A cannabis education centre taking shape in Weston-super-Mare is already helping two former crack addicts who want kids to learn from their mistakes.
The “potentially revolutionary” facility will soon open in Station Road in a building that has stood empty for years.
FACES, or Free Addiction Cannabis Education and Support, is the brainchild of Steve Melhuish – a project manager until his brother, 24-year-old Robert Cox, was stabbed to death in a home for people with drink, drug and have mental health issues.
He has battled “dinosaurs” at Town Hall and damaging rumours about his plans, but is convinced he can make a difference.
FACES, a registered charity, seeks to educate about the benefits and risks of cannabis.
Steve, who grew up in Weston and started smoking the drug aged 14, said: “I’ve put two years of stress, blood, sweat and tears into this.
“North Somerset Council gave me lots of grief. They wouldn’t talk to me. After the election they said it can go ahead.
“[Deputy leader] Mike Bell and [council leader] Don Davies are good people but there are so many dinosaurs in that council. If it wasn’t for the council I would have opened four months ago.
“There are problems in Weston with County Lines [drug gangs] and knife crime.
“By educating kids from a younger age, stabbings will go down. Drug dealing will go down. What we will be doing will be second to none.”
Steve and the people helping him realise his vision will be able to draw on some heartbreaking personal experiences at the death of his brother in 2013.
“My brother started smoking cannabis when he was young,” he said.
“He had major issues. He was massively addicted to it. It affected what was already there. He had schizophrenia. It brought it out of him.
“This all came about after he was stabbed. I decided I wanted to do something to educate cannabis users. I was working in logistics but lost my passion for it. I needed something to occupy my brain.
“I’ve suffered from all sorts of mental health issues. My use is under control now. I’m 38. I’m not trying to show off to anyone.
“I will be able to pass what I’ve learned on to kids – about how to get out of that hole.
“This place will be somewhere to come and learn self-defence instead of using knives, or the benefits and dangers of cannabis.
“We’re going to have a 420 radio station, art exhibitions, live music and comedy nights, a mentoring room.”
The centre will also have a test facility, where users will be able to find out exactly what is in the drugs they buy on the street.
Downstairs there will be a cafe with games consoles and a pool table.
Steve said he is well versed in the law and everything will be above board.
“We’re going to allow cannabis on site but there will be no selling on site, and there will be strict guidelines. It will be for the adult evenings. We will be within the legal guidelines. The only thing that will be illegal will be possession.”
People will be able to smoke outside, but Steve said the area will have its own access and be separate from the centre: “What people do in there is their own responsibility.”
Once the centre is set up, he plans to give it back to the community, only keeping 10 per cent for himself. Then he will move on, and he is already lining up his next project, a CBD restaurant.
Cannabidiol (or CBD oil) is a substance derived from cannabis plants and its infusion with food is becoming a popular trend.
Organisations up and down the country are keeping a close eye on FACES to see how its experiment works.
Lin Toulcher, an artist who has rallied a host of artists to decorate the centre, said: “This is long overdue. There are no youth clubs. This is giving kids somewhere to go, but more importantly it allows parents and siblings to be there with them.
“It will bring back that old-fashioned social framework. It’s a safe place.
“If you stand outside any fast food outlet in this town you can see kids as young as 10 selling drugs. That’s where County Lines come in, gangs asking them to carry a package.
“I see it all over the place. It’s shocking what goes on in Weston.
“Unless you’re aware you can probably walk past without realising. There’s crack dealing going on left, right and centre. The dealers probably make more money than Tesco some days.”
Lin will help out as a mentor and is training to be a counsellor.
In a way, the centre will build on her own experience looking after Weston lads she dubbed the “lost boys”.
“When my son was at home he was going through various teenage problems. I didn’t want him out on the streets, so I made my home almost like a drop-in centre.
“I’d rather he and his friends be at home where they can chat and chill. They couldn’t do anything I hadn’t done in the past. It was pure chaos at the start.
“Everyone had teenage problems, and then issues with various drugs came on top, they had their spats with the police.
“Some of them have criminal records. They find it hard to find proper employment. Some didn’t have proper homes to go to. Over the years there were 15 to 20 lost boys.
“Some went on to be bad boys. The majority have turned their lives around.”
One of those turning his life around is Ben, a former crack addict. Smoking cannabis helped him get off harder drugs.
“Helping out here keeps me occupied,” he said. “If it helps kids get more educated it will help them. It will be a safe haven for them.
“I’ve been off hard drugs for some time. I’m going to become a mentor and work with under 18s. I’ve lived the life they are heading down.
“I’ve gone through drugs. There’s so much more to life.
“I had to have a hip replacement 10 years ago. I was on painkillers but your body becomes immune to them. I ended up with an opioid habit.
“That’s when I started getting involved with street drugs. It’s one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
“Now I’ve managed to pull away from street drugs and prescription drugs.
“I want to use myself as an example. These kids are at a crossroads.
“They can make something good of their lives, or they can spend 20 years in jail.
“They can come here with no obligation and talk to us in confidence.
Dealing is a massive issue in Weston. It’s the rehab centre of the country. That’s why this is such a fantastic idea.
“Heroin and crack is a really big problem. County Lines gangs come down here from London, Birmingham, Liverpool. They try to groom the kids to get them to sell their drugs.
“We will keep them away from that. Otherwise they will end up one of two ways: dead or in jail.
“I’m an ex-addict. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. It’s nice to be given a chance to turn that around.”
Jay, another of the Lost Boys, said: “I started from a young age because I was bored and had money around me.
“I started smoking weed at 11. At 13 I was sniffing coke. At 15 I was smoking crack.
“At first I had the money to support my habit. You do things you don’t realise. I’ve been in prison.
“If I was educated in the right way, maybe I wouldn’t have taken drugs. But if I didn’t smoke crack, I wouldn’t have done the things that led me to this point.
I’m lucky to have people around to show me what I’m capable of.”
Lin’s son Carter said was an habitual weed smoker but he never had a problem with harder substances.
He said FACES was “potentially revolutionary”.
Source: Bristol Live
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