Lee Harris in his favorite local art gallery, the Muse. All images via Ali Cedar
Europe’s first head shop is closing. Lee Harris, a legendary figure in the cannabis world, opened the shop on Notting Hill’s Portobello Road in 1972 and named it Alchemy, after the progressive underground artists’ gathering the Alchemical Wedding. The shop—as well Homegrown, Europe’s first cannabis magazine, which Harris published from 1977 to 1982 and recently archived—played an important role in the country’s alternative culture. In 1990, the South African writer, performer, and activist was sentenced to three months in jail because Alchemy sold paraphernalia linked to cannabis. When the sentence was overturned on appeal, head shops spread throughout England.
To this day, fans and tourists come from all over the world to visit Alchemy and greet 80-year-old Harris, but anyone hoping to do so had better hurry up. He is officially shuttering his shop on Dec. 31.
In Alchemy’s final days, MERRY JANE caught up with Harris to find out why he is closing his infamous location, how media had changed since the days of Homegrown, and to reflect on some key moments in this phase of his life.
The back wall of Alchemy, which displays some of Lee’s proud moments.
MERRY JANE: So, Lee, why are you closing Alchemy?
Lee Harris: Sometimes the old has to give way to the new. People are telling me it’s the end of an era, but really it’s the beginning of a new era. In the next year I am looking to write a book about my life story. I want to tell the anecdotes of London in the ’50s and the ’60s, the changing times. I am going to visit old friends, travel, and meet new people. And, I will find more interesting and meaningful work to do. It’s nice to open a new path to fresh pastures.
Even at 80 years old?
Yes, why not? Life is full of opportunities and interests. Now I’m older, I’m wiser I hope. I want to do many things—public speaking, learn to play a musical instrument, and I’d love to take walks in the country and explore. Now I am closing the shop, I feel like I am free man.
How much have you seen the perception of cannabis change in the 46 years you’ve owned the shop?
Cannabis always got left behind, culturally and legally. But now there has been a paradigm shift. Not only in the law, but also in the media and representation. They are not talking about it in a negative sense. If some footballer or pop star is caught smoking it’s either done as a joke story or one sympathising with them. We never saw this kind of thing before. No more Reefer Madness.
What sort of experience did you have publishing Homegrown when that kind of thinking was prevalent?
It was Europe’s first cannabis magazine. And when it came out it got a huge amount of publicity—some of it shocking and negative, like “the horror on the bookshelves that is a threat to your children.”
But after a month I had advertising people, journalists, and other media coming to me, and coming out for the first time and telling people they smoke dope. And on Capital Radio they said that I was “lifting the lid off pot.” It took a long while before other drug-related magazines and media came out—Weed World, Red Eye, and now it’s an explosion on the Internet and digitally, and it’s amazing. Social media groups, members clubs, blogs, websites, and brands. The cannabis media has come so far in the digital age.
What was your motivation to pursue the Homegrown project?
I modelled Homegrown on High Times, but I wanted to do something for Europe and the UK. I wanted a dope magazine that reflected the culture of the time. I wanted writers from the underground, the great talents of the time. This area we are in, Ladbroke Grove, was a great hub of creatives and writers and musicians, including people like the Clash and Aswad. Reggae was big here. It was a very exciting time.
Originally, 10 years after 1967, I wanted to do something that celebrated the summer of love—the first legalized pot rally was in June 1967 in Hyde Park. So, I was going to hire the Roundhouse venue in Camden and have a party with a peace and love theme. And then I did a program for the event and I ended up turning that into the idea of the magazine!
Various artistic rolling papers and tips being cleared out for the closing of Alchemy.
The magazine and shop ended up causing you lots of problems with the police over the years, no?
I have been arrested twice on cannabis offences; both times I had no cannabis on me. In 1981, I was bold enough to put the magazine alongside cannabis growers’ guides in the shop window. I knew it was quite shocking to let the public see such things at that time. The next Saturday, I heard a click in someone’s jacket, and I thought to myself, “That is a plainclothes policeman.” I was pulled outside the shop as soon as we made eye contact. There was nothing in the shop and nothing on me, but they had followed someone down from a local pub who had 7 grams of cannabis in his pocket. And so they charged me with allowing the premises for the supply of cannabis.
My case was transferred to the Old Bailey, the highest court in the land. I was on 24-hour watch for three months, waiting to go to court. And eventually I appeared at the court for a three-day trial, and I was acquitted. What a terrible thing to put me through. During that time I felt like I was being watched and treated like a Jew in Nazi Germany.
What did the other encounter with the police involve?
In 1988, a new law was brought in that said selling you couldn’t sell items that could be used in unlawful circumstances. And one Friday I come to open the shop and I see the shutters down, the police photographing everything, and then taking away my stock.
There was an article the next week with the headline “Drug Squad Nabs Hubbly Bubblies.” It seemed a ridiculous charge, for selling rolling papers and ethnic items that I had been selling for 17 years.
I appealed, and I won my case at the appeal court. On the way out, the policeman guarding me congratulated me on my win. There was even Spitting Image sketch about it, and the papers said “Rolling Paper Verdict Quashed.”
I became a backstreet hero. The Motorcycle Magazine wrote about me, and the local Afro-Caribbean communities loved and supported me. I ended up going to Jamaica after this to pay homage to Bob Marley and he sang to me my difficulties when he said, “Don’t worry about a thing, it’ll be alright.”
How did these experiences shape you?
For years I couldn’t talk about the case, I couldn’t let anyone know; I had to live a very private life. I hated for people to know that I had spent some days in jail, and I didn’t want my wife and three children to face problems.
But now when I think about it in retrospect, I am proud. I was raided because my shop was often full of Rastas. And the day before, a police van stopped outside the shop, and a whole group of policemen came out and all peered in and eyed up the black customers. I was being punished because of my clientele, and because I sold Rastafarian and other ethnic items. It took me a long time to realise that this was not just anti-cannabis, it was racism.
To wrap up on a positive note, who are some interesting people you’ve smoked with?
The person I most enjoyed having a spliff with was Howard Marks, or Mr. Nice, the great cannabis smuggler. I smoked at a cannabis cup with the legendary Jack Herer. I smoked with the expert grower Ed Rosenthal. When I was in New York, I smoked with the staff of Hustler Magazine. I smoked at the Abbey Road Studios with Nigel Kennedy. I’ve smoked with many musicians and popstars…and even politicians.
In the ’60s, with, erm…I don’t know if I should mention the name. He was a former cabinet minister from the Conservative government. He is from a big newspaper family…. Yes, I’ve smoked with many amazing people in all parts of society.