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A TEA OF POT; Drugs go on sale at London's first cannabis cafe.

Byline: GRAHAM JOHNSON Investigations Editor and JEFF PICKETT

AN Amsterdam-style cafe where cannabis is openly sold and smoked has opened on one of Britain's busiest shopping streets.

Customers can buy pounds 10 bags of the drug over the counter - and smoke it with their afternoon cannabis tea.

The Hemp Cafe recently opened on London's famous Camden High Street, a fashionable shopping area popular with youngsters, students and also tourists.

Situated below a bustling clothes shop, it attracts a lot of passing trade - and the queue of people waiting to buy cannabis often stretches into the street.

At one point business was so brisk the marijuana ran out and the manager had to send for more.

Inside - with its psychedelic walls, low lights and reggae music - 14 punters were rolling and smoking joints and two were puffing on a large "bong" pipe.

The air was so thick with sweet-smelling smoke that huge fans have been installed to disperse the fumes. Polite signs ask punters to refrain from smoking in alcoves because of ventilation problems.

Sunday Mirror reporters were told by the waiter pouring their tea that they should place their order for cannabis with a hooded man seated behind a nearby serving hatch protected by iron bars.

He placed two plastic bags stuffed with green herbal cannabis on the counter and said: "They're pounds 10 each. Choose which bag you want. It's good gear. I've only got weed. No resin (solid cannabis blocks) today."

A few minutes later a PC and WPC stopped outside the cafe and began chatting to staff from Leatherland, the clothes shop upstairs.

Despite clouds of cannabis smoke wafting past, they did not come inside to investigate.

The cafe manager - a Middle Eastern man in his 30s - asked customers near the door to stop smoking until the police left, but he was ignored.

A well-dressed, middle-aged woman, who had bought a bag of cannabis from the serving hatch minutes earlier, was puffing on a joint in a corner.

She said: "I'm not leaving until the police have gone - I'm stoned and I will just burst out laughing." But the manager reassured her: "Don't worry. They won't do anything. Just don't smoke in front of them."

Before our reporters left, he asked them to sample some more products. "We've got Cannabis Tea and Magic Mushroom Tea," he said. They bought a bag of each for pounds 6.

Both the cannabis and magic mushroom tea bags contained small amounts of cannabis and dried raspberry leaves.

Despite the Government's plans to downgrade cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug, cafes like this are still illegal and owners who sell pot over the counter face a maximum of 14 years in jail.

The proposed legislation only affects users of cannabis in England and Wales, who will no longer be arrested for possession of the drug but escape with a police caution.

So far the police have come down hard on attempts to establish cannabis cafes in the UK.

Last month Colin Davies, 44, owner of the Dutch Experience cafe in Stockport, Greater Manchester, was jailed for three years for smoking a joint during a police raid on the caf'e's opening day.

That cafe did not sell cannabis but did allow customers to smoke joints on the premises.

Drugs Minister Bob Ainsworth has warned: "If someone was to open a cannabis cafe they would be breaking the law and could find themselves in prison.

"Those inside the cafe could be arrested too."

Cannabis cafes originated in the 1970s in Amsterdam, where marijuana laws are extremely relaxed.

The cafes operate under strict regulations and are subject to the approval of local authorities.

Although they sell and allow cannabis to be consumed on their premises, they are not entirely legal and cannot obtain supplies of cannabis within the law.

However, the Dutch government believes these coffee shops are beneficial because they have separated the supply of cannabis from that of other, more dangerous and addictive drugs.

A spokesman for Leather Land said: "As far as I know the cafe downstairs doesn't sell cannabis. But it's nothing to do with us."

A Scotland Yark spokesman said: "Selling cannabis is an offence, and we will investigate the allegations."

Do you know a scandal we should investigate? Call our News Desk on 020 7293 3601

CAPTION(S):

IN CHARGE: The manager and the tea he sells; SMOKE SIGNAL: The serving hatch in the new cafe where customers can buy and smoke cannabis; POT: Cannabis tea is sold in the cafe, under this unconnected leather shop
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Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Dec 15, 2002
Words:761
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