Every major city in the world has cannabis cafes, you just have to find them
Holland is hailed as a country whose drug policy sets it apart from its neighbours. The cannabis cafes or “coffee shops” in its capital of Amsterdam are merely tolerated rather than legal, but they form something of a Mecca for cannabis smokers.
CBD oil is now widely sold in shops whereas THC remains largely illegal. It’s this which gives the cannabis cafe in which I found myself the feel of a hideout. Here in the UK, cannabis is a class B drug possession of which - even in small quantities - could lead to arrest.
Yet these establishments manage to fly under the radar, evading the police and avoiding the neighbours (presumably). Located on a back street in east London, we were automatically buzzed through the first door - avoiding an awkward, crackling conversation over the intercom.
Inside, a security guard clutching a walkie-talkie sat under an exposed lightbulb, his feet resting on the wall. Reminiscent of a KGB agent, he was the kind of character you only really see in films or video games. He stood up from his chair and checked our IDs as my friend went through the farce of pretending we knew a regular.
He let us through and, up a concrete staircase, we found a stoner utopia. A large, windowless room played host to around 40 people, with a sound system and enormous spraypainted murals helping to create a distinctive vibe. A wall-mounted television played Sky One, the familiar yellow forms of The Simpsons delivering a silent performance.
Faux leather benches were arranged into separate areas. Some people played pool or cards while others battled it out on the PlayStation. It was a bit like a youth centre but with what I imagine is more drugs.
At the counter, staff surveilled CCTV feeds from around a dozen cameras on an expansive screen. Drinks and snacks were sold alongside O.G. Kush and Silver Haze. It was, to all intents and purposes, surreal.
Signs told customers to keep the place clean and a member of staff came to clear our table as we sat down. Nearby, a man practised calligraphy while another appeared to be on something a bit stronger than everyone else. Fitting with the vibe of the cafe, however, his demeanour was calm and friendly.
Distinct from a “cannabis club”, there are no memberships or meetups, the cafe instead functioning like a business. Despite feeling like an entirely different universe, there are other such establishments all over the world.
Relying on social media and word-of-mouth marketing, these clandestine cafes prove what’s possible when it comes to running a business outside of the law. Furthermore, global drug policy is changing and here in the UK, certain cannabis products have recently been made legal for medicinal use. This has perhaps served to embolden users of the drug and provide hope that it will one day be legalised for recreational use.
“It seems that the change in the law is still in relation to cannabis-based medicines, not cannabis itself,” drug use expert Dr David Morris told VT. “Medicinal cannabis users are still potentially criminalised for using a plant. It's a great example of 'power requiring resistance'. For decades, people struggle to assert that cannabis is medically useful, then industry commodified it and leaves the plant users out in the cold.”
However, watching the situation unfold in North America has clearly affected the outlook of cannabis users in the UK and has helped shape a curious global narrative. “The legal cannabis industry in the US may have created enough of a distinction between cannabis 'the drug' and cannabis 'the medicine' that many no longer think of cannabis as one 'thing',” Dr Morris adds. “So Trump could elevate the 'war on drugs' including cannabis, but also tolerate a legal cannabis industry.”
Regardless of legal status, cannabis cafes are here to stay. For now, their presence in cities where cannabis remains illegal is intrinsically countercultural - a potent reminder of the burgeoning black market that comes into play when a government decides that something should be outlawed.