The first hint that something mildly taboo lies near Marge's Tarot Studio and the Uniline gymnasium, in backstreet Stockport, comes from schoolboys skulking around the corner in Bridgefield Street. "Go in and get some for us, mate. I've got the tenner," pleads Dave, whose complexion and companions - three uniformed fourth formers - do little to advance his brave claim to be 18.
"What they're selling in there."
He means the weed. Every self-respecting Stockport schoolboy knows that Dutch Experience, Britain's first Amsterdam-style coffee shop, is downstairs from Marge's place, though they're learning from painful experience that they won't get their hands on so much as one of its Mars bars, let alone a pounds 15 packet of Lebanese gold resin or skunk grass.
There's already a designated graveyard for forged ID cards behind the coffee bar - testimony to the rigour with which an over-18s rule is policed. Dave's ID lies within it: he'd evidently gone it alone some time earlier. Amid animated chatter and a delicious, late afternoon fug of marijuana smoke, 44-year-old Colin Davies, the proprietor, looks like a man who could use a joint. The under-age teenagers have been trying it on since lunchtime; someone's jammed the table football and the relentless call on his 40p teas and 50p coffees has taken its toll on his milk supply, with a full six hours to closing. "We started out asking the milkman for four litres a day," he says, watching one of his coffee bar-staff stagger in with bottles of semi-skimmed. "We put it up to 12 and it's still way off."
Davies stumbled on a goldmine when he set up the cafe in partnership with Nol van Scheik, the creator of Amsterdam's founding cannabis cafe, two months ago. He's currently attracting 500 patrons a week and there were never fewer than 50 between noon and 10pm (closing time) last Friday. A second Dutch Experience opened in Worthing last Wednesday, and outlets are planned for Dundee, Preston, and neighbouring Manchester.
A report published today by the scientific journal Drug and Alcohol Findings for the home affairs select committee will do no harm either, calling for more such establishments to solve many of the drug-related deaths and health problems traditionally associated with cannabis use. For Davies, this is all a long way from the patients' smoking room at the Sheffield spinal injuries unit where, on Christmas Eve 1995, he was lying flat on his back, dosed up with morphine and temporarily paralysed by breaks to three vertebrae, caused by a fall. There, he met a paraplegic car crash victim who first told him to try cannabis for the pain. He shared her joint and was beginning to appreciate the benefits when his father arrived to wheel him back to the ward.
He could have used more cannabis immediately but since the accident had done for his promising career in carpentry and state benefits were providing him with just pounds 65 a week to live off, he started growing his own. Within a year, Davies had encountered four patients in the same predicament and each started chipping in for seed which he grew in a back room and shipped out by secure mail order. He established the Medical Marijuana Co-operative, the kind of venture he'd read was working in the US. Davies was already attracting the attention of the medical fraternity when a police raid resulted in him being tried at Manchester Crown Court, charged with intent to supply, in 1996. His spectacular acquittal on the testimony of patients from Edinburgh and Leeds was a turning point - "one of those things that life deals you," he says.
It meant word was out about his co-operative and dozens suffering the pain of multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis realised that the embarrassment of their covert trips to street dealers was no longer necessary: 200 signed up with the necessary authorisation certificates, signed by their GPs. …