In December 2018, Brighton welcomed the UK’s first cannabis-infused restaurant. Sam Ben-Rabah’s venture, The Canna Kitchen opened with fanfare, attracting press recognition from newspapers such as the Metro and even catching the eye of international counter-culture magazine High Times.
Designed to challenge perceptions about cannabis and promote healthy meat-free food, the restaurant’s slogan read “let food be thy medicine”. Ben-Rabah wasn’t new to the challenges of working in the industry, “Previously I owned a head shop and hydroponic wholesale franchise, a Hemp goods store and education centre, and I had built another CBD vape cafe which had also done well, so The Canna Kitchen was a natural progression from this.”
Aware that there were legal stipulations around selling CBD and cannabis, Ben-Rabah did everything to ensure his business was above board before launching, contacting Trading Standards to confirm they were within regulations by using only cannabis-based products containing less than 0.2% THC. He even went as far as to email the Met Police to verify he was operating within the law, their reply stating “As long as you have made reasonable inquiries and it has been said that they are legal, then there is no criminal offence.”
“As long as you have made reasonable inquiries and it has been said that they are legal, then there is no criminal offence.”
Following a visit from the police a few months after opening, Ben-Rabah was still under the impression that the authorities were satisfied with his business. “The police came by on a routine visit and expressed an interest in what we were doing. I showed them my paperwork and various due diligence that I had carried out, and explained at length and in great detail why, according to the information I had been provided with by senior police officials, Home Office and Trading Standards, I was confident that our actions were completely in line with UK law. They told me that they did not wish to disrupt business, and that they were keen to work with me to ensure that everything we were selling was in legally-acceptable. They asked if they could take away some voluntary samples for testing which I gladly gave, and said they would be in touch soon with their findings.”
Based on the due diligence he’d undertaken, and the effective green lights given, Ben-Rabah continued growing the restaurant and promoting the benefits of cannabis, at this point employing 15 people and investing tens of thousands into the business. But in May 2019, fifteen officers raided the premises, forcing customers out of their seats and locking staff in a room for hours while they proceeded to clear the restaurant of stock, equipment and computers. Thanks to Operation Kneecap, The Canna Kitchen was forced to close for good.
For Ben-Rabah, the nightmare didn’t stop with the raid. On the 13th of February 2020, he was charged with two counts of possession with intent to supply cannabis. At his trial, he presented the various communications he’d had with authorities and argued that he believed the CBD flowers he was selling were legal, as they had levels of THC within guidelines. Defending, Josh Normanton argued this meant he had not broken the law, as the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 specifically gives a defence of being unaware a product on sale is an illegal drug.
It took a jury less than 30 minutes to find Ben-Rabah not guilty in a case that took 3 years to come to court. Understandably, he feels let down by the Police, and their failures to honour the promises they had made. “They were extremely ill-informed on this topic throughout the whole process and seemed to genuinely think we were operating a full cannabis cafe in broad daylight.”
Ben-Rabah understands that the UK’s drug laws are in desperate need of a re-evaluation to accommodate for low THC cannabis. “The Misuse of Drugs Act which is relied upon by UK law enforcement was written in 1971. It has little ability to differentiate between Hemp/CBD products and high-grade cannabis. It is not fit for purpose and consequently causes consistent issues when being referenced in relation to the burgeoning new CBD industry. The legislation needs a rewrite and the police need to better understand how to approach this area of law enforcement, especially when dealing with businesses.”
Fortunately, Sam Ben-Rabah isn’t put off by his 3-year legal ordeal, in fact, he hopes to return to the industry soon, telling leafie that he’s in discussions with businesses in the hemp food industry, exploring the possibility of creating several new products. Undeterred, he concludes the interview with infectious positivity, telling us “The future is a green one, that’s for sure.”