VolteFace visited Colin Davies in Manchester where they were treated to some good old Northern hospitality and a tour of the city. This interview and accompanying photo essay looks to tell the tale of the one of Britain’s most interesting cities and the people who live there.
Words by Deej Sullivan / Photos by Alastair Moore
On the 23rd of June 2014, George Osborne stood in front of a crowd at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, in a room filled with relics of the city’s industrial heritage, and announced to the world his desire to finally end the decades old divide between London and the North.
He spoke of the pride he felt in the fact that cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Newcastle, once “hollowed-out city centres,” were “thriving again, with growing universities, iconic museums and cultural events, and huge improvements to the quality of life.”
But, he warned, “There is a hard truth we need to address. The cities of the north are individually strong, but collectively not strong enough. The whole is less than the sum of its parts. So the powerhouse of London dominates more and more. And that’s not healthy for our economy. It’s not good for our country. We need a Northern Powerhouse too.”
Some saw his words as hollow. Many still do. Critics argued that this was little more than an attempted power-grab in the North by a Chancellor desperate to halt the rise of UKIP, and perhaps gain a foothold for the Conservatives in what has always been considered a Labour stronghold. Others pointed out that the North had thrived in spite of London-centric politicians, and should be allowed to continue on its own course.
But regardless of the motive, or the logic behind it, what this speech symbolised was the beginning of a summer of remarkable behind-closed-doors negotiations which could change Manchester indelibly.
By the time those highly secretive negotiations – which involved Osborne, Chief Executive of Manchester City Council Sir Howard Bernstein, Treasury second permanent secretary John Kingman, David Silk, Mike Emmerich, and the leader of Manchester City Council Sir Richard Leese – were concluded, they had come up with a sweeping devolution agenda the likes of which had never been seen before, even in London.
The first public announcement of the deal – and first acknowledgment that the negotiations had taken place – came in November 2014, when the Chancellor and leaders of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority signed an agreement which confirmed the intention to devolve powers to Greater Manchester, and the adoption of an elected Mayor for the city-region.
Further budget announcements followed in 2015 and 2016. These included, among other things, placing the Fire Service under the control of the newly-elected Mayor, the establishment of a Greater Manchester Land Commission, granting the Mayor more powers over planning, working with Greater Manchester to devolve criminal justice powers, devolving control over the adult education budget, and supporting the establishment of a Life Chances Investment Fund.
Perhaps the most crucial development – and certainly the least understood at the moment – could be the devolution of criminal justice powers. Very few details are currently available, with Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice Richard Heaton telling MPs last month that there is still “quite a lot of detail to be worked out.” What we do know, at least according to the BBC, is that the deal will mean that “decisions on offender management, education in prisons and work with youth offenders will be made locally.” The region will also get a new prison.
Despite the lack of detail in the plans so far, advocates of drug policy reform are already looking to seize the momentum by beginning a conversation on the future of drug policy in the region.
One such campaigner is Colin Davies, the Romiley native who famously opened a Dutch-style coffeeshop in Stockport, and even once presented the Queen with a bouquet of cannabis.
Mr Davies is straight out of the old school of activism. Not particularly enamoured with Facebook, he’s the kind of man who makes up his mind about what needs to be done, and then gets on and does it, to hell with the consequences.
Colin’s decision to open a coffeeshop in 2001 landed him in jail for three years, but it hasn’t put him off one bit. He may have mellowed slightly with age – the 1991 BMW campervan he rolls around town in, which looks like it could have transported some of Manchester’s finest musicians back in their early-nineties heyday, is now used primarily for weekend camping trips with his family – but the old fire is still there. He’s determined to make the most of the opportunity that devolution has given his city.
I spent a couple of days getting to know Colin in his Mancunian surrounds, and picked his brains about what he believes the future holds for drug – and particularly cannabis – policy as the leaders of both Manchester and the country push forward with devolution.
We first met in the very place where George Osborne had made the first announcement of his plan for a Northern Powerhouse – an area of the Museum of Science and Industry described by a member of staff, perhaps fittingly, as being “halfway down the Power Hall” – before meeting again for a more formal interview the following day. Of course, this being the North, ‘formal’ in this instance meant a chin-wag over a takeaway fry up in the back of his van.
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Asked what he thought devolution could mean for criminal justice and drug policy in the region, Colin was adamant that it could bring about the end of cannabis prohibition, in Manchester at least. “The leaders need to be shown that there is another way.” He said, “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when, now.
“Right now Tony Lloyd himself and Manchester Council could make the first step in a long journey by decriminalising cannabis and hemp.
“After decriminalisation we could look at licensing the industry. That would create thousands of jobs, and bring millions in tax to the economy. There are roughly 2.8 million people in Manchester. If we consider government figures, then perhaps 10 percent of those people are consumers of cannabis products. That would equate to 280,000 people in Manchester. Now, if we take it a step further and each person only consumes 2 grams a day, that equates to 600kg (over half a tonne) per day, which is equivalent to three and a half tonnes of cannabis a week being consumed in Greater Manchester.
“It’s criminal to leave that in the hands of criminals.
“We have to point out to the leaders of Manchester that with devolution they can change the laws.”
But for him, this isn’t just about ending pot prohibition and smashing the criminal gangs. It’s about industry as well, particularly hemp. “Manchester played a leading role in the industrial revolution,” Colin told me, “It was born in Salford. The leaders of Manchester – Tony Lloyd, Bernstein, and the rest of them – need to stand up, they need to bring this [Cannabis and Hemp] to Manchester and create thousands of jobs. We could lead the country on cannabis and hemp production.”
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The exciting thing about this vision, beyond simply putting a dent in prohibition, is the sheer scope of it. This isn’t just about raising millions of pounds and helping get the economy back on track – as important as that is – it’s about restoring the industry of Manchester and the surrounding areas, to create a Northern Powerhouse not just for the country, but for the world. If you take a walk through the centre of Manchester today, you feel as though the city is in a state of flux. It’s like walking through a giant building site.
Clearly, the re-emergence of the city as a rival to London is already well underway, and creating a world-leading ‘new’ industry will only add to the building site atmosphere.
In order to realise that global vision, there are plans being put into place by Colin and others to bring success stories from other budding cannabis markets into the Mancunian fold. Steve DeAngelo, founder and CEO of Harborside Health Centre in California, has (according to Colin) expressed strong interest in opening a UK branch of his highly successful chain of medical cannabis dispensaries in Manchester. The plan is in its early stages, but will involve putting DeAngelo in a room with the leaders of Greater Manchester and seeing what happens. Anyone who saw DeAngelo in The Discovery Channel’s short lived series Weed Wars will know what a fascinating prospect that is.
On a more local level, Colin is very aware that in order for the reforms he wants to see to become a reality, there is a huge amount of work to be done at every level. To that end, he has begun to link up with activists from other areas of society, in order to get the message out to a wider audience and to harness the power of collective campaigning. On the last Saturday of every month he joins up with a group called Wake Up Manchester for an open mic session in the city centre. “We go along with our banners and we educate people,” he told me, “about the medicinal uses of cannabis and the social and economic benefits that it could bring to Manchester. It surprises people.”
This willingness both to engage with other organisations at the grassroots level, and to pursue a dialogue with decision makers at the sharp end of drug policy, will be key to achieving Colin’s plans for policy reform.
There’ll be plenty more protests, marches, and petitions before change happens, but just as Osborne and Bernstein negotiated this devolution deal behind closed doors, so too will much of Colin’s negotiations remain unseen.
All of this is going on in the context of shifting public perception of drug policy, particularly when it comes to cannabis. The lack of any meaningful protest from the Home Office at the decision to replace Manchester’s Police & Crime Commissioner with an elected mayor suggested that their great champion, Theresa May, might now have almost as little faith in the role as most of the general public.
But if there is one policy area where PCCs are making a difference, it’s concerning drugs.
Durham’s PCC, Ron Hogg, along with the constabulary’s Chief Constable Mike Barton, has effectively authorised his officers to enact a policy of de facto decriminalisation. As long as you’re not being too blatant about your drug use, or throwing it in their faces, they’ll leave you alone. At least that’s the theory. Obviously this system is far from ideal, even as a form of decriminalisation. It leaves the discretion entirely in the hands of individual officers, who may or may not have an axe of their own to grind.
But it seems to be working, and according to recent figures may be a more widespread policy than anyone realised. The latest crime survey data shows that between 2010 and 2015, cannabis use remained roughly stable, yet information obtained by the BBC showed that in the same period arrests for possession fell by 46 percent.
The numbers are a clear indication that decriminalisation is occurring ‘by stealth’. Arrests for cannabis possession have fallen from 35,367 to 19,115. Cautions for possession have fallen from 9,633 to 5,036. And the number of people charged for possession has dropped from 15,366 to 10,220.
Greater Manchester’s Police & Crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, saw his role merged with the newly created role of Mayor of Greater Manchester. This quirk of the devolution process could be seen as a barrier to change, but not according to Colin. “I believe Tony understands the problem that Manchester has, and understands the economics of it. To get the rest of the council on board is obviously quite a difficult job, but as Mayor he will still have the power to change things.”
Lloyd’s time as Mayor may be short lived, with an election scheduled for next year. This in itself throws up an intriguing possibility – of getting a pro-reform candidate on the ballot. Such a candidate may only succeed in forcing a public conversation about drug policy reform, but it is worth noting that Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections have traditionally seen very low turnouts. Even in London, the last Mayoral election in 2012 saw just 38.1% of voters make use of their vote.
If enough pro-reform voters were motivated to make the effort and turn up on polling day, the potential for a future Mayor who is receptive to the cause could be more likely than it first appears.
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At least half-jokingly, Colin threw his hat in the ring during our chat, telling me, “I’d love to do it, me. I’d love to be the Lord Mayor of Manchester, I’d make some changes I’m telling you!”
With all that’s going on at a national and international scale, Colin Davies’ optimism may prove to be well founded not just in Manchester, but across the country. The Tory plan for a Northern Powerhouse – flawed as it may be – could yet prove to be the catalyst needed to complete Manchester’s transformation from dying industrial town to the Colorado of the UK.
That may seem an odd comparison to make, but of course Manchester isn’t alone in its desire to move the UK towards a less-centralised system of power. Since the announcement of the devolution plans, many more cities across the width and breadth of England are pressing the government to grant them autonomy, too. Add that to the continued demands coming from North of the border in the wake of the Scottish referendum, and you begin to get a picture of the UK less as a united whole, and more as an increasingly divided amalgamation of states. In that context, Manchester can already be seen as a trailblazer in many ways.
If it adds drug policy reform to that list, it may not be long before – just as Colorado itself used to be known as the Switzerland of America – Greater Manchester could become Britain’s ‘Centennial State’.
Many thanks to Colin for being such a gracious host. You can check out the rest of the photos here.
Alastair Moore is the Creative Director of VolteFace.