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.

Grassroots – why compassion clubs and harm reduction centres are leading the UK cannabis movement.

You may have heard of the blossoming compassion clubs and safe consumption zones all over the UK (more than likely considering the target audience of this article is Teesside cannabis club) There is a growing number of underground and open cannabis clubs blossoming in the UK. They are part of the new front line on the war on people that consume drugs.

Many of the clubs like Teesside have been working away to provide a safe consumption zone for years, emboldened by Billy and Charlotte Caldwell’s brave victory to have cannabis (based medicinal products) rescheduled. These consumption zones now have a perfectly legal audience of prescribed patients to cater to.

With this new legal protection behind them the cannabis clubs are now in a unique position to be able to provide a space for legally prescribed patients to consume their cannabis flowers in a more social setting. Having a social life and friends is an important part of being a human being, and this is especially important if you happen to be sick or disabled. Often the connections we have with others forms the bedrock of who we are as a species. To be human is to connect with other human beings.

United Patients Alliance is proud to support Teesside and other safe consumption zones for patients. Many are not happy with the way the Tories cheated us and only rescheduled ‘cannabis-based medicinal products’ rather than cannabis itself. You would be right to feel cheated as we were. However, with the crack in the door we now have been able to take some higher ground. Therefore, they limited it as they do not want to grant everyone the same rights.

All cannabis is medicinal, it doesn’t matter if you get it from a legally prescribed source, a cannabis club, the legacy market, or grow it yourself. It acts on the same receptor system, the endocannabinoid system. Which is responsible for homeostasis. Homeostasis refers to a system’s ability to regulate itself. Believe it or not, the endocannabinoid system doesn’t check if your cannabinoids are sourced legally or not, for the majority it works.

Providing a space for people to consume cannabis together is a vital service that I learnt a lot about from my mentor and UPA co-founder Chris Baldwin (RIP) Chris opened two coffeeshops in Worthing which he eventually went to prison for in the early 2000’s. Chris’ generation of cannabis campaigners literally gave up their freedoms so that we would have more freedoms today. Chris knew the power of human connection, and so did the police which is why they busted and jailed Chris and several his friends that did the same.

When I think of Chris Baldwin, I am also reminded of another one of my mentors Dennis Perone (RIP) who authored proposition 215 in 1996. loved the Californian medical system for many reasons, including the 99-plant limit. But where it failed was proving a consumption space for patients. Although the system to access the plant was far superior in California, and as such the quality of the cannabis was hard to match. The failure of social space for patients to consume was an issue – yes dispensaries hosted events where you could medicate, but for the most part consumption was not allowed on premises. This was also true when I visited Colorado, a fact that led me to have a relapse whist being surrounded by cannabis I was not allowed to consume. Staff members that were patients had to go for drive to medicate whist they sold cannabis all day long to patients.

This seemed very strange to me and really it didn’t sit right. There is the system in Barcelona, which is not as polished as the Californian one and the quality of the cannabis really can’t compare, but the social aspect of the cannabis clubs is something which could not be overlooked. They provide a space for people who consume cannabis to meet and talk. This is vital to our movement as well as to patients.

I believe that the UK is in a unique position to be able to have both at the same time. Of course, the Tories wanted to limit what was and what wasn’t illegal, as by rescheduling cannabis officially leads to many human rights and protections that just simply do not exist in other places in the world.

For the most part I find Conservative policy cruel and classist, however they have inadvertently created a perfect situation for cannabis clubs and consumption zones to flourish in the UK. For everyone not just those lucky enough to have the money to pay for a prescription. It was not their plan to do so but their austerity measures passed under the coalition government slashed police budgets creating a situation where the police just do not have the money to enforce prohibition. They didn’t anyways, but they used to like to keep up appearances and bust anyone bold enough to be open about what they were doing like Chris Baldwin. These campaigners paid the price with their freedom, and whist the police have for the most part stopped enforcing cannabis laws, there are still cases where the full force of the law is used on patients.

My legal prescription protects me from discrimination under the equality act – this is NOT the case in most places in the world where people are free to discriminate against people that consume cannabis. I believe that with this hard-won right we will be able to further UK access to cannabis for patients in a way that simply is not possible in the USA or Barcelona or even Amsterdam. Those systems work in practice to mean people can access cannabis but not at a country-wide recognised legal way. The Dutch ‘tolerate’ it, the Spanish protect their freedoms in private, and the Americans have changed laws on a state but not federal level. Which in practice can mean a bit of a lottery on if you will or won’t have problems.

That is not the case in the UK – the change in law is codified and goes right to the very top, we have legal cannabis patients, and those patients are protected by every other law in the UK that protects patients right to access medicine, as if it was a pharmaceutical drug.

This means that we have won our rights. Of course, having to pay for them is not fair and will have an impact on the poorest the most as they will struggle to pay the get-out-of-jail fee that a medical cannabis prescription has become. These new rights coupled with the safe consumption zones that cannabis clubs provide mean we are embarking on new territory. This is where we may perhaps learn from the Canadians. Canada was the first country to legalise cannabis as a medicine on a national level. This legislation on a national level can result in greater protections, which can then open more spaces for people to consume their medicine, and there contribute towards harm reduction. Harm reduction is the phrase we like to come back to and use as a community. Prohibition is harm maximisation which often impacts the poorest in society the most. By providing a safe space for people, prescribed or not there is a clear incentive for harm reduction.

Information and knowledge are often the best way to reduce associated harms with cannabis. If you are in a safe place, where you are accepted and not ostracised it gives people the freedom to explore how cannabis makes them feel whilst is an area with experts, so that if something does happen, you can get the help you need.

The impact that prohibition has had on our communities should not be underestimated. By cutting us off from each other and insinuating danger so many people who would have engaged with their communities do not. With greater legal access and more harm reduction centres, the cannabis community can provide enjoy our rights, further access, and generally take our rightful place within the society we come from, rather than being ostracised from it by an outdated and unenforceable law. We still have a long way to go until everyone has the right to consume cannabis, but it is safe to say we have come an awful long way from where we were when I started to campaign in 2010.

By proving a space for people to consume cannabis and interact with each other, more of a community can potentially be created which would benefit society as a whole. With community comes better support and interaction. Interaction with others is hugely beneficial to mental health. The impact that cannabis has on mental health is well known about especially when it comes to the negative. In my experience the isolation that can come from the fear that is inherently part of the way prohibition is enforced has had a huge impact on my mental health and personal development. Harm reduction centres break this cycle and allow people to make friends and support each other.

There is no war on drugs, there’s a war on us. By building communities, it gives communities and campaigners hope, and something worth believing in and fighting for. That is, for me, the greatest impact a harm reduction centre can have. Hope of a better future is something that every human being deserves.

Clark French – United Patients Alliance.