‘I wore flowers in my hair and I had a zapata moustache’: Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol’s Lee Harris tells all

Lee Harris isn’t your typical politician.  

I met the Cannabis is Safer than Alcohol London mayoral candidate at his head shop, Alchemy, in Portobello Road, in the lead up to the elections.

Just two minutes in I watched on as he managed to convince a woman not just to stop and talk to him, but engage with him on his cause celebre: cannabis legalisation.

“Oh, we don’t want to legalise cannabis,” she said at first. But by the end of their two-minute conversation she had been persuaded to vote for Mr Harris and his party.

“Well, why not?” she said. “I don’t want Zac Goldsmith or that Sadiq Khan either really…”

It was hardly a resounding endorsement, but it spoke to the level of disaffection towards mainstream politics that has seen minority candidates increase their vote share.

CISTA is the brainchild of Paul Birch, the founder of social networking site Bebo, which he sold for more than $850m to AOL in 2008.

The party was formed just three months before the 2015 general election, but still managed to field candidates in 32 seats.

This time around they’ve had a full campaign to drum up support, with Mr Birch speaking publicly of his desire for CISTA to be a ‘gateway party’ for young people.

Meanwhile, Mr Harris has been involved in the movement to legalise cannabis for nearly 50 years, having attended the first-ever legalisation rally held in Hyde Park in 1967.

He said: “I was there at the first legalise pot rally 49 years ago in the summer of ’67 and I was on the back page of the Guardian.

“I wore flowers in my hair and I had a zapata moustache and I wore a kaftan, so I was much photographed at the first legalise pot rally.

“I didn’t realise we would have to wait 49 years! I thought we’d have been able to legalise it by now.

“Now I think there’s a paradigm shift. The young people who were in Hyde Park last week, their parents weren’t born at that time, so there’s a new demographic.

“The young people today are grime rappers, they’re multi-ethnic born in London – it’s a whole new generation and we want to give them hope and heal the wounds because there’s been so much stop-and-search, racial profiling of Afro-Caribbean for decades.”

Lee Harris has been at the heart of the counterculture for the last fifty years or more — he met Nelson Mandela in his native South Africa in the 1950s, shared a stage with Orson Welles when he first came to London, was a make-up artist for Frank Zappa, organised poetry readings by Allen Ginsberg, was arrested for selling rolling papers, founded Home Grown, Europe’s first-ever cannabis magazine, in 1977, and started London’s longest-running head shop, Alchemy, which is open to this day.

Mr Harris also played a part in current drug policy, confessing his life-long guilt to the part he played in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1964.

He was appalled by the scores of young people he saw taking vast quantities of cheap amphetamines in London – so he contacted backbench Labour MP for Paddington North Ben Parkin.

Mr Parkin put Mr Harris in touch with Evening Standard reporter Anne Sharpley, triggering a chain of events that led to the hysteria in which the act was passed.

“Fifty years ago, when I was anti-prohibition, I helped bring in possession as an offence,” Mr Harris said.

“It was an offence for amphetamines, or purple hearts, which the young people were taking loads of at that time.

“Eighty or ninety pills a week at about six pence each. They were 16 or 17 years old having ‘the horrors’ and that’s how I became interested in drugs.

“I worked with the MP Ben Parkin on the Misuse of Drugs Act – and in the process, as someone has said, I helped to destroy the Northern Soul scene.

“I feel guilty because I was a moral crusader and I don’t think morality is important in this issue and I regret it.”

Mr Harris sees Amsterdam’s coffee shop culture as the perfect model for London to follow and said that, if he was elected, he would legalise cannabis to be sold in licensed premises.

He said: “I would like to see it sold in licensed premises, which would be like alcohol and tobacco, there would be a tax on it and they’ve worked out, in London in the first year, the tax would be £200m and that could help the NHS or youth crime.

“And it could be sold in places like my shop, where there would be quality control, where people underage would not be able to get it and people know what they’re getting.”

Mr Harris wouldn’t be drawn into setting a number of votes he would consider a success. Quite honestly, it doesn’t seem like any number of votes, no matter how small or large, would change his enthusiasm.

When I spoke to him at City Hall after the election a few days later, he eagerly showed me the paperwork that showed he received 20,537 first preference votes and 88,032 in total with second preferences.

The 79-year-old is not limiting himself to just cannabis legalisation though and believes that all drugs with therapeutic uses, like LSD or MDMA, should be legal for those who wish to use them.

Mr Harris said: “I believe that LSD has healing properties – and I’ve met Albert Hoffman [inventor of LSD], I was at his 90th birthday in Heidelberg 20 years ago.

“So I think the psychedelics – MDMA and LSD – can be used for therapeutic purposes. They’ve helped people with depression, people who have psychiatric problems.

“I took my first LSD trip on a sugar cube in 1966. I remember it well, it was like a first love affair in a sense, though I have not taken any psychedelics for many years.

“[The last time] might be 10-20 years ago. I’m pretty well-grounded, I live in the country and I don’t want any more psychedelic experiences.

“Cannabis was one of the things of the ’60s that was left behind. There was gay liberation, women’s liberation, divorce was changed, abortion and all those issues were dealt with. But for some reason cannabis was left behind.

“So many people smoke cannabis all over the world. It’s time we legalised it, regulated it and taxed it. Decriminalisation is already happening by stealth.”

As our first conversation wound down, I asked Mr Harris what he made of his incredible and influential life so far.

“I’m lucky,” he said. “I had a long and loving marriage for 33 years before my wife died.

“I have three highly-educated children, I have grandchildren, I live in the country and I don’t own anything, even my property. As a Buddhist I believe be more, have less. Enjoy life, be more, have less.”

I caught up with Mr Harris after the mayoral results were finally announced on Saturday morning and he was in a typically ebullient mood, declaring himself thrilled with received more than 20,000 votes.

So what does the future hold for CISTA?

“We’ll have to see about that – but I did say to Sadiq that if he needs a cannabis adviser I would contact him,” he said.

As I turned away, the Britain First contingent walked past. Mr Harris stopped them, extended his hand and said with genuine warmth: “So lovely to have met you,” before shaking each of their hands. He meant it too.

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