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London Mayoral Hopeful Lee Harris Details His Journey From Moral Crusader To Cannabis Campaigner Via The Mortuary

'Practically every MP smoked cannabis in their youth.'

16/04/2016 08:14

Lee Harris claims he's had over 40 jobs in his lifetime - including "pushing bodies late at night through the morgues" - and three months shy of his 80th birthday, he wants to add another - Mayor of London.

But standing in his Notting Hill head shop - Alchemy - dwarfed by a skyline of bongs, and drowned out by reggae music played by the tattoo and body piercing parlour that shares the space - Harris' political ambitions seem little more than the pipe dreams of an old-hippie.

And in a way they are. 

Steven Hopkins
Lee Harris, 79, is contesting the London Mayoral race with the Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol party

But in a mayoral race almost certain to be won by either Conservative Zac Goldsmith, or Labour's Sadiq Khan, victory is not the focus for Harris - the candidate for Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol (CISTA) - though he expects to "do quite well", when Londoners cast their votes on May 5.

Harris simply wants to use the contest to bring "archaic" cannabis laws into the spotlight, as they've been "left behind" while similarly outdated policies around "divorce, abortion, homosexuality... have all been updated" (if possible, Harris also wants to make London "George Galloway free").

In Harris, the proprietor of Britain's oldest head shop, CISTA has the perfect candidate, someone eccentric enough to transcend a debate that has got so tired authorities have seemingly not noticed, to the point that “decriminalisation is occurring by stealth”. 

That was Harris' take earlier this month when it was revealed that arrests for cannabis possession in England and Wales had almost halved since 2010

However, police saw it differently, saying their stance around cannabis crime hadn't softened, rather the statistics were a consequence of staffing cuts, and directives to focus on more serious offenses.

Just days earlier a study published in the world's most renowned medical journal, The Lancet, put it more bluntly: the war had not only failed, but the previous 50 years of drugs policy had caused serious “detrimental effects on the health, wellbeing and human rights” of both drug users and the general public.

Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire
The election is expected to be won by Zac Goldsmith, right, or Sadiq Khan, left

The study, published on March 24, called for all non-violent minor drug offences including use, possession, and petty sale, to be decriminalised. By not doing so, the study said, countries were “neglecting their legal responsibilities to their citizens”. 

Those findings, leading UK reformist Steve Rolles told the Huffington Post UK at the time, should mean policy makers can no longer dismiss drug reform arguments as the “ravings of crazed drug users, libertarians or extremists”.

On Tuesday, for the first time in almost two decades, the United Nations General Assembly is holding a special session on drugs (UNGLASS). 

In the 18 years since the last UNGLASS meeting, attitudes to drugs policy have almost completely changed. Cannabis has been legalised in Uruguay and in four US states  - Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska -  and leading public and political figures have spoken out in favour of reforms. 

In February former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote a blog for the Huffington Post’s US site arguing why it’s time to legalise all drugs, and in October 2015 Sir Richard Branson leaked a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime calling on governments worldwide to decriminalise all drugs. Branson had feared the UNODC would soften its stance before publication. 

Steven Hopkins
Harris opened Alchemy on Notting Hill's Portobello Rd in 1972 and still works there

The last UNGLASS meeting, convened under the theme, ‘A drug-free world—we can do it!’—endorsed drug-control policies with the goal of prohibiting all use, possession, production, and trafficking of illicit drugs which it said were a “grave threat to the health and wellbeing of all mankind”.

That used to be Harris' attitude too.

After growing up in a family of orthodox Lithuanian Jews in Johannesburg, Harris later became involved in the anti-apartheid struggle through the South African Indian Congress in what he calls his "political awakening". There he met Trevor Huddleston, the English bishop and anti-apartheid campaigner, as well as Nelson Mandela and his legal partner Oliver Tambo, and in 1955, he was one of the few white attendees of the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto, where the ANC drew up the Freedom Charter, which he described as "the greatest moment of my life". 

A year later, fearing arrest, he fled to the UK, aged 19, with the hopes of becoming an actor. 

Harris attended Webber Douglas drama school and was a contemporary of Terence Stamp and Steven Berkoff - he also once shared a stage with Orson Welles - but at that time, he was far from becoming part of the counter culture scene he is an icon of. Rejecting the "racist society" he had grown up in made Harris "puritanical". He smoked Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, "but barely drank and never did drugs". 

That was until he found the West End. "I loved the dives [dive bars]; hanging around the worst kind of people.

"But then I discovered these kids who were on pet pills [amphetamines]... they'd come out of the clubs with dilated pupils... they were taking 80-90 of these at six pence a time, and having these horrible come downs."

Harris wrote to Labour backbencher Ben Parkin who asked questions in parliament before passing on the information to Evening Standard reporter Anne Sharpley. Harris later showed her the problem first hand and her front page account created a hysteria that led to drugs being criminalised under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1964.

"I'm one of four people blamed for destroying the Northern Soul scene," Harris said ruefully during an interview with the Huffington Post UK, adding that when a friend got 15 months jail on drugs charges, he thought, 'what have I done, I've spoiled everyone's fun'."  Including his own. Harris recalls later being "grabbed by these plainclothes police and spreadeagled against the wall over a five shilling deal of cannabis".

Harris thinks it was about 1964 when he got high for the first time, "passively", while walking out of a Mod club on Oxford Street, but it was the following year his mind "really got blown". He met poet Allen Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall.

From there Harris, whose Grandpa Simpson-like stories span decades and are sprinkled with encounters with luminaries of the counterculture movement including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, went on to become an award winning playwright. One play, Buzz Buzz, was about the West End drug scene, he also helped found the Drury Lane Arts Club, wrote for the International Times, toured with Frank Zappa as his make-up artist, and once supplied Royal Jelly, via Fortnum and Mason, to Margaret Thatcher

Steven Hopkins
Harris poses next to a cartoon drawing of him as mayor

In 1972 Harris opened Alchemy on Portobello Road - named after the Alchemical wedding, a 1968 event at the Royal Albert Hall, where “three and a half thousand hippies” congregated - which he still works at two days a week, commuting in from Surrey, "because I just love it" (around the time the shop opened Harris "discovered" famous British comic book artist Bryan Talbot). 

In 1977, Harris launched magazine Home Grown, which lasted until 1982 and is currently being digitised.

"The first 12,000 sold out in two days, and then we couldn’t find distributors or printers... It caused so much fuss," Harris recalled. 

The publication led to Harris being jailed for three months at Wormwood Scrubs in 1990 for selling extra-large cigarette papers. He had become known as the "Rizla man". 

Despite being a drug campaigner for more than 50 years, Harris, a buddhist, is no druggie. The father-of-three occasionally drinks "half a pint of shandy", takes ginseng daily, eats organic, and smokes non-psychoactive cannabis through a vaporiser.

"I want to be a law maker, not a law breaker," Harris says, adding "I don't get gaga at home", although he has "started smoking the odd cigarette again and I really shouldn't".

Lee Harris
Howard Marks signs copies of his book, next to Harris, middle

Harris, a long-time friend of the late drug baron Howard Marks, later admits he does "have a little pipe (of cannabis) in convivial company... but I cough too much". He has never done hard drugs.  

"Hypocrisy", Harris says, has held the cannabis debate back in the UK, because "practically every MP smoked cannabis in their youth" and it will always be smoked "even in the nicest of circles".

Regardless of what happens on May 5, Harris points out he has already had one victory - not counting defeating a 22-year-old karate champion during the Cista Hustings - the Guardian reported that he was certain of winning the prize for best campaign launch party. Harris held a party at Mau Mau, a bar a few doors down from Alchemy, and danced until 4.30am. 

"No one told me at 80 you could have so much fun," Harris explained, adding that he has "always been interested in rebirth", and this, the mayoral campaign, "is just one of many rebirths". 

While Harris' main focus is on drug decriminalisation, not just of cannabis - he believes LSD, psilocybin and other psychedelics should also be available without fear of arrest - he also wants to fight gentrification; use more green energy, rationalise London's transport strategy, and issue an apology to London's Afro-Caribbean community for the way they've been treated.
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