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The Story of Michael Fisher and the Teesside Cannabis Club: A Journey of self-healing and Advocacy

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Teesside has among the highest rate of drug-related deaths in England and Wales, but a progressive approach to substance use and a welcoming community has been transformative for many who would otherwise be disenfranchised from society.

March 06 2024, 10.00am
By Sarah Sinclair for

“It’s not just about getting stoned,” Tom Sharrow, a freelance marketing and creative director and a member of Teesside Cannabis Club for the last three years, tells The Teesside Lead.

“I’ve made lifelong friends here, one of them was the best man at my wedding.”

Tom, 32, is one of more than 600 members of the club (the oldest of which is 89-years-old), which originated in a spare container in a scrap yard a decade ago. Now its renowned consumption venue, Exhale Harm-Reduction Centre, brazenly bears the slogan ‘if you know, you know’ on Stockton high street.

Inside, Tom and others sit in small groups, chatting as they grind up dried cannabis flower. ‘House rules’ urge members to use the tobacco replacement and dry-herb vaporisers that are available for hire, while the alcohol-free bar is well stocked with snacks to combat any munchies.

Tom is legally prescribed cannabis for the long-term health condition, fibromyalgia. He is one of 32,000 people in the UK who now have a prescription since it was legalised in 2018, but before he joined the club he had never met another cannabis patient in person.

“I had exhausted all [treatment] options by the time I was 19,” he says.

“I first discovered cannabis at university and I noticed the next day I was feeling a lot better. It’s good to be able to legitimately say this is my medicine now.”

Many members of Teesside Cannabis Club are patients, some have prescriptions—currently only available via private clinics—while others have chosen not to go down the legal route for various reasons. One of the most fundamental barriers is cost. The fact that medical cannabis is only available privately means it is out of reach for many, with patients spending an average of £350 a month on their medicine. This, and the fact that 80% of patients say they have experienced stigma in society, means that consumption venues like this one play a vital role for those who use them.

“My mental health took a bad turn and the club was a place to come and meet other people,” says Sean, who has been a member since 2016 and was recently prescribed cannabis for PTSD.

“It’s not what you would expect from a dingy little place where people go to smoke weed. It’s very community-focused.”

Nicolas, 24, who became a member last year when he found himself struggling after losing his dad suddenly, also had a similar experience.

“They told me how to consume cannabis safely by vaporising it, they told me about the risks and the benefits and the different strains, and they introduced me to the clinic I am now with,” he says.

“It has changed my life.”

Since it was launched in 2014, the club has established itself as a crucial resource for the local community. Instead of leaving people to source their cannabis on the street—placing them in the hands of drug dealers and exposed to stronger, potentially contaminated and more harmful drugs—it provides a safe supply, access to support and a place for them to mix with other consumers.

For many members who would prefer not to drink alcohol, or can’t due to medication contraindications or health concerns, the club fills the social void left by not going to the pub.

“I don’t really bother drinking alcohol, instead of going down the pub I would rather come here,” says Mark* 49.

“I go to work, live a normal life but I always gravitate back to cannabis, instead of a can of beer or glass of wine at the end of the day.”

Over the last decade, the club has become renowned for its harm-reduction model, signposting and referring members to services such as mental health helplines, refuges and substance misuse support. During the COVID pandemic it was deemed to be an essential service and has previously received funding from Stockton Borough Council to continue providing this.

It continues to expand with the team now offering training programmes for police and assisted clinics in the area.

“Our main goal is education. We’ve been in this field for 10 years, we are the experts in this area,” says founder, Michael Fisher.

“We see ourselves as a community hub, with the safe space that we provide to our members. Without us they would be slipping through the cracks in the system still.”

With poverty and deprivation rife throughout the region, the North East consistently has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in England and Wales. Teesside in particular saw figures reach the highest rate since records began in 2021.

“There’s an extremely strong correlation between problematic substance use and histories of trauma and the North East is sadly a recipe for people to end up with those problems,” Danny Ahmed, a mental health nurse prescriber and psychotherapist specialising in substance misuse at Foundations Healthcare in Middlesbrough, tells The Teesside Lead.

“We see areas of huge deprivation, and we know that where there is deprivation there is likely to be trauma in people’s lives. That combination leads people to try and find a solution—and that often is substance use.”

Despite the UK government’s ‘tough stance’ on drugs, evidence points to the fact that prohibition and the criminalisation of those who use drugs fails to bring the illegal supply of drugs under control.

In fact, driving it underground leads to an increase in organised crime, more violence in communities, higher potency drugs and the risk of contamination with more harmful, synthetic substances, according to Neil Woods, a former police officer and chair of the European arm of LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership).

“I think if you were to ask the majority of police officers ‘does the War on Drugs have any benefit?’ The answer would be a resounding no,” says Woods.

But that doesn’t mean all police support reform.

“LEAP’s job is to advocate for evidence-based drug policies,” he continues.

“By which I mean, the evidence clearly suggests we should have legal, regulated control.”

Research suggests that cannabis social clubs are among the most effective forms of legislative reform, in terms of public health, harm-reduction and social equity. Something which Woods attests to.

“The social club model is the best option from a public health perspective,” he says.

“It protects young people by preventing their access, but also keeps it out of the shadows and also allows for an adult dialogue around consumption.”

He continues: “Another aspect of harm-reduction is that it reduces violence in our communities. Illegal cannabis grows are a real pain because they’re not covered by health and safety, there’s lots of abstracting electricity and there’s also an extraordinary amount of violence which goes on which no one ever knows about.”

The criminalisation of those who use drugs can also cause significant harm to individuals and disproportionately affects those who are most vulnerable or marginalised in society, with Black people 12 times more likely to be prosecuted for cannabis possession, despite being less likely to use the drug.

“The blanket prohibition of substances has a huge impact,” says Ahmed.

“It stigmatises people who use drugs in a way that is extremely unhelpful. The people I work with are gradually getting more and more disenfranchised with society.”

He adds: “The law is there to protect the public and reduce the harms associated with drugs. But the situation we have now is that there are more people using substances than any other time in UK history, and there are more deaths associated with drug use. So, the law is not working.”

One man who recognised this was Ron Hogg, the former Police and Crime Commissioner for Cleveland. Hogg was fundamental in helping Fisher establish Teesside Cannabis Club after his activist stunts—such as planting cannabis seeds outside police stations across the region—caught Hogg’s attention.

In 2017 Hogg went on to introduce the checkpoint diversion scheme in the neighbouring country of Durham, which is still in place today. Despite his death from Motor Neuron Disease in 2019, Hogg’s influence on the region today is undeniable.

“Ron was an incredible man, and a brave man,” says Woods.

“For him, it was about not criminalising young people and not causing harm. He very much understood that a criminal conviction for cannabis is going to be the biggest harm of any drug.”

While Teesside Cannabis Club is not officially endorsed by Cleveland Police, who have stated when asked about the club that they ‘continue to enforce the law around illegal drugs’, it is at least tolerated enough for its doors to still be open. For Fisher, Hogg’s memory is a powerful driver behind his desire for this to remain the case, but equally so, is the profound impact that it has on its members.

“We give a lot of people hope,” he says.

“That’s what keeps me going.”

One of those people is Nicholas.

“Some people turn to alcohol to relieve their stress, but that doesn’t do well with me. For me, it is coming here,” he says.

“I am welcome here, it feels like a second family for me.”

Whether it’s meeting other patients and being supported to access a prescription, or having a place to go to socialise on a Saturday night, Woods says the benefits of this sense of community and belonging cannot be underestimated.

“A safe consumption space, with that sense of community… I don’t think you can adequately explain the impact that has on people’s mental health,” he adds.

*Mark’s name has been changed to protect his identity

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Regulating Right, Repairing Wrongs: Exploring Equity and Social Justice Initiatives within UK Cannabis Reform

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Could cannabis social clubs break the legal stalemate in the UK?

As cannabis social clubs gain popularity with consumers and policymakers across Europe, we take a deep dive into how the model has been used in other countries, and ask if they could be the answer to the UK’s legal stalemate.

Haze Labs Medical Cannabis Lounge in the Welsh Cynon Valley, is one of a growing number of legal consumption venues, and the first in Wales, popping up on UK high streets with the backing of law enforcement and local authorities.

With medical cannabis now legally prescribed to over 32,000 patients, there remains a huge need for spaces that provide a safe and welcoming place to consume, the opportunity to meet others in the community, and tackle stigma by normalising cannabis as a medicine.

Five years on from the law change, stigma is still prevalent, with over 80% of medical cannabis patients saying they have experienced it and increasing reports of patients being discriminated against in public. A survey published last year revealed that only a third of patients (33%) felt their medication was accepted by society.

“It’s been five years and some patients with legal prescriptions are, at the very least, facing resistance and being refused to medicate when going out,” says Sam Ashton, director of Cardiff Cannabis Clinic, which supported the launch of Haze Labs and worked with local police to help make it happen.

“By having lounges on the high street, not only does it create a community and service, it normalises medicating in public places.”

She continues: “And we have to be practical about this too. Some businesses, venues and/or buildings may never agree to medical cannabis [being consumed on site.] So as a community, I think it’s vital we create our own spaces and serve our own community needs.

“I think it is particularly beneficial for patients who are recovering and/or managing their mental health with cannabis. They are stigmatised because of their illness, then again for their choice of medicine. Being able to visit safe, welcoming places, like Haze Labs Medical Cannabis Lounge, they can find connections, learn from others about what helps them and not worry if they need medication to manage their symptoms or enable their visit.”

The UK’s underground club scene
But of course, while this new wave of consumption lounges may be the first to have official backing from the authorities, the cannabis social club scene is already well established in the UK, with dozens already operating throughout the country – albeit slightly more under the radar.

Trailblazers, such as Gary Youds [the former owner of Chillin’ Rooms in Liverpool], have long-risked criminalisation by establishing ‘cannabis cafes’ with back rooms and membership clubs to provide the community with a safe place to connect, consume and medicate, away from the potential risks of street dealers.

Founder Michael Fisher, who was invited to give evidence to London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s drugs commission in September 2023, wants to see these spaces in every local authority.

“It’s important that we exist, without us our members would still be slipping through the cracks,” he says.

“We would love to work with councils in getting these set up and funded. That’s the goal for 2024, to see more of these harm-reduction centres around the UK.”

While the majority of members are medicinal users, many visit the lounge to socialise, with regular community events and live music. For those who don’t subscribe to the drinking culture that is so ingrained in British society, it is a welcome alternative to spending Saturday night in the pub.

Figures suggest that around 20% of the population don’t drink at all – and this figure is increasing among young people.

“The atmosphere is just like going down the pub,” says one member. “For those who don’t drink, it’s somewhere to go to socialise and meet people.”

Europe edges towards harm-reduction
Teesside Cannabis Club was inspired by the social club model which has been thriving in Spain for decades, where cannabis exists in something of a regulatory grey area. While personal possession and cultivation of the plant are largely decriminalised, interpretations of the law can vary throughout the municipalities, and the sale and importation of any quantity of cannabis containing THC is a criminal offence. Despite this, ‘cannabis clubs’ – located behind unassuming doors in tourism hotspots such as Barcelona – are popular haunts for visitors and locals alike.

As more countries wake up to the need for cannabis reform and move towards drug policies rooted in public health and harm reduction, we’re now seeing legitimate, regulated versions of the social club model being introduced across Europe.

In 2021, Malta introduced the Cannabis Reform Act, effectively legalising cannabis but limiting supply to non-profit cooperatives and self-cultivation. Pillar one of Germany’s proposed Cannabis Act (CanG) also sets out the legislation for permitting private, non-commercial cultivation for adult personal use and through community associations or co-operatives.

Conversely, in Spain, recent political shifts have seen the future of cannabis clubs come under threat, something Neil Woods, chair of the European arm of LEAP ( Law Enforcement Action Partnership), describes as ‘tragic’.

“The Cannabis Social Club model is the best option from a public health perspective,” he says.

“[Alongside] the sense of community, you’ve got added benefits in terms of harm-reduction for society, as well the fact that child consumption is down because the supply is moved into safe clubs run by adults for adults and the street dealing disappears.”

He adds: “If nothing else, drug policy should be about protecting young people and the Cannabis Social Club model protects young people really well.”

Clubs as a ‘powerful vehicle’ for social equity
While the social club model is often used as a tentative step towards full commercial legalisation, there is thought to be huge value in this model for righting the harms caused by years of prohibition.

Research, published last year, argues that social clubs may be a ‘powerful vehicle’ for achieving social justice, with the lack of profit as a ‘driver of market expansion’ allowing clubs to focus on the welfare and advocacy of members instead.

“I think the critics of cannabis legalisation would argue that if you put capitalist enterprises at the heart of the psychoactive drug industry, then the motive will always be to drive increased consumption,” explains Gavin Sathianathan, co-founder of the UK’s largest cannabis event, Product Earth and Club 33, a former consumption space in East London.

“The non-profit model is about harm reduction and so it emphasises the individual right to consume the medicine, but it doesn’t mean to optimise for profits.”

Most agree that reparation for the ‘war on drugs’, which has disproportionately affected those of Black and ethnic minority heritage, should also be a fundamental consideration of cannabis policy reform. But while some initiatives launched in US states with legal adult-use access have made efforts to ‘redistribute’, a 2019 study found that funding of equity programmes have been ‘very limited’.

Clubs may be better placed to engage with vulnerable and marginalised communities, say the authors of the 2023 study, providing them with ‘direct access to resources’ potentially leading to ‘health benefits’ and ‘social opportunities’.

“You can bake equity into the model from the beginning with social clubs, whereas in a more commercial US model, you almost have to retrofit it,” agrees Sathianathan, who previously ran a dispensary in Las Vegas.

“If you put the means of creating clubs into the hands of people, then anyone can set up a club.”

Reparations in the City of Sin
It’s a difficult balance to strike, between this and fully-fledged commercial legalisation, which brings with it significant economic opportunity in the form of tax revenue, but is less concerned with unpicking the harms of prohibition.

Dani Baranowski, chair of the Las Vegas Chamber of Cannabis, is seeing this play out as we speak.

“we gave all of our cannabis licences to rich, white men”

“In Nevada, less than 5% of [cannabis] licences are held by a woman or a person of colour,” she says.

“The disparity here is pretty appalling… we gave all of our cannabis licences to rich, white men.”

Despite Nevada legalising cannabis for adult use in 2016, the legislation allowing for consumption venues was only introduced in 2022.

A total of 40 licences have now been issued – with applications ranging from boutique spas and high-end ‘canna-cocktail’ bars to huge immersive ‘adult playgrounds’ – although the first venue is yet to open its doors.

The introduction of the consumption venue legislation presented an opportunity to attempt to redress some of the disparity, with a certain proportion of licences ring fenced for social equity purposes. Out of the licences issued, 20 were for existing dispensary licence holders, 10 were independent (made up largely of private investment groups) and 10 were designated for approved social equity applicants, Baranowski explains.

“This is the other impetus of why we needed lounges,” she continues. “The failed war on drugs has had a massive impact on the history of our country and we need to do something for reparation. This is one way that we can provide an opportunity for those building the industry from the illicit side to participate.”

How this will play out in practice remains to be seen though, and despite provisions being put in place to prevent social equity groups being ‘taken advantage of’, there are concerns that some of these efforts could be more for show than actual substance.

Could the UK see legal cannabis this decade?
Back in the UK, the concept of spa resorts and immersive playgrounds where cannabis-based goods are freely purchased and consumed, may seem optimistic. But reform might not be as far off as we think.

Alongside medical consumption lounges, a number of ‘wellness cafes’ are emerging onto the high street, focused on natural supplements such as CBD, functional mushrooms and adaptogens. This is no doubt spurred on by a post-pandemic obsession with health and wellness, increasing interest in natural alternatives and a more sober-curious society. Is it only a matter of time before we’re popping to the shops for our THC too?

“Nowhere in Europe talks about [drug policy] as much as the UK,” says Woods.

“It’s constantly coming back into the public sphere and that is feeding the rapidity of change in public view.”

A poll conducted by the Evening Standard in 2019 found that 63% of Londoners are in favour of some kind of legal control for cannabis.

“Yes, it’s different in different postcodes, but it’s only going in one direction,” Woods continues.

“If you look at the polling over the last eight years, that’s quite a dramatic shift, so it is inevitable.”

While neither of the main political parties are willing to back drug reform right now, with a potential change of leadership afoot, many advocates are plotting how they can get this back on the political agenda.

Sathianathan would like to see this topic up for discussion at the next general election.

“We need to start having conversations about what this model could look like,” he says.

“I don’t see us bringing in social clubs in the next few years, but I think low-level decriminalisation for small amounts of possession is achievable.”

And after the election, Woods predicts a rapid change of pace.

“The leadership of the two main parties are dismissing it at the moment, however, behind the scenes, there has never been the level of political support for drug law reform as there is now,” he says.

“After the election, I expect a fairly rapid move towards legal cannabis. I expect it to be on the agenda and considered for the term after that.”

He adds: “I think we’ll have legal, regulated cannabis for adult-use in the UK within eight years.”