Inside a UK cannabis club: changing lives, tackling stigma, building community
We visit Teesside Cannabis Club to learn more about how its harm-reduction model is transforming the lives of its members.
Published 23rd June 2023 By Sarah Sinclair – Courtesy Of Cannabis Health Magazine
Teesside Cannabis Club founder, Michael Fisher (right) with former PCC Ron Hogg who helped create the harm-reduction model.
Cannabis Health visits one of the most established cannabis social clubs in the UK, to learn more about how its harm-reduction model is transforming the lives of its members.
I spotted the slogan immediately. In the window of an otherwise nameless building, next door to the takeaways and newsagents of Stockton high street: ‘if you know, you know’.
It’s 20 April, better known to many reading this as 420. Now an internationally recognised day of celebration for the cannabis plant and its community, it seemed like a fitting date to visit one of the UK’s most established cannabis social clubs, where its members (of which there are almost 700) would be doing just that.
Stockton-on-Tees is a small working class market town in north east England. Like most of the region it faces challenges such as poverty, social deprivation and all the symptoms that come with that, including alcohol and drug misuse. For many Stockton would be considered relatively unremarkable; except for those in the know.
Since it was established in 2014, Teesside Cannabis Club and what is now known as the Exhale Harm Reduction Centre, has become a crucial resource for the local community and an example of how harm reduction can be done right. Instead of leaving people to source drugs on the street, placing them in the hands of criminals and exposed to greater risks, it provides a safe place for them to consume, access support and connect with others, free from the stigma they may experience in wider society.
Michael Fisher, founder of Teesside Cannabis Club.
Once through the door I’m confronted with counters stocking CBD products and cannabis paraphernalia, the lights getting dimmer (and the haze slightly thicker) as you head further into the building to the consumption room at the back.
Neon light fixtures and psychedelic artwork frame the small stage area, which looks onto a sunken sofa and tables where members can help themselves to jars of tobacco-alternative herb mixes and dry herb vaporisers. An alcohol-free bar sells soft drinks, non-alcoholic beers and an excellent selection of snacks to quell any munchies that might arise during your visit.
The walls are plastered with flyers and educational resources, and on the back of the toilet door is a list of mental health helplines, refuges, charities and local alcohol and drug support services. According to founder, Michael Fisher, over the years members have been referred through authorities such as the NHS, social services and the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
Let’s be clear though, this isn’t legal. Cannabis is still a Class B drug in the UK unless prescribed for medicinal use, and Stockton-on-Tees is no exception to the rule. But police forces have the power to use their own discretion in regards to how they police their local area.
Durham Police, for example, just an hour or so down the road, made the decision to stop targeting users and small-scale growers in 2015 in what former Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Ron Hogg (more on him later) said at the time was an effort to cut costs and keep people out of the criminal justice system.
Over the years, Michael has developed close relationships with his local force, Cleveland Police (although not always for the right reasons).
A non-alcoholic bar stocks drinks and snacks.
More than just a cannabis club
Teesside Cannabis Club began life as a Facebook group, with Michael operating under the moniker John Holliday, at the time. As a medicinal user, he campaigned for reform, pulling stunts such as planting cannabis seeds outside police stations across the region, while simultaneously feeding the stories to the local press.
In 2014, he organised an event which attracted consumers from as far away as Germany, picking up coverage from mainstream media outlets. All the media inevitably brought Michael to the attention of Cleveland’s PCC at the time, Ron Hogg.
Michael recalls how Ron invited him for a cup of tea and told him that he had enjoyed reading about his escapades over his morning coffee. The rest you could say, is history. The relationship between the two developed and Ron, who sadly died of motor neurone disease in 2019, became an advocate for the club, supporting Michael in establishing the harm reduction model it operates under today.
Tobacco alternatives and dry herb vaporisers are available for members.
“Ron could see the value in what I was doing,” Michael tells me in one of side rooms. The lights are dim, we’re surrounded by games consoles and chatter is drifting in from the celebrations next door.
“The model that we operate under currently was formulated partly with support from the police, as well as the local council and with input from a number of other local organisations.
“We’re not just a cannabis club. We partner with local agencies to provide support for those struggling with mental health, poverty, childcare arrangements, legal advice and we can help them make self-referrals. I think that is something that is often overlooked. [Without this] a lot of our members would slip through the cracks.”
Michael sees the club’s role as far greater than providing a safe space to consume, but rather an integral part of the local community. It already donates a percentage of its income to support local artists and musicians, and Michael is now hoping to set up a foundation to raise money to fund local services, and ‘breathe new life’ into the area, whether that’s restoring play areas or putting on events.
Local musicians entertain for 420. Photo: Teesside Cannabis Club
In the last decade, Michael has appeared in news outlets on all sides of the political sphere, participated in a documentary with Professor Green and been invited to attend major events such as the National Drug Policy Symposium, alongside the likes of Baroness Molly Meacher.
But it’s not all smooth sailing. As different PCCs have come and gone over the years, the club has been raided on numerous occasions, with several attempts from police bosses to close things down.
“We do occasionally get the powers that be to try to shut us down,” Michael admits.
“But while I’ve still got breath in my body I’ll continue to fight.”
Michael sees Ron as ‘mentor’, and the club his ‘legacy’. They recently brought out a grinder named ‘the Hogg’, dedicated to his memory, with a percentage of proceeds going to the hospice which cared for him in his final days.
This legacy is why Michael continues to fight to keep the club open when it would much be easier for him to walk away.
“I see this as Ron’s legacy and every time they try to disregard that it gives me so much more to fight for,” he says.
“The fact that we’ve got 670 members now tells you that these clubs should be everywhere. These are not criminals, these are people who work for a living, who don’t want that stigma attached to them and for whom a charge could ruin their lives. Our members are the model.”
Michael Fisher (right) with former PCC Ron Hogg.
Patients not criminals
Many of the members are patients and medicinal consumers, who feel safer accessing their medicine here than they would on the street, and the club recently partnered with UK cannabis clinic Mamedica to support members in obtaining a legal prescription.
After the Covid-19 pandemic, Fisher says they saw a huge increase in the number of members over the age of 65.
“Around 35-40% of our members are now pensioners, our oldest member is 89-years-old,” he says.
“They rely on our services and feel safe because it’s something that’s been championed by law enforcement, by MPs, and is known internationally, not just nationally, as a space that offers an element of safety. We have members who are severely disabled. Without us they would be on the street using the black market.”
As well as providing a safe place, they foster a sense of community for people and patients who might otherwise live relatively isolated lives. I spoke to members who had travelled from as far as Scotland to attend the club’s 420 celebrations.
“This place has helped me in so many ways, it has been a lifesaver,” says one who goes by the name of Wolfie.
“I joined in 2016 to help me get away from the stigma, it gets me out and about and helps with my mobility and I don’t have to deal with backstreet dealers anymore.”
Vicky, who lives with chronic pain, agrees: “This is exactly what’s needed.
“It’s not nice being a female and having to go to a drug dealer and buy off the street, you’re putting yourself in an unsafe environment.”
She continues: “I came across the club on Instagram and there’s a huge community here. When you’re not in a working environment everyday you do feel isolated. It’s nice to be able to come here and relax with like-minded people. You can socialise without alcohol having to be involved. I don’t mind people drinking but going out and getting bashed about when you’re living with chronic pain is not a nice environment to be in.”
Colin, who was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005 now relies solely on cannabis to manage his condition.
“For years I’ve been a criminal but then I found this place,” he says.
“It’s a three hour drive from where I live, but I actually feel more at home here a lot of the time. It’s bringing people together who are suffering the same consequences of stigma, but in a positive light. It’s the way forward.”
Members travel from as far away as Scotland.
A proactive approach to policy reform
Fisher sees what he continually refers to as ‘Ron’s model’ as the way forward too, urging people to take a ‘proactive approach’ to advocating for policy reform.
Increasing evidence shows that the punitive approach to policing drug use is ineffective, only serving to increase the harms caused by drugs in society, and more and more European countries are moving towards a more public health-centred approach, whether that’s through decriminalisation, social clubs or a regulated market.
Five EU Member States (Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands) plus Switzerland are introducing, or planning to introduce, new approaches to regulate the supply of cannabis for recreational use. Meanwhile, in the UK, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has publicly supported calls from Conservative PCCs to upgrade cannabis to a Class A. Is the UK at risk of being left behind?
“The war on drugs has failed,” says Michael.
“We need a revolution. The Tories are trying to push us back into the stone age, but while there’s breath in my body we’re not going anywhere. We’ll keep fighting the good fight with anyone who will listen to us. But I’m just one man, we all need to take a proactive approach.”
He adds: “We don’t all have to get along, we just have to know that we’ve all got the same common goal and it doesn’t matter what path we take to get us there.”
If you know, you know.