Montreal's marijuana magic
Today, at the dawn of a new century, Canada's second largest city produces megatons of marijuana, much of it destined for America.
Last November, police investigating a warehouse burglary stumbled upon a 2800-square-foot hydroponic pot farm in northern Montreal. They found 25,000 plants, dozens of thousand-watt lights on light tracks, pump timers, and sophisticated nutrient and ventilation regimes.
Investigators claimed "criminal biker gangs" were in charge of the operation, speculating that only "organized crime" had distribution networks sufficient to distribute the huge crop the grow room would have produced.
"We estimate there are hundreds of other indoor growing operations in the Montreal area," said Montreal police drug agent Lt Jean Paradis.
I met some of the people responsible for those hundreds of other grow rooms when I attended Quebec's Cannabis Cup, held in Montreal on an icy November weekend.
The cavernous three-story clandestine meeting hall where the Cup was held needed some of the sophisticated ventilation found in the busted warehouse grow room. Most of the Cup's entertainment and smoking took place in the hall's dimly lit, sepulchral bottom floor. There were no windows or fans. As much as I enjoyed the skilled bands and interesting collection of international pot people, cigarette smoke monoxides forced me to flee to the roof every half-hour. I felt like one of those Russian sailors trapped in their sub on the ocean floor.
Some of the air pollution was welcome. Guests paid $100 per day for judge's passes which gave them the right to collect a kit filled with nine varieties of Canadian marijuana. Kif and hashish were manufactured by two groups of generous guys operating screening devices upstairs. Guests were encouraged to grab handfuls of resin glands and chunks of hash. For many visitors, it was a chance to hand-rub hash for the first time.
According to Alain Berthiaume, the Cup's sponsor and owner of Montreal's famous Hemp Quebec store and cannabis activism center, 400 visitors smoked seven pounds of samples supplied by growers who wanted to win one of three handsome trophies.
Alain's crew of dedicated gourmet chefs provided lots of delicious foods for hungry stoners. I particularly enjoyed the whipped cream and banana bread, while others chowed down on handmade pizzas, salads, pastas, chocolates, and hemp goodies.
The Cup competition featured nine entries. White Lotus vied with Dom Perignon in the Hydroponic Indoors category. Big Que Bud, El Nino, Que Gold, and Battoche fought for the Organic Indoors Cup. M-39, Shiva, and Freeze-002 competed for the Organic Outdoors prize. Several other varieties were slated to compete, but their suppliers had been busted.
I thoroughly examined all nine entries, asked connoisseurs about them, and conducted my own one-hit taste test under controlled conditions.
About 70% of the entries were overly dried, with faded resin glands and an incomplete bouquet. Some of the nuggets, especially Battoche and M-39, were well formed, dense, and loaded with intact glands. Others, especially the El Nino and Shiva, were airy and undeveloped, perhaps due to premature harvesting or improper curing.
I was very impressed by Quebec Gold. It had a sweet citrus smell and full-bodied, languid flavor coupled with a stone that was at least three times stronger than most of its competitors. Que Gold, M-39 and Battoche were my favorites. The Cup's 400 fellow judges partially agreed with my evaluation, awarding top prizes to M-39 (a local favorite that takes only 39 days to ripen), White Lotus, and Que Gold.
Ironically, the best buds I smoked at the Cup were two non-entries. A grower handed me a chunk of Marley's Collie, stating it had flowered for 78 days. The Jamaican weed warmed me from head to toe. I was also well bitten by another gift bud called Great White Shark.
"I grow specialty plants with great highs but low yields," explained the Collie farmer. "I didn't have enough to provide Cup samples."
Politics of compassion
Alain, who maintained a marvelous sense of humor despite having been awake for several days taking care of Cup logistics, told me he's sponsored pot events for several years.
"It's not just about smoking and judging," he explained. "I started Hemp Quebec 4 1/2 years ago. We want to celebrate social cannabis, medical cannabis, and hemp; 700,000 Quebecers smoke cannabis every day. There's no way the government can make prohibition work. We're seeing more and more entries from around Canada; this year we have entrants from Alberta and Manitoba. Much of what is grown here goes to the states - people can sell it for so much more down there. I've been to Holland many times, and I think our weed compares favorably. Dutch seed production is becoming harder, so Canadian seeds are getting more popular and are being interbred with Dutch genetics. We're excited about marijuana as an industry and as a political movement."
Pot politics infuses Quebec with a rebellious spirit that mirrors the province's history. Quebec was Canada's first province, settled by French explorers in the 1600's. England took control of the region in the 1700's. American colonialists invaded Quebec City in 1775 but were driven out by the Brits in 1776.
As Canada became a unified nation, Quebec clung to its French language and lineage. In 1970, the radical Quebec Liberation Front kidnapped and killed a British official, which led Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare martial law and suspend civil liberties in the region. In 1995, the province almost seceded from Canada. Today, "language police" inspect websites, signs, business cards and other linguistic materials ? harsh penalties await those who do not give priority to the French language.
Marijuana bridges ethnic, cultural and linguistic divides in cosmopolitan Montreal, expanding the city's influence internationally. I encountered friendly French speakers, Iraqis, Americans, Italians, Russians, and Latinos at the Cup. I also met or heard about some of Quebec's many Marijuana Party candidates, including Party co-founder Alex Neron, Pierre Fournier, David Fiset, Lise Dufour, Maryeve Daigle, Katherine Leveille, Gregoire Faber, Pierre Audet, Sebastien Duclos, and Patrice Caron.
Neron had more to think about than upcoming elections, however. He was one of two volunteers arrested at Caroline Doyer's Montreal Compassion Club, a med-pot establishment that opened in October 1999.
"The provincial government pretends we don't exist," Doyer reported, "but Montreal police busted us on February 10, 2000. Ten agents came in with a dog. They put volunteers on the floor after handcuffing them, and took them to prison, charging them with possession and trafficking. Their trial is set for February. They could get almost five years in prison. They were treated like they'd killed somebody, when all they were doing is distributing medical cannabis.
"It's absurd and shocking to see that police are arresting people who are helping others. Police seized medicine, demonstration vaporizers, water pipes, rolling papers, even matches. They took names of physicians and stole patients' files. The physicians are now under scrutiny by Quebec's Board of Physicians. Patients were sent letters stating that we are illegal and they are risking prison just for visiting the club."
Doyer vows to continue helping patients, but admits she is puzzled by police actions.
"The people of Quebec overwhelmingly support us, so why do police do this?" Doyer asked. "The Ontario judge in the Parker case ordered that marijuana laws be liberalized within a year, but politicians probably won't change the law soon enough for our patients. After the raid, our club was closed for one month. Patients had to get medicine on the street."
Street marijuana isn't acceptable to Doyer.
"We exclude marijuana with molds, fungi, toxic chemicals and other impurities," Doyer explained. "Ideally, we would provide only organically-grown cannabis. It's extremely hard to get excellent cannabis at an affordable price. We have to buy at $180 an ounce. Many of our patients can't afford it."
Amidst the hilarity and stony networking of the Cup, Doyer's determined compassion seemed almost tragic.
"Yes, I am very worried," she admitted. "The US is trying to change Canadian policies and make us have a drug war. What if Bush is president? People are being treated like machines, like cattle. This war on marijuana is terrible cruelty."
Marijuana entrepreneurs I met at the Cup fight cruelty by making money.
Ron Hill, a Quebec seed seller, physically resists police brutality and donates some of his profits to Canada's newly founded Marijuana Party.
"I promised to match Marc Emery's contributions to the Party," Hill quipped, "but then I read in the Wall Street Journal that Marc makes more than I do. I donated $1000 to the Party. Then I gave $500 to Boris, the Party president, after Marc donated to him. But it's hard to keep up with Marc."
Businessman Patrick O'Hara from Hamilton, Ontario said that his "Hip on Hemp" hemp store was educating the public about the benefits of cannabis.
"The police even asked us to provide an educational program at the main police station, so we could raise money for disadvantaged children and tell the public about cannabis," explained O'Hara. "We even have a letter of thanks from them. Now I am talking to police and other government officials about opening a compassion club in Hamilton."
Capitalist activism can be dangerous. The alien-logo Chills Canada subsidiary had only been in business six weeks when a shipment of cannabis accessories from the US was seized by Canadian Customs in September 1998. The goods were held for 55 weeks.
Dion Gravelle, the company's president, was charged with "importing instruments for illicit drug use." The skillful representation of pioneering pot attorney Alan Young freed Gravelle and the seized products. Gravelle said his company has since seen rapid sales growth in all sectors of its trademarked line of vaporizers, tubes, pipes, and rolling papers.
"We had one other problem: the language brigade tagged us because we didn't have French on some packets of our rolling papers," Gravelle quipped.
Quebec City's EchoLogik cannabis store was represented by Jean Philip Lapierre, who proudly showed me a diverse, artistic collection of hand-carved wood pipes, double-bowl pipes, and pipes camouflaged as pens and flashlights.
Fred Robson, owner of Montreal's Woodstock cannabis shop, said sales of pipes, vaporizers and other cannabis accessories are skyrocketing.
"It's winter, and people like to warm their lives with marijuana," he said.
About a third of the Cup guests had traveled to Montreal from America, and many of them were worried about US Customs interdiction.
"I used to buy seeds in Montreal and bring them back to Vermont in my body," explained a 24-year-old American female. "But I was strip-searched when I did not have seeds, so now I won't take the risk. I buy seeds from Marc Emery and they arrive safely in the mail. I wish I could bring some of these samples home with me, but it isn't worth the risk, especially when we can grow our own."
On Sunday night, after the prizes had been awarded for best bud and the "most creative joint" contest, I sat in a hotel room with Canadians and Americans, discussing pot politics and international relations. On the television were the X-Files and NYPD Blue.
"Look how these inane American television shows idealize police officers," commented a McGill University professor. "In the first show, the police are a beautiful FBI woman and her psychic partner. They are supposedly geniuses in touch with the paranormal. In the other show, a beautiful policewoman gives money to her fugitive boyfriend to help him escape custody, and two male cops coach murder suspects so they can avoid jail. None of this is in any way reality. Police are not geniuses, nor do they help people, as our Compassion Club found out. But Quebecois have a long history of fighting tyrants. Along with BC, Manitoba and other provinces, we'll make sure marijuana freedom is always alive."
? Hemp Quebec: 5757 Monk Blvd, Montreal, Quebec, H4E 3H2. tel (514) 761-0781; www.hemp-quebec.com
? Chills Canada: 1-888-4-CHILLS; www.chills.com.
? Woodstock: 2080-B rue St. Denis, Montreal; tel (514) 842-9562.
? Echologik: 829 Cote D'Abraham, Quebec City. tel (418) 648-8288.
? Montreal Compassion Club: 950 rue Rachel Est, Montreal, Quebec, H2J 2J3; tel (514) 521-8764. Donations welcome.