Cannabis culture blows up in the big smoke

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420 HASHMOB RALLY Monday (April 20). Gather at Vapor Central (667 Yonge) at 11 am for a march to Yonge-Dundas Square, where the Cannabis Cannon goes of at 4:20 pm. 420rally.ca/toronto.



Denver doesn’t have one. And pot is legal there. Ditto Portlandia.


The Toronto Hash Mob’s ninth annual 420 marijuana legalization rally, slated for Yonge-Dundas Square on Monday, April 20, has made T.O. the epicentre of cannabis culture activism in North America.


Cannabis culture thrives in the big smoke – and always has – despite a harsh political environment. We have a largely forgotten and fascinating cannabis history, though prohibition prevents the erection of historical markers to mark its sites.


To help fill that historical gap, attendees at the recent Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference rode a bus while I did my best to be a toker tour guide as part of a workshop.


We visited vapour lounges to learn about recent pot history. For many on board, even 1997, when Toronto’s small cannabis scene began regrowing, was a long time ago.


But Toronto’s weed story was writ long before that. How many people walk by Huron and Bloor without realizing that the high-rise apartment building on the southeast corner, a former student co-op built in 1968, was once the largest grass ‘n’ hash distribution hub in North America?


A few Rochdale College dealers bought and sold by the tonne. The building’s fire alarm was used as a warning system to alert dealers when the cops from nearby 52 Division were coming. Stashes were hidden or flushed, but dealers felt safe enough to host hotbox parties on the roof. They’d throw hash on a hibachi and charge 5 bucks to sit and inhale. Dealers would sell cannabis or hash to stoned customers on their way out.

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Rochdale is now the Senator D. Croll Apartments, renamed in 1978 by Toronto Community Housing for Canada’s first Jewish senator. But the statue of the Unknown Student out front remains a great spot to smoke pot. (Back then, residents referred to the sculpture as Auto-fellatio, but even when weed’s legal, I doubt that info would appear on a historical plaque.)


A little east of Rochdale, Yorkville’s BIA wants people to fall in love with the area’s historic charm but not to remember its smoky hippie years. The nabe was a hotbed of the counterculture, T.O.’s Haight-Ashbury, until a city-led remake.


Gandalf’s, our first unofficial head shop, catered to the booming trade, selling pipes and bongs to pot enthusiasts, going so far as to tell customers that its wares were for getting high only! A draft-dodging William Gibson, who went on to become a legendary sci-fi writer, worked behind the counter.


Stranger than any fiction, we even have a true made-in-Toronto cannabis conspiracy. In 1972, the Addiction Research Foundation (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) conducted a study involving 20 Toronto women volunteers. Cut off from the world for 93 days, 10 of the women smoked weed nightly, and 10 did not. To compare their productivity, all 20 participants wove belts. Doobie dosages were gradually increased until participants collectively could take no more.


Initial findings from news reports suggest a fondness for leisure activities but no loss of productivity or cooperation among participants who smoked. ARF’s full report on the pot experiment was never released, but it’s safe to say some knew in 72 that cannabis was mostly harmless. Maybe that revelation was too explosive for the time. Calls for legalization were slowly diminishing by then.


A 1980s U.S.-style war on drugs cleaned out Yonge Street’s thriving bong businesses. The stretch between Bloor and Queen had so many head shops, it was impossible for the police morality unit to engage all of them one-on-one.

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Instead, cops sent letters to shop owners notifying them that their businesses had become illegal under PM Brian Mulroney’s “bong and literature law.” In 1988, Section (462.2) of the Criminal Code outlawed “the manufacture, sale or promotion of instruments or literature for illicit drug use.”


Most don’t know that bongs are still illegal. Only the literature ban was repealed after a constitutional challenge led by Terry Parker, who applied to an Ontario court to use marijuana as medicine for his epilepsy.


The court recognized marijuana’s medicinal value when it accepted Parker’s explanation that he used cannabis to treat his seizure disorder. Cracks in prohibition’s wall began to widen, and they were seized upon by a 10-something skateboarder.


Warren Hitzig delivered med doobies to people who could prove they had an illness. His efforts led to the founding of the Toronto Compassion Centre, and its waiting room continues to open people up to the realization that they aren’t alone in their fight for the right to medicate with marijuana.


Cops have left our compassion clubs alone, but have shut down a Beaches chapter of the Church of the Universe, which offered pot as a “sacrament,” and downtown’s Kindred Cafe, which sold weed-infused milkshakes.


These days, people without weed can turn to Craigslist, and T.O. dealers will make downtown deliveries to your door within an hour. Marketplace competitiveness has them sending texts confirming your order, but call well in advance of Monday’s 420. The event is sure to put a dent in the supply.


I’m actually at a loss for words when I think that a half-dozen people grew Yonge-Dundas Square’s 420 into a gathering of 12,000 yearly.

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We pride ourselves on civil disobedience and our style of protesting the prohibition of pot. Call it stoner showmanship: if you’re going to get arrested, at least look good doing it. 


Amazingly, 39 Canadian cities will have a 420 protest this year. 


When Chris Goodwin and I started, there was only one other – in Vancouver. They have weed-selling booths, but we have flair.


Eight years of rallies have meant protest numbers too big to ignore any more, including by City Hall, which every year becomes more accommodating on the required permits and fees – even if the guy in the mayor’s chair has become a little paternalistic about puffing.


Hard now to wrap your head around the toker tale recounted by John Tory over 30 years ago in Osgoode Hall Law School’s newspaper. He took a bold position, arguing for lifting penalties on pot, even admitting to driving stoned once.


Our current mayor also wrote about cruising Lake Simcoe in a boat with friends with an amount of weed on board reportedly nowhere near personal. Let’s just say it was more than the two bags of grass Hunter S. Thompson took on his trip to Vegas, according to a 2006 London Free Press article. But once Tory became PC leader, that story became just another footnote in a mostly forgotten chapter of Toronto’s weed history. 


[email protected] | @cannabisinformation

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