisions taken by the Brain Committee, a committee against drugs instituted by the British government in the '60s. In the essay Trocchi mainly questioned the decisions regarding heroin contained in the First Brain Report, but he also argued about the possibilities of using hashish for medical purposes. "Ignorance breeds fear…" Trocchi wrote in his essay, continuing, "There is no room for restrictive legislation based on this fear of the unknown in this last third of the 20th century … We must let the light into what has traditionally been a dark area of human experience …And in the end, I suspect, we shall find that here is another area of human experience in which what is most to be feared is fear itself". Yet, almost 40 years after Trocchi's essay and suggestions, Great Britain is still worried about drugs…it's still summoning up drug committees or organising campaigns against drugs and it's still issuing more controversial drug laws. A recent change in British drug laws actually occurred a few weeks ago, on 29th January, when cannabis was reclassified as a Class C drug, a category which covers the least harmful of the illegal drugs, but basically nothing has radically changed. Indeed it remains illegal in the UK to have, give away or deal in cannabis, to pass cannabis among friends, to allow people to smoke it in your home or to grow cannabis plants. It also remains illegal to deal cannabis and possess it with intent to supply, offences which will be punished with a 14-year maximum sentence and an unlimited fine.

But while the so-called reclassification didn't really bring any change in the life of cannabis users, somebody in Edinburgh, Scotland, is actually challenging the law. His name is Paul Stewart and he's the owner of the Purple Haze Café, the first Dutch-style cannabis coffee shop in Scotland. Paul, 37 years old, dreamt of opening a cannabis coffee shop since he was 20, and, after the reclassification, he finally decided to do it, so he renamed his café in Leith (previously called Ocean Terminal) and opened it on the very day of the reclassification, causing an incredible media mayhem. "The opening day was quite hectic," Paul Stewart remembers in a quiet February afternoon in his café, "I was blown away by the scale of the interest from the media. We had a press conference in the café at 3 o'clock prior to the café opening to the members at 4 o'clock and it was just unbelievable, the café was full of journalists. I was very nervous and I was getting really stressed because I've had no media training in my life and I found it all very shocking. Besides, on Thursday 29th of January, the day of the reclassification, my landlord delivered by courier a letter threatening me with eviction if I went ahead with my plans. So, at a few hours from the opening, I actually had to make up my mind and decide whether or not I was going to go ahead with the coffee shop and in the end I just did it. The local residents had had a meeting in the meantime, before the opening day, and a couple of them raised concern about the coffee shop, but I think they generally wanted to allow the café to run and see what happened. We had quite favourable responses from the media: even the most conservative papers were quite sympathetic to us, because they know that most of the crime committed in society and related to drugs is not caused by cannabis users, but by hard drug users. What we're trying to do here at the Purple Haze is make people aware that they have nothing to fear from cannabis, we are trying to take it out of the black market, away from the other drugs people get introduced to. This is why I actually believe the police are quite sympathetic to us as well, although they arrested me on the opening day, but they obviously have to be seen to be doing their job. We also got phone calls from people who had coffee shops in England and I've had support from different cannabis related sites based in the UK, such as the UK Cannabis Internet Activists, the Legalise Cannabis Campaign and the Legalise Cannabis Alliance. I also got letters from solicitors, lawyers who wanted to represent me."

Although the cannabis reclassification has recently happened, Paul doesn't think it will ever change anything. "I actually think it was a complete and utter waste of time and money because in Scotland, especially in Scotland, nothing really changed," Paul states. "On the 28th January you were still going to get arrested for possession of cannabis and after the 29th January you are still going to get arrested so nothing actually changed. The reclassification was done by the Parliament in Westminster, because the Scottish Parliament has got no power over its own drug laws. The problem was that when the Home Office produced the bill to present it to Westminster they forgot, or it was an afterthought, that Scotland has a different legal system. England, Wales and Northern Ireland have stated that the presumption of arrest has been removed for personal possession of cannabis, but in Scotland the presumption of arrest still remains because of the difference in the legal system, so everyone who gets caught with personal amounts of cannabis here will still be arrested, so there's no real change in Scotland. The UK government signed up to the European Convention of Human Rights which states that all members of the United Kingdom must be treated equally at all times, but I do believe that cannabis users in Scotland are not getting treated equally in comparison to the cannabis users in the rest of the UK because we're still getting arrested. I also think the police are kind of stuck in the middle. As I said, on the day I opened I was arrested on the premises and charged with people smoking cannabis on my premises. The police let me go on Thursday, but then they came back on the following day as well and threatened to arrest me and to put me in the cells if I had gone on and allowed people to use cannabis on a Friday night. So now our members' club, Club Vapir, is only open from Monday to Thursday, 4 to 8 p.m. In this way, the police can't threaten to put me in jail over the weekend anymore. Cannabis must be the most dangerous drug in the world if this is happening. Recently somebody phoned a Radio Scotland gardening programme and asked information about how to grow Northern Light, a type of cannabis, well, the police actually arrested the person who had phoned. It must be so scary to use cannabis that the police have got the resources to target cannabis users. There was a report in a paper last week saying the heroin use in Edinburgh has doubled in the last five years and the sharing of needles has trebled in the last five years, so I sometimes think it is beyond my comprehension how the police have the time and the resources to target cannabis users."

While I'm talking with Paul, we get occasionally interrupted by phone calls or by people dropping by to ask him further information about the members' club, Club Vapir. "I made a conscious decision to make it over 21s because I don't want anybody at a young age trying to get in," Paul states, "but I realise that people at 18 should be allowed to use cannabis because you can buy alcohol at 18 or you can buy fags at 16. The benefit of being a member is obviously to come along and use the facilities such as the Internet. By being a member you also get a 10% discount on all the 'head goods' you buy in the café such as bongs, skins, papers, paraphernalia associated with cannabis use. Members can also use vaporisers, actually the whole club is based on the use of vaporisers because 80% of the concern raised by the British Medical Association regarding cannabis use is actually tobacco related. A vaporiser works by gradually heating up the cannabis: THC, the chemical that gets you high is only released at just over 200 degrees, but if you're smoking a joint you're heating it up to 3-400 degrees and you're losing most of the THC and creating lots of carcinogenic substances, such as smoke, tar and so on. The vaporiser only heats up and eliminates 99% of the carcinogenic substances, so using a vaporiser is the safest possible way."

"I'm not saying cannabis use is safe, I'm not advocating or glamorising it, all we're doing in this coffee shop is accepting that people are using cannabis and we're trying to provide them with a safe and controlled environment. I've also been trying to discourage our members from using a type of cannabis called 'soap bar', which is the most disgusting cannabis you can buy. I believe that if cannabis were made legal, soap bar should still be illegal because it is full of disgusting things, such as glue, tar, diesel and ketamine. Nine ounces of soap bar are sold at about £350, but it costs 50 pence to make it. You are lucky if there is a quarter of cannabis out of those nine ounces, the rest is absolute crap. Very good grass has got THC between 18 and 20%, sometimes up to 23%, sometimes 12%, soap bar is 4%. I personally try to tell the members that this should be a soap bar free zone, because that stuff contains very dangerous substances. By decriminalising and then legalising cannabis you would control the quality, the quantity and who you are selling it to, because, right now, anybody can buy it and the quality is disgusting. We've got over 100 members right now, but I'm developing a website and soon we will have a new facility, on line membership. In the meantime we had people visiting us from all sorts of places outside Edinburgh, last night we had people from Falkirk and Dundee coming in. We also keep on receiving emails from all over the world, from people in America, Africa and all over Europe or people from the islands in Scotland, often people who may never come, but just want to show support. We also got a lot of non-cannabis users who actually joined the coffee shop because they want to show us support and because they appreciate the fact that we're trying to take cannabis out of the black market and separate it from hard drugs." On the purple door of the café there's a sheet of paper with a drawing of a syringe under which there's written "No illegal substances in these premises", but there is something else which is banned in Paul's café: tobacco. Members who want to smoke a joint are offered an herbal mix as alternative to tobacco. "I don't want to allow people here to use tobacco and I banned it because 25% of all deaths in Scotland are tobacco related," Paul explains, "so I took the decision to ban it, though I think the ban had a negative affect on my business. I've been trying to model myself on the Canadian model and I tried to take it a bit further as well."

To understand how to operate his cannabis coffee shop, Paul actually did a course in Holland, where he goes quite regularly. "In Holland you tend to find that the coffee shops owners are the most responsible members of the community because they know that if they step off the line, they will be closed down," Paul explains, "Politicians here in Great Britain recently said that 350 coffee shops closed down in Holland in the last few years to prove that they weren't a successful idea. But the real story is that actually all the coffee shops which were causing problems, the ones that were selling drugs to under 18s or were selling alcohol when they weren't licensed to sell it, were closed. So, it was the non-desirable coffee shops which were closed down and not the well-established and well-run ones, those are still there and the Dutch people still want them in their society. Because of the coffee shops, Holland has actually got one of the lowest rates of cannabis users in Europe because cannabis is not glamorised there, whereas Scotland has got one of the highest rates."

Not analysing the Dutch model is not the only reason why Paul disagrees with the government of his country about drug matters: another reason is campaigns against drugs. "They don't work and that was proved in the '80s when the government ran the 'Just Say No' campaign," Paul states, shrugging, "the Scotland against Drugs agency was started in the mid-'90s and they received £1 million for funding, but with that money they didn't employ drug workers who could go to the communities and give advice to young people. They employed 35 people who had to sit in boards and committees, among them lawyers, members of the parliament or of the church, people who had no connection with drug use or no experience with drugs and only one drug worker. They also spent £900,000 of their budget on a negative advertising campaign which hadn't previously worked. Know the Score, the information line of the Scottish Executive's Drugs Communications Strategy, recently did a campaign on cannabis, leading up to 29th January, stating that cannabis was still illegal and that it could cause mental health problems. On 29th January I phoned the Know the Score helpline saying 'I'm a cannabis user, I think I might have mental health problems. What advice can you give me?' It took me three phone calls to speak to them actually, because as first thing I phoned the British Medical Association, who passed me the Scottish Executive who gave me the Know the Score number. Anyway, the people at their helpline told me to phone back in two weeks' time since they didn't have any leaflets and this happened on the day cannabis was reclassified, so what's the point of such a helpline? I know that people who use cannabis sometimes do use other drugs, and this is why the coffee shop is in touch with Crew 2000, a well-respected drug agency among young people in Edinburgh and the Lothian region. I'm not a drugs worker and I cannot give any help to people asking me for advice, but what I can do is putting them in contact with Crew 2000."

Among the products Paul sells in his coffee shop are hemp tea, hemp seeds, hemp burger mix and hemp seed oil, the best and most nutritional oil in the world and a miracle cure for eczema and skin problems, according to Paul. But there is also a special superdrug menu in his coffee shop and it's based on magic mushrooms, among them Mexican Gold Cap and Salvia Divinorum. The latter is actually a hallucinogenic plant discovered by the Mazatec Indians hundreds of years ago which allows the user to hallucinate for 10-15 minutes. "Basically, the laws state that I can sell magic mushrooms," Paul explains, "even though they contain a Class A drug which becomes active once they are heated or cooked. I don't break the law because I only serve them in their natural state, but if the person who buys the mushrooms dries them, cooks them or alters them in any way, then this person breaks the law. I only sell them for research and educational purposes, but we could argue that they contain a Class A drug and that there is no law against me selling them to under 18 year olds. But I am a parent and I know for a fact that I would never sell them to underage people, but who says that there aren't people out there who wouldn't do it? That's the hypocrisy of the drug laws. It is perfectly legal for me to sell Salvia Divinorum and I can legally sell a substance which contains a Class A drug, but I cannot allow people to smoke cannabis on my premises."

The British law that allows Paul to sell magic mushrooms in shops but not cannabis might be hypocritical, but many countries all around the world often have in their legal system draconian laws against drugs. In Italy the so-called "smart shops" sell Salvia Divinorum together with other hallucinogenic natural substances or other perfectly legal natural products such as guaranà, echinacea, ginseng or ginko biloba. But a new Italian drug law which is currently being debated in the Senate, might soon mean the end of the smart shops and the prohibition of all the substances they sell, included the legal ones. Once passed by the Senate, the new law will basically group any kind of drug under the same category, without any distinction between heroin and cannabis (the same thing that happens in Sweden) and make them all illegal. So, while in Italy ten thousand people marched in Rome on 21st February against the new drug law, America is already dealing with very strict laws especially for marihuana offenders. According to Eric Schlosser's book Reefer Madness and Other Tales of the American Underground (Allen Lane/Mariner Books, 2003), about 20,000 inmates in the federal prison system have been mainly incarcerated for a marijuana offense, an additional number of people oscillating between 25,000 and 30,000 are currently in jail for violating marijuana laws, while other marijuana offenders are serving life sentences in federal penitentiaries without parole. "It appears to me that prohibition doesn't work," Paul states, shaking his head. "A few years ago there was a sort of experiment done in Liverpool with local heroin addicts. They gave heroin users prescribed heroin and they found that in that area the crime rate fell by 95%, the drug related deaths and the HIV rates fell to zero. That was so successful that a local shopping centre donated the experiment £5,000, because the shop lifting rate had decreased since people using heroin didn't have to steal anymore to feed their habit. When the experiment in Liverpool was stopped, the crime rate in shops went up again, in the same way as the drug related death rate and so on. There is obviously a case to be looked up in the drug policies all over the world. The United Nations in 1997 produced a report on illegal drug trade and they discovered on a global basis that 8% of all international trade is in illegal drugs and that's a massively scary figure, it must be billions upon billions upon billions of pounds. Governments all around the world are just helping the criminal gangs in getting more money with their laws against drugs. A report stated a few years ago that in Scotland the government could benefit by legalising cannabis up to £1.5 billion a year. We must be one of the richest governments in the world if we can turn down a £1.5 billion sum. The whole UK might benefit by legalising cannabis of a sum of money between £5 and £8 billion. We recently had a pension problem, indeed 25% of people aren't going to have a pension when they retire, besides the National Health Service is falling apart, we're getting funded by PPP, Public-Private Partnership, the government is paying out hundreds of millions of pounds to build hospitals which the general taxpayer will be paying back in 30 to 50 years and we're paying hundreds and hundreds of times more than the price these things actually cost, but there are £5 to £8 billion the UK government could collect at a stroke from legalising cannabis and they don't do it. I think the government should take away the criminal gangs, took people off the dole, give them basic horticultural skills and allow them to grow cannabis or at least a certain amount of plants. In this way, rather than having 5,000 people going to the dealer, you have coffee shop owners going to the growers and the dealers become redundant. The cannabis reclassification basically means that you are allowed to smoke cannabis in the privacy of your own home, but you've still got to go to the dealer to buy it and in this way you are breaking the law. So you're still breaking the law by smoking it and by going to buy it, that's why the reclassification is a slight step forward in drug matters, but it is also a huge step backwards."

At present Paul is busy preparing a petition for the local residents to sign in defence of the coffee shop. "Here at the Purple Haze we want to make people understand that they have nothing to fear from this place. We want to make them understand that what we're trying to do is trying to go one step further than the government and try to take drugs out of the black market, we're trying to take cannabis out of the housing schemes and into the open, we're trying to separate it from other illegal drugs and educate people to understand that cannabis is not a gateway to other drugs, but it can become a gateway when you have to go to your dealer. Besides, there are people out there who use cannabis for health problems or they use cannabis because they used alcohol in the past and had loads of problems with it, so they moved to cannabis because they realised it is a much safer drug for them than alcohol. We got a lot of people who visited us who had had bad accidents and now use cannabis to relieve their pains. There are people out there who have got MS and use cannabis for medical problems and use tobacco with that. As I said before, 25% of all deaths in Scotland are related to tobacco, so cannabis has been actually attributed to no deaths in Scotland, so who is the real criminal in society? Is it the tobacco company or is it myself?"

There are only two ways to deal with drug problems, one is zero tolerance which doesn't work, the other is harm reduction. Politicians have to try and understand that what I'm tying to do is giving people a safe place and a safer way to use cannabis. I do think it is only because of the hysterical media reports before the reclassification that lots of people are scared of cannabis. Two weeks before the reclassification, a newspaper published an article about the first death related to marihuana, the first marihuana overdose in the world. Well, people have been using cannabis for at least 4,500 years and there has never been one death ever attributed to cannabis, but - lo and behold - two weeks before cannabis gets reclassified in Great Britain to Class C, somebody dies of it," Paul concludes while his mobile rings again. He stands up and answers. When he finishes talking on the phone, Paul looks around at the now empty café and shakes his head: the few members who came earlier, have gone a while back and nobody has entered the coffee shop since.

"It is hard right now to run the coffee shop mainly because a TV channel ran a story saying that the coffee shop had been closed down, so people think we are closed" Paul claims, "besides now there are also road works outside my café and this has completely ruined my trade during the day, so it is definitely hard and stressful to run such a place. Sometimes I feel isolated because all the people who said they wanted to come and support us never came. I think they are too scared and paranoid because of the level of interest shown by the local police force, which is actually putting people off. All the focus and attention is on me right now, but I brought that up myself in a way, so I'm not complaining about that. I just thought that there would have been other people in Scotland who would have come out openly and supported us. I sometimes feel I put myself on line and nobody else seems to be giving a hand apart from people such as Scottish Socialist Party's drugs spokesman and member of the Scottish Cannabis Coffeeshop Movement Kevin Williamson who's been a great help. Personally I think that I wouldn't like to see more coffee shops opening only in Edinburgh, I'd like to see them all over Scotland, because we want cannabis tolerant zones set up."

"A while back the Metropolitan Police in London allowed cannabis to be tolerated in a particular area of London and took away the presumption of arrest, but the Chief Police recently said they had made a mistake because they allowed cannabis tolerant zones only in one area and concentrated everything in one area so that all the dealers from all over London moved to that area, so you would have to set up cannabis tolerant zones all over a place to avoid that. Right now I own the only coffee shop in Scotland, though I know there might be other people out there who have underground coffee shops. The thing is that when you do it underground you don't achieve anything if people don't know about it. I made a decision to go public because somebody's got to do it. The Purple Haze made the press all over the world and certainly we pushed the cannabis debate a wee bit further forward." I nod, but I still have to ask Paul a final thing, indeed, what's the final reward for what he's doing? "A journalist asked me why I was doing it on the day I opened", he smiles, "and I just told him 'Because I want to have a cannabis plant named after me one day!' A guy who's got a grow shop told me that he will grow a plant after me and will call it 'Purple Paul', it will take him two years to do it, but he'll make it, so after the Purple Haze, you'll have the 'Purple Paul'! I worked for the Scottish Executive as a gardener a few years ago and in the horticultural world it is the ultimate honour to have a plant named after you, so this is why I'm doing it, I'm not doing it for financial reasons because I lost quite a lot of money in doing this changeover, but if I get a cannabis plant named after me I will be quite happy!"

After chatting with Paul, I go outside the Purple Haze Café to take a picture of it. Inside the café Paul is busying himself cleaning, writing petitions, checking his emails, downloading and printing articles written all over the world on his coffee shop. There are talks of a cannabis revolution which will take place in Scotland throughout the year 2004: will there be more coffee shops and fewer draconian laws in the next few months? Or perhaps more Club Vapir members and fewer police? Who knows. In the meantime, while the revolution is getting organised, Paul will have to deal with the media and the police, manage his café and take part, together with the other members, to the activities of the Scottish Cannabis Coffeeshop Movement. Perhaps he will get more stressed than he already is, most probably he and his café will survive enough to finally see a new addition to the horticultural world, the Purple Paul.


Issue 20, February 2004

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Picture of Purple Haze Café by Anna Battista.