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Inside Teesside Cannabis Club where harm-reduction and community are crucial

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

“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.


Inside Teesside Cannabis Club


“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.”

“Without us, our members would slip through the cracks”

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. 


Inside Teesside Cannabis Club


“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.”

“The law is not working”

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.”


Inside Teesside Cannabis Club


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.”

“We give people hope” 

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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