The Backbeat Club in Soho opened and then just as quickly was raided and shut down. London X asks was it just ahead of it’s time?
“Have you visited the cannabis club down Denmark Street?” a friend asked me. It was the tail-end of the liberal 90s, and in the context of that era, the fact that a huge, illegal cannabis den existed in the middle of London’s West End didn’t come as much of a surprise. I went with a friend a few days later.
Turning down an alley, you knocked on a door, and a hatch opened. “Member?” “No.” “That’ll be two pounds then.” You paid your membership fee, received a laminated membership card to the Backbeat Club. Walking up a flight of stairs, you began to appreciate the scale of the place. A dance/chillout room was full of weed smokers. A bar sold cans of Fosters, and a pool room contained around a dozen tables. Up more stairs to the top floor, and you were faced with a blank wooden door containing a small, round hatch. A voice came through: “weed or hash?” You answered, handed a tenner to the (gloved) hand poking through the hole, and in return a bag of cannabis – herbal or resin, depending on one’s choice – was pushed back at you. The club was full of smokers, dancing, playing pool or just just chatting. It had the vibe of an Amsterdam coffee shop, but on a bigger scale than anything in Amsterdam. The place was obviously impeccably managed, and was spotless. An army of sweepers walked around picking up spliff butts the moment they hit the floor. This was London after all – we may have been late to the cannabis party compared to Amsterdam, but we were going to show how it was done on a grander scale, as only London could.
Backbeat had a capacity of at least several hundred people, and attracted a typically diverse cannabis crowd – assorted Londoners, Brazilians, Yardies and Moroccans, among others. It was generally chilled and friendly, because that’s how ganja people are. I started turning up regularly, and bringing friends, especially those from out of town. I brought a Canadian friend, and another from Texas, to show off just how cool and cutting edge London was, as the turn of the century approached. Backbeat began to be listed in tourism guides, and became a must-see destination for young visitors to the capital.
I did wonder how such a thing could exist. The police must surely have been aware of the place, and yet, as the months dragged on, showed no sign of interest. This was, I concluded, an inevitable shift towards tolerance by the authorities. It was surely only a matter of time now before cannabis was legalised; clearly, the police just couldn’t be bothered to act any more. The EU’s Maastricht Treaty had introduced free movement across Europe in 1993, and the deregulation of European air space meant that we could pop over to Amsterdam cheaply and easily whenever we liked. The city, at that time, was a backwater, and cheap by British standards. We discovered The Dam’s wonderful coffeeshops, and it began to seem absurd that such a vibrant cannabis culture could exist a mere 45 minutes flight from the UK capital, while police still arrested thousands for cannabis possession in London.
From Amsterdam, British growers began to import high quality seeds, as well as the know-how to grow weed hydroponically, under lights. Now, decent weed could be grown in the UK despite our lack of sunshine. British smokers would no longer be tied to imports of variable quality hashish from Morocco or Pakistan, or ganja from Jamaica or West Africa. One of the many – now forgotten – benefits of the rise of the EU was a massive improvement in the quality of cannabis in repressive anti-drug regimes across Europe, including the UK.
And then, just as we were getting used to this new, internationalist, cannabis-friendly London, the state struck back. The police hadn’t been turning a blind eye after all: instead they had been planning. On 1st December 1998, the venue was raided by hundreds of officers, some armed with machine guns. Two units attacked from ground level, while another invaded from the roof, swooping through windows. Everyone inside was arrested, including one of the two masterminds behind the operation, Floyd Alexander (the other, his girlfriend Maryann Quinn, was later arrested in Brixton). According to newspaper reports, 21kg of cannabis was seized, along with £125,000 in cash. The two were imprisoned in May 2000. My Texan friend, who I’d taken to visit Backbeat a few days earlier, was less than pleased with me when she’d heard about the raid.
Backbeat was over, and so were our dreams that London was about to become the next Amsterdam. Bin Laden’s attacks on America in 2001 heralded the official end of the liberal nineties, and the retreat of civil liberties – including drug reform – in the face of a more repressive state.
The news wasn’t all dark for stoners. In Brixton, police commander Brian Paddick introduced a new policy in which officers turned a blind eye to dealing and consumption of cannabis. A long line of dealers appeared outside Brixton tube station, offering weed with impunity. Then in 2006, the Labour government downgraded the drug from class B to class C, bringing it in line with prescription drugs.
But these changes turned out to be temporary. As the Blair/Brown government became more authoritarian, the reclassification was reversed, and cannabis was classified back to class B, with little explanation. Brian Paddick faced personal attacks within the police force (in part, related to his sexuality) and was removed from his post; his liberal experiment was scrapped. Other signs showed that Britain was unready to accept drugs (except of course alcohol, among the most dangerous of them all but still the only state-approved way to get high). In 2005, magic mushrooms – which had been legally used in Britain since pagan times – were suddenly criminalised, for no reason other than a short campaign of misinformed media outrage.
20 years after the military-style raid on Backbeat that signalled the end of the liberal nineties, a new summer of love may be in the offing. This time, cannabis is being legalised across America. Additionally, other banned drugs – including ecstasy and magic mushrooms – are being hailed for their medicinal properties. Maybe this time, the UK is ready for sane, evidence-based approach to drug legalisation. But don’t hold your breath, just yet.