The war to put Canadian hemp stores out of business
By Chris Clay, David Malmo-Levine, Kelly Francis, and Dana Larsen
It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. -Voltaire
It’s not easy running a hemp store in Canada, yet since 1993 over a hundred brave Canadians have taken up the challenge of activism through commerce and opened a marijuana and hemp cultural retail centre in their hometown. Some have been wildly successful and have provided whole regions with hemp products and cannabis culture artifacts, while others have valiantly sturggled but ultimately not survived the hostility of local politicians and police.
In this article we chronicle the development of hemp stores across Canada, and some of the different battles they have fought to stay open and survive in Canada’s sometimes harsh legal climate.
After two decades of empty promises of cannabis decriminalization by politicians including Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau, any lingering hopes for meaningful change in Canada were dashed in 1986. Two days after Ronald Reagan re-launched the American “War on Drugs”, Brian Mulroney declared that Canada also had “a drug epidemic that undermines our economic as well as our social fabric.”
In an effort to quell resistance to the new regime, a broad, poorly defined law was passed by Parliament in 1988. Section 462.2 of the Criminal Code banned pipes, bongs, roach clips, grow books, High Times magazine, and any other “instruments or literature for illicit drug use.”
Section 462.2 Every one who knowingly imports into Canada, exports from Canada, manufactures, promotes or sells instruments or literature for illicit drug use is guilty of an offence and is liable on summary conviction
(a) for a first offence, to a fine not exceeding one hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both; or
(b) for a second or subsequent offence, to a fine not exceeding three hundred thousand dollars or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year or to both.
The passage of section 462.2 heralded a new era of government harassment and intimidation against activists and tax-paying store owners who were either directly or indirectly involved in the promotion of cannabis culture. The bill passed with the nearly unanimous consent of Parliament, only Burnaby MP Svend Robinson dissented.
The Dark Ages
Within months, the new law was being enthusiastically used by police forces across Canada as a tool to shut down the hundreds of “head shops” that sold paraphernalia such as pipes, bongs, roach clips and marijuana growing guides. Some stores, facing the highest fines in the Criminal Code, were forced to close; others tried to change direction and restock with less controversial products.
Thus began the Dark Ages of Canada’s cannabis culture. High Times magazines quickly disappeared from the newsstands. Smokers had to begin fashioning their own pipes and water bongs. Even finding a pipe screen became difficult, so in a national trend the mesh from water faucets began disappearing from public washrooms everywhere.
For four years, a void existed in which marijuana enthusiasts couldn’t obtain access to even the most basic information about the cannabis plant. Even distributing flyers was considered a serious crime. It wasn’t until four years later when someone would seriously begin to fight back.
Marc Emery Paves the Way
Always one to resist censorship, Marc Emery began selling banned cannabis literature in 1992 in his London, Ontario store called City Lights. By advertising the sale of High Times magazine and Jack Herer’s book
“The Emperor Wears No Clothes,” Emery hoped to have himself arrested so he could challenge the literature section of the law. It obviously violates Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young was prepared to fight the case.
The London police didn’t take the bait, so Emery began selling cannabis magazines right in front of London police headquarters. Police still refused to lay charges, so finally he entered the station and tried unsuccessfully to charge himself.
Police indicated they had “bigger fish to fry” and Marc was never arrested. The controversial sales continued even after Emery sold his business and took a hiatus in Asia, before coming to Vancouver and founding Hemp BC in April 1994.
Canada’s first hemp store
While Marc Emery was exploring the jungles of Indonesia and Malaysia, political activism continued in his hometown of London, when Chris Clay opened Canada’s first “hemp store” on July 22, 1993. Using a Youth Venture Loan from the Ontario government, the Hemporium began selling books, hemp clothing, hemp seed foodstuffs, hemp paper, and illegal smoking accessories. It soon expanded to include a museum, an Amsterdam-style seed bank and a caf?.
The police left Clay alone for nearly two years before finally charging him in May, 1995 for selling clones in the shop. The case evolved into a high-profile constitutional challenge that is currently under appeal.
In the interim, stores across Canada began adding cannabis-related products to their inventories, and a number of specialized hemp stores opened across the country. Most have been the victim of some kind of harassment, which too often includes the involvement of our criminal justice system.
In 1992 Bob Lazic opened Shakedown Street in Kitchener, Ontario. Shakedown offered a wide range of tie-dyed clothing, posters, and Grateful Dead merchandise. This tremendously popular store eventually expanded into hemp products, and finally added some marijuana grower’s guides to the inventory. In more recent times, they have become the national distributor for Graffix pipes and water pipes.
In 1994, before the addition of any smoking accessories, Shakedown inadvertently found themselves on the front lines of the government’s campaign to ban “drug literature.” Without a warrant, Kitchener police raided the store and seized hundreds of dollars worth of marijuana grower’s guides as well as magazines such as High Times.
Professor Alan Young made some phone calls and spoke to the police, who promptly returned all seized merchandise.
Shakedown Street became the victim of harassment in a different form in February of 1996, when they received a letter from McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, threatening them with a lawsuit.
McDonald’s was concerned over “stickers which depict the McDonald’s Golden Arches with the word ‘marijuana’ written through the Golden Arches and the words ‘Over 1 Billion Stoned’ underneath the Golden Arches. . . the offering for sale of these stickers constitutes slander of products and slander of trade names.”
Shakedown manager Derek Wildfong sent McDonald’s the rest of his stickers, along with a polite note saying that he would comply with the request to cease sales. Wildfong pointed out that “if it wasn’t for the ‘over 1 billion stoned’, McDonald’s would not have been able to rack up the record breaking fast food sales it has in the past.” The letter ended with “give me a break today.”
McDonald’s responded with a letter stating that “your letter was creative and certainly not the usual response that we receive.” As always, the smiles were free.
The sticker continues to be sold across Canada, but McDonald’s has not contacted any of the other stores which carry it.
Deceived by police
Also in Ontario, 100% Hemp Co in Kingston was one of the country’s first hemp stores to open and probably the first to close. Financed by a silent investor, Geoff Pross opened the shop and it thrived for most of its brief life. Starting in late 1993, it became an activist center that peaked with a successful public protest in the summer of 1994. Ironically, their parade through downtown Kingston was led by the police, who stopped traffic and directed protesters to a local park to hear speeches.
Before opening, Pross’ lawyer had contacted the RCMP, the Ontario Police and the Kingston police, in an effort to avoid any future legal problems. Each police force assured him that as long as he wasn’t actually selling marijuana, they weren’t concerned. They also indicated that he would be warned if police felt he was pushing things too far.
Despite these assurances, a joint-forces police team raided 100% Hemp Co in the fall of 1994, and seized nearly everything. Less than a year after opening, Pross watched helplessly as box after box of inventory was loaded into trucks, including items like T-shirts and posters. Pross’ many questions to the officers involved were ignored, and no charges were laid.
Once again, Professor Alan Young got involved and contacted the local authorities. The federal Crown Attorney offered to drop the investigation, but only if Pross and his backer were willing to forfeit the seized inventory.
Professor Young was ready to help fight the charges, but Pross’ partner who controlled the finances decided to cut his losses and pull out. The store closed quietly and Pross, like Emery, became frustrated with the Western world and decided to tour Asia for a few years.
Marc Emery returned to Canada from his Asian adventures in May 1994, and settled in Vancouver. He was soon selling High Times and other marijuana literature door to door, and also launched the Marijuana & Hemp Newsletter, the precursor to Cannabis Canada. A few months later he opened the Hemp BC retail store with local activist Ian Hunter, and quickly expanded to become Canada’s largest hemp store, including mail order and wholesale. A small seed bank began growing in popularity and attracting many American customers.
Cannabis Canada magazine followed in the summer of 1995, strengthening the country’s network of activists, enthusiasts and store owners. Meanwhile hemp stores were opening in record numbers and cannabis products began emerging in more mainstream shops. The momentum was building, and not surprisingly the drug warriors stepped up their fight.
In March of 1995, as the first Cannabis Canada issue was being planned, police in Calgary turned up the heat. John Hazelton of Calgary’s United News Wholesalers received a letter from Sergeant MacInnes of the Calgary Police, asking him not to carry High Times magazine. MacInnes wrote that, “while ‘legal’ itself, the content of the magazine enables illegal activity to flourish and I feel that this magazine does not enhance the community, but undermines it.”
Hazelton sent the letter to High Times, who published it along with a response from their attorney, Michael Kennedy. Kennedy wrote to MacInnes that “if you have any evidence that honest information about marijuana or its use or cultivation causes harm to anyone or undermines society, please share it with the magazine. High Times looks forward to receiving further publishable material from you.”
Hazelton and United News continues to distribute High Times, and hasn’t heard from Sergeant MacInnes again.
True north strong and free?
Just as Calgary police were trying to silence the cannabis community, a hemp store opened in Edmonton. On March 9, 1995, Amanda and Troy Stewart opened True North Hemp Co, and they soon found themselves the victim of more subtle forms of harassment.
A man began making regular visits to the shop every Saturday morning, trying to pressure staff to sell him marijuana. He always left empty-handed, but he persisted for four months, until a customer recognized him as an undercover officer. The following Saturday, Troy Stewart waited for the “narc” and confronted him before escorting him from the premises. He never returned, and word has it the open police file on True North was eventually closed.
Bank a bust
While the police may have been pacified, the Stewarts later encountered problems from an unexpected source when their bank suddenly closed their account. In August 1996, after their store had received some favourable press in the Edmonton Journal, Scotia Bank told the Stewarts that they were going to “terminate our relationship based on your decision to direct your company’s business in a direction which is not compatible with ours (ie the sale of drug related paraphernalia).”
Scotia Bank’s action caused some press of its own. In the August 15 Edmonton Journal, a Scotia Bank spokesperson stated that the bank can legally refuse clients as long as it “doesn’t discriminate on any of the protected grounds in Canadian human rights legislation.”
Amanda Stewart then went to the Royal Bank and was warmly received. “We can even colour your cheques green” said the bank official.
Smoking in the hemp store
Although change has been slow-coming in Alberta, attitudes in BC are generally more tolerant. Based in “Vansterdam” Hemp BC had little or no confrontations with Vancouver police for the first year and a half.
The first unpleasant encounter finally came on November 22, 1995, when police entered the store and arrested an employee and two customers, one of whom was Ryan Mawhinney, owner of North Vancouver’s hemp store The Joint (see later on in this article). All were handcuffed and charged with possession of a few grams of marijuana, although the charges were soon dropped.
The big raid
Hemp BC received a great deal of media coverage during late 1995, including a front page article in the Wall Street Journal. The international attention put pressure on Vancouver Police to do something, and so on January 5, 1996, they raided Hemp BC in a big way, emptying out both the retail store and the mail-order office at the same time. In all, police seized well over $100,000 in seeds and paraphernalia.
Marc Emery and four employees were led from the store and office in handcuffs, and all spent a few hours in jail. Although Emery was charged with seven counts of trafficking in marijuana (seeds), he was not charged for selling the paraphernalia. However the police have refused to return the other items, claiming to have seized the hundreds of pipes and bongs solely as evidence for the charge of trafficking in seeds.
Nearly two years later, the case is still before the courts with a constitutional challenge expected to begin in the summer or fall of 1998.
No credit, no hydroponic, no rallies
Hemp BC has suffered other forms of discrimination than the obvious arrests and seizure of merchandise. For instance, even though it is a successful and thriving business, credit card privileges have been consistently refused to Hemp BC by both Visa and Mastercard.
In October 1995, BC Hydro threatened Emery with a lawsuit if he continued to sell the “BC Hydroponic” stickers, in the same way that McDonald’s threatened Shakedown Street. However, Hemp BC continues to sell the stickers and hasn’t heard back from BC Hydro.
Permits have been denied for all hemp rallies in Vancouver, even when Hemp BC has provided 6 months notice, offered payment for all police, and also offered to modify the parade route at the request of the Parks Board. At the 1997 Cannabis Day rally the police even threatened to seize rented Port-a-Potties if they were brought to the rally.
Smoking in the hemp store II
On June 26, 1997, a pair of Vancouver police entered Hemp BC and arrested one customer, who was smoking out of the store bong at the time, for possession of about one gram of marijuana. Since pot smoking is commonplace within Hemp BC, the arrest seemed strange and arbitrary.
Ominously, a few days later a note was found under the store’s front gate, with the words “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” written under a photocopy of an article about the arrest. Later that day, some customers said they had seen Vancouver police officers kneeling in the store’s entrance the night before. Could it be that some of Vancouver’s finest take Hemp BC personally?
As Vancouver police were first taking an interest in Hemp BC, another hemp shop opened in North Vancouver and soon became a police target. Ryan Mawhinney, the former owner of The Joint, says he has had his share of cops. “You’re asking me to remember all the hassles?” exclaimed Mawhinney in our interview. “Actual dates? Man, it seemed like every day.”
His troubles began early on, as he got busted for possession inside his store on November 2, 1995, not a month after he had opened. The cops decided to seize all his stock at the same time, citing an “invalid” business licence.
While he was fighting to get his stock returned his co-leasers turned on him, kicking him out of his store.
The North Vancouver Police, apparently bored and with nothing better to do in their suburban wasteland, decided to follow Mawhinney’s white Ford Taurus around day and night. They even went so far as to hang out in front of his house to search his friends and warn them not to hang out with such a heinous criminal.
On November 22, 1995, Mawhinney was busted again – this time for possession of pot inside the Hemp BC retail store!
Good cops, bad cops
When Mawhinney finally got a new location for The Joint in the spring of 1996 it seemed like everything was going to go smoothly. He even got his seized merchandise back from the police. The local cops seemed to be more tolerant of his operation. Mawhinney explained that “Dale Wagner, our community’s beat cop, was a good guy. There were no intimidation games at all.”
In May of 1996, Mawhinney had won the right to a business licence, on the condition that the store was to be “non-smoking”. This meant that every time Mawhinney or one of his customers wanted to puff, the door would be locked and the perpetrators would smoke it out on the front street. This caused the neighbours some grief, so after some secret negotiations with the local beat cops, Mawhinney was allowed to puff inside.
However, no-one explained this arrangement to the swat team that invaded The Joint one night that November. Mawhinney gave the intruders the name and badge number of the cop he cut the deal with, and the swat team left.
Also in November of 1996 was “the great basil bust”. Mawhinney was growing basil in the hydroponic setup in his storefront window, and a confused police officer had him in cuffs, and was dragging him out the door telling him “you’ve gone too far this time!” before the whole thing was straightened out.
Finally, in March of 1997, Mawhinney was late paying his rent (but within the 14 day limit) and the landlord saw it as an opportunity to boot him off the property. While he was awaiting the arbitrator’s decision, the cops came in and confiscated his entire stock again. With no stock and no location, that was the end of The Joint.
Mawhinney doesn’t think it would be possible to re-open The Joint in North Vancouver anytime soon. Of his town he says “Don’t go there saying you’re a pot smoker and expect to get any justice. You have no rights. You can’t be real with these people. We played the game by their rules, but they weren’t happy with that so they changed the rules.”
Thunder Bay crackdown
Also using ill-defined rules, police in Thunder Bay, Ontario used section 462.2 to bust two stores in quick succession. Coinciding with the first harassment of Hemp BC and The Joint by Vancouver police, the Thunder Bay boys in blue showed their true colours on December 14, 1995 when they made off with $5,000 worth of pipes and other merchandise from Ken Venema’s small store, Kaiyun. An employee was also charged and pressured to testify against Ken.
This wasn’t the first time that Kaiyun had suffered at the hands of official agencies. In March of 1995, Venema had a shipment of pipes from the US seized by Canada Customs, who turned it over to the RCMP for classification.
Venema finally launched a formal complaint against the RCMP, and in September 1995 he had an RCMP officer come into his store with a three month old letter, notifying him that his possessions had been deemed to be in violation of Section 462.2, and had been destroyed.
Venema has launched a constitutional challenge of the paraphernalia laws, and a decision is expected November 24.
On January 11, 1996, a week after the big Hemp BC raid, the same two officers who busted Kaiyun went into “The Cockeyed Caterpillar” and arrested owner Jeremy Simons for selling parphernalia. The store had opened up about a week before Kaiyun was raided, and was Thunder Bay’s only other outlet for pipes and bongs.
Police seized about $2500 of goods, which was enough to put an end to Simons’ fledgling store without the necessity of going to court.
Later in 1996, in an unprecedented move a BC municipal government actually banned the sale of “hemp products” within the city. On June 17, the Langford City Council passed Bylaw 148, which prohibits cannabis sativa and any “related items” from within the city limits. This was a direct response to the announced opening of a hemp store to be called Happy Valley Hemp.
The bylaw was originally proposed by Langford city council the same day that owner Pattie Desisle applied for her business license.
The original form of the bylaw prohibited hemp products from being sold within three kilometers of a school. When Desisle announced that she had intentions of relocating her business to comply with the bylaw, it was quickly amended to cover the whole municipality.
Some protestors came to the City Council meeting when the bylaw was actually passed, and after the meeting Ian Hunter of the Sacred Herb hemp store was arrested for possession of marijuana on the steps of City Hall, along with medical marijuana user Kevin Millership. City Hall had called the RCMP to complain about marijuana use on their front steps.
Happy Valley Hemp never opened, and hemp clothes continue to be illegal in Langford.
Supremacy of God
A month after his arrest in Langford, activist and Church of the Universe minister Ian Hunter was charged in his own Victoria, BC hemp shop. On July 26, police raided the Sacred Herb and Ian was arrested for selling viable cannabis seeds. He was also charged for growing a small plant in the store’s front window.
His arrest turned into a constitutional challenge, which relied in large part on the principle of religious freedom. The Church believes that marijuana is the biblical tree of life, and that its leaves and flowers can be used to “heal the nations”. Hunter argued that cannabis has been used as a holy sacrament since before the time of Christ.
BC Supreme Court Judge Montague Drake wasn’t convinced, and threw out the constitutional challenge. The case then went to trial, and Hunter was convicted by a jury on September 25. He plans to appeal the case.
The heat continued in the summer of 1996. Radical Riz Hemp Supplies in Peterborough, Ontario was raided twice in rapid succession, and former owner Tony Rizzo was charged both times. On August 7, 1996, police stole everything but the books, including hemp clothing. On August 30, they left behind the books and hemp clothes.
Rizzo was busted again on September 30, for defying his bail condition to “stay away from his store”. He spent an astounding 45 days in jail for this. Since then, he has been busted three more times for various offences, including cultivation and violating his bail conditions by speaking with a former business partner. In total he has spent five out of the last eighteen months in jail and has been virtually bankrupted by the legal system.
The police stole over $10,000 worth of stock during their raids, and Rizzo’s legal bills are almost as high. He is now making frequent court appearances, and his defence includes a constitutional challenge of the paraphernalia laws. Rizzo is determined to fight back, but desperately needs public support.
More London busts
Although the public has been very supportive of Chris Clay’s constitutional challenge, the same can’t be said for the London authorities. On December 6, 1996, months before Clay’s constitutional challenge was set to begin, Hemp Nation was raided once again. This time the excuse was the sale of marijuana seeds, which had been openly sold at Clay’s store for several years. The bust was an obvious attempt to put pressure on Clay to plea bargain and drop the court challenge.
Clay was charged along with one employee. Thousands of dollars in merchandise were seized, and Clay was jailed for four days. However, the constitutional challenge proceeded as planned and these later charges were dropped on sentencing day this past fall. The challenge is under appeal, and will be heard before the Ontario Court of Appeal in the spring or summer of 1998.
Mike Jain, owner of Hi Times in London, Ontario, made the mistake of trusting the local police. In 1996, he observed his fellow Londoner Chris Clay selling seeds and doing a good business with them. Jain made inquiries with the local police as to their legality, and was told that as long as the seeds contained no THC, they were legal. Clay had already been openly selling them for a while with no problems.
On December 6, as the cops were raiding Clay’s hemp store, they also raided Hi Times as well, apparently just to seem consistent. Jain says that he carried a negligible selection of seeds, he was just trying to keep his customers satisfied. Nevertheless, the cops stole his entire Christmas stock of seeds, pipes, bongs, scales and other merchandise.
They also sent 15 officers to his house, who used the keys they had taken from him to get inside, and woke up his sleeping wife in her bedroom. They stole her ancient 124 carrot gold jewelry – a family heirloom – claiming it was bought with “drug money”. They also stole between $5000 and $10,000 in cash, his wife’s passport and plane tickets to her native India, and even his parents’ Canada’s Savings Bonds – from out of his safety deposit box.
Hi Times is still open without the seeds, instead focusing on paraphernalia and hydroponics equipment. Jain is fighting his charges and will have a preliminary hearing on January 13, 1998.
In Surrey, BC, Randy Cain found himself fighting not only the criminal justice system but his own community. While his constitutional challenge of the marijuana laws works its way through the courts, his store, one of the province’s two hemp stores called “The Joint” was forced to close down after only 15 months of being in business. Cain complained that he was the victim of “a very well organized campaign to drive The Joint out of the community.”
In February 1997, Cain was warned by members of Surrey city council that they didn’t like his business and were going to do everything they could to shut it down. He was consistently denied a business license, as well as being slandered by city council members who claimed that he was running a “disreputable business” that would give Surrey a bad name.
City Council even suggested that his store, which sold hemp clothing, pipes, and coffee with snacks, should fall under the category of a massage parlor or escort service, and therefore pay $3000 or more for a business license.
Cain kept The Joint running without a business licence for nine months before finally shutting the store down. He explained that “close-minded councillors and bad publicity undermined my business. Many of my customers were scared off in fear of police surveillance or because of rumours that I had been shut down.”
Cain still wants to reopen The Joint, but first he is suing Surrey City Council for damages.
Drug law fallout
On May 14, 1997, in the middle of the Clay constitutional challenge, the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA) came into force. Within 48 hours, two more Canadian hemp stores were inititated into the mysteries of Canada’s justice system.
In Newfoundland, police raided Nicky Temple’s store Hempware, just 6 weeks after the grand opening. Charges weren’t laid for several months, but the “peace officers” seized thousands of dollars in pipes, papers and other smoking accessories.
Temple was eventually charged with selling “drug paraphernalia” and has launched a constitutional challenge. Her trial is expected to begin in January of 1998.
Cannabis Canada seized
Meanwhile in Saskatchewan, the Vinyl Exchange was raided by police on May 15 and nearly all of owner Mike Spindloe’s cannabis-related merchandise, about $4000 worth, was seized. This also marked the first time Cannabis Canada magazine was confiscated by police.
Spindloe had been selling pipes, water pipes and grower’s guides for nearly two years, but he feels the raid was primarily the result of one disgruntled cop. The police had given the Exchange “a friendly cease-and-desist warning” nearly a year before the bust, but had never followed up on it.
The officer in question had been in the store about a week before on an unrelated matter, and noticed the paraphernalia. He seemed determined to make it an issue, and sure enough the raid followed. Incidentally another hemp shop around the corner was left alone, and Spindloe has fully restocked without further incident.
Determined to fight back, Spindloe has retained Professor Young and his mounting a constitutional challenge to section 462.2. The trial is set for May 11 to 13, 1998.
The most recent store raid occurred on October 15, when police in Nelson, BC, raided Holy Smoke on its one year anniversary. Two of the owners, Alan Middlemiss and Dustin Cantwell, and one customer were arrested for possession of cannabis. The third partner, Paul DeFelice, awaits a summons. Formal charges, including possession of magic mushrooms and trafficking, are expected to follow.
Conveniently, the Nelson City License Inspector was on hand to deliver a notice suspending Holy Smoke’s business license. However, on October 27 it was reinstated after a city council meeting. Nelson City Council agreed to suspend their decision pending the outcome of the legal proceedings against the owners of Holy Smoke, which may take years.
Holy smoke is still open, and is intent upon raising money and public support for their legal defence.
Show your support
In just three years a handful of hemp stores has grown into a thriving network of over 100 stores across the nation. They have persisted despite harassment and hostility, and many are now embroiled in the legal system, victims of outdated government policies that target peaceful, otherwise law-abiding citizens.
These people are on the front lines and are risking their money and freedom to provide cannabis paraphernalia and fight unjust laws. They have formed an unofficial alliance that has become the backbone of the movement to reform Canada’s cannabis laws. Their success will surely help speed the end of cannabis prohibition. Please contact your local hemp store and do what you can to help.
How to reach people mentioned in this article: