B.C. – a pot-friendly, pot-profitable province

This will come as no surprise to anyone who remembers the flower-power era of the 1960s, when Vancouver was the Canadian equivalent of hippie mecca San Francisco. Out of the haze of the Easter Be-Ins and psychedelic music scene emerged a B.C. pot culture that has only grown en stronger over the years.
Pot has become an entrenched part of the provincial economy. Depending on who you talk to, growing marijuana is a $1-billion to $8-billion business in British Columbia. Some argue it contributes more to the economy than forestry.

According to a recent poll by the Toronto-based Strategic Counsel, 56 per cent of British Columbians want marijuana use decriminalized. Quebec is the only other province where a majority (51 per cent) of the populace want pot use decriminalized.

Hippies are growing it, but so are lawyers, accountants — even journalists. Grow-ops are relatively cheap to set up and easy to run, and can be incredibly lucrative. If you have a green thumb, the right strain of high-grade pot and good connections to sell it, you can pull in upwards of $50,000 a year — tax free — with a small grow-op in your basement.

Vancouver has developed a worldwide reputation as a pot valhalla, the North American counterpart to Amsterdam. Pot tourists show up by the thousands each year to smoke a joint in North American’s only marijuana cafes, the Blunt Bros. and the New Amsterdam, on West Hastings.

“Most people don’t even sit down,” says Megan, a Blunt Bros. employee. “They walk in, go, ‘Oh my God, look at this!,’ take pictures and walk out.”

Comedian Tommy Chong visited the Blunt Bros. recently, and smoked a joint in the designated smoking room.

“That was quite a shock,” said a bemused Chong, who keeps homes in West Vancouver and Los Angeles. “It was so much like Amsterdam it blew me away.”

The cafes flank the storefront headquarters of the B.C. Marijuana Party at 307 West Hastings. Pot guru Marc Emery’s multi-million dollar marijuana seed empire is also located above the Marijuana Party offices. The concentration of marijuana businesses has given the block numerous nicknames: the Pot Block, the Green Block and Hemp Town.

The ever-enterprising Emery’s latest scheme is to open up a retail outlet “like Starbucks” to sell B.C. bud to tourists. He hopes to open it in Gastown, Kitsilano or on Commercial Drive this spring or summer.

“You’ll have 20, 25 varieties,” he said. “If they’re smoking it there, fine, if they’re buying it to take away, you vacuum seal it and off they go.

“If I don’t do it, someone else is going to do it real soon anyway.”

Emery has been charged 10 times for marijuana-related offences, but doesn’t seem overly concerned that he might run afoul of the authorities again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “If you get busted, they take your pot, they put you in jail. Judges are hard-pressed to say you’re a bad person because, after all, the majority of British Columbians favour decriminalizing it. They don’t think it’s a crime. How much of a crime is it if you provide people with marijuana under good safe conditions at a reasonable price?

“That kind of makes you a bit of a folk hero, not a criminal, and the judge will see it that way. He’ll be hard-pressed to give you more than a financial penalty, which realistically you’d have to be prepared to pay anyway.

“The lawyers will cost you more than the fine you’re going to get. Your real fee is $20,000 in legal fees, $5,000 max in fine. You’re not likely to go to jail.”

Emery’s brazen attitude shows how far B.C.’s pot culture has come from the ’60s, when possession of even a minuscule amount of pot could land you in jail.

Peter Trower found out the hard way — he was sentenced to a month in the old Oakalla Prison in Burnaby in July, 1967, when the police found a joint in the brim of his hat.

“I was the first person ever busted on the Sunshine Coast, which is nothing to be proud of,” recalls Trower, 72.

Trower is a B.C. original, a critically lauded poet/writer who spent much of his life working in logging camps. His novel Dead Man’s Ticket is set on the Hastings strip in the late 1940s and early ’50s, and relates the tales of loggers coming to town to blow their money on booze, drugs and women.

Trower knew the scene because he lived it, both as a logger and a bohemian writer. As such, he was among the first people to be exposed to marijuana, then known as reefer, in the early 1960s.

“I heard rumours about it back in the late ’50s,” he relates. “Apparently the porters were bringing it in on the trains, the black porters. But apart from that, it was very hard to get, so we never even looked for it. I heard the odd person managed to score some, but it was very difficult to get.

“It didn’t become available to any degree at all until the early ’60s. Then it started coming in from Mexico. A lot of it was pretty poor quality; I remember trying some and I couldn’t even get off on the stuff. Then of course things kind of got rolling.”

In 1967, Trower scored a job on a survey crew with a pair of “devout potheads.” “We smoked a good deal of herb on the job,” he chuckles.

Unfortunately for Trower, a female acquaintance gave the RCMP a list of pot smokers on the Sunshine Coast, and they swooped down on the unsuspecting potheads. The bust was conducted house to house, and Trower was tipped off by a friend before they got to his place. He hid out at his mother’s, but the police found him.

“They come chargin’ in there,” he recalls. ” I always wore a cap, and I had a joint stashed in the brim of this cap. I forgot all about this joint, but they searched me and got it. Then they went to my place and found these tobacco tins which had traces of pot in them.

“So I was the first person ever busted in this area, which was pretty embarrassing, because everybody up here thought pot was like heroin, and everybody thought I was selling to kids, which I wasn’t. I wasn’t selling to anybody.”

He feels the judge at his trial decided to make an example of him.

“They brought in a magistrate from Nanaimo who was the brother of Harold Winch, the socialist,” he says. “But this guy was right wing. He was the absolute opposite of Harold Winch. I brought in character witnesses who said I was getting steady work, because I was really getting bum-rapped on this.

“And this right-wing judge dismissed all this stuff and said there’s some suspicion that you may have been dealing. I was scared. Finally he gave me a $1,000 fine and a month in Oakalla Prison for possession of a minuscule amount of pot. It was just draconian . . . it was just ridiculous.

“So I did a month in Okey, and paid this damn $1,000 out of a little inheritance. The only good thing that came out of the whole escapade is that I got some good jail poems from being in Okey. The only way to get stuff like that I guess is to go to the source.”

One of the big factors in the B.C. pot explosion in the mid-1960s was the large number of draft dodgers who fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War. Many draft dodgers settled in the Kootenays and the Gulf Islands, where they put their gardening skills to use.

“They couldn’t get legal jobs, and a lot of them were marijuana-friendly people in the first place, and so they started growing pot in B.C.,” says Dana Larsen, editor of Cannabis Culture magazine.

As it turned out, B.C. was a great place to grow pot.

“B.C. is lush, has cheap hydro, lots of water, and lots of sunny slopes on hillsides,” says pot activist David Malmo-Levine, who will be taking his fight to smoke pot to the Supreme Court of Canada this spring.

B.C.’s forests also make for great cover growing outdoor pot.

“You don’t grow that much pot outdoors in Saskatchewan because it’s flat, and therefore the pot is visible,” says Emery.

“But in British Columbia, we have a canopy of forest covering virtually the entire province. It not only heralds good growing conditions, but good stealth conditions, to be able to get away with growing it.”

Chong says growing pot in B.C. just made sense in the 1960s and today.

“What else are you going to do when you’re an unemployed lumber worker, or a farmer?” says Chong. “You can grow a crop you can harvest every other month and make enough money to keep your kids in clothes and food. It’s just a survival thing.”

The late ’60s and early ’70s were a wild time in Vancouver. Hundreds, even thousands of long-haired young people would turn out for events like the Easter Be-Ins at Stanley Park, where you were encouraged to come out and just “be.”

Pot fuelled the emerging counterculture.

“It was like the intoxicant was the lubricant for creativity,” says Jim Allan, who managed ’60s rock bands like Spring and the Poppy Family.

“The Easter Be-Ins were just huge smoke-ins, celebrations of music and dope. It was a wonderful time to be around, I’ll tell ya.

“One time we were planning a Be-In at the Commodore Ballroom. We were passing around joints and one guy’s beard caught fire. It wasn’t my beard. Our reaction time was a little slow, but he was doused eventually.”

Cheech and Chong caught the vibe and turned it into a career. They first got together at the old Shanghai Junk nightclub in Chinatown, and Vancouver references remained in their act long after they transplanted it to Hollywood: The cop forever trying to bust them was based on a member of the Vancouver narcotics squad.

Chong was originally a musician (he co-wrote the ’60s R&B hit Does Your Mother Know About Me by Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers), but switched to comedy when he took over the Shanghai Junk strip club and turned it into an improvisational comedy venue.

The catch was, he left the signs for the strip club up outside, so the customers didn’t know what was going on.

“It was very funny,” says Chong. “Especially when we’d start the show off with a mime artist. That was pure theatre; I’ve got to do that in a movie. All these bikers and loggers and miners who have been in the bush and want to see some women and all of a sudden a mime artist comes on picking a flower out of the air.”

But the authorities weren’t amused by Vancouver’s reputation as a counter-culture mecca. The naivete of the giant smoke-ins was shattered on Aug. 7, 1971, in Gastown, when police — some on horses — attacked hundreds of pot smokers in the infamous Gastown Riot.

The counterculture faded, and pot went back underground. In 1980, the metal halide light was invented, which allowed gardeners to grow things hydroponically indoors. Pot growers quickly realized the benefits of this, and started the first grow-ops. Then growers in B.C. and California started experimenting with plants, producing high-grade, powerful strains.

“Once we were growing indoor hydroponic, all of a sudden pot went from $20 an ounce in 1973 to $200 an ounce in 1983,” says Emery. “It was all because it went indoors. It required power, expertise and a lot of care.

“People say the pot from the ’60s wasn’t as powerful, but actually it was. But it wasn’t grown very well. It was grown with Old World techniques, the way marijuana was grown 100 years ago: you throw seeds out, it grows, it pollinates, they cross-breed and you get a whole bunch of seedy, stemmy pot growing tall.

“Well, the modern-day indoor grower doesn’t let it have seeds, so it’s three times the yield. It’s all smokable, where in the old days a lot of it was seeds and stems and had to be thrown away.”

The quality of B.C. bud started getting a buzz in the pot underground. Marijuana compassion clubs sprung up to serve people who argued they needed to smoke pot for medical reasons, and Emery arrived from Ontario in 1994 to begin his pot crusade.

Emery’s own attempts at a grow-op were a bit of a bust (one crop was ruined by spider mites, and he gave up), and he closed his first big marijuana restaurant, the Hemp Cafe, after numerous run-ins with the police. He has also run for election several times under the Marijuana Party banner, but so far has been rebuffed by the voters.

But his seed business has blossomed, supporting ventures like Cannabis Culture magazine (which has a circulation of 70,000, mostly in the U.S.) and Pot-TV (an Internet television channel).

“The seeds generate $3 million in total revenue [annually],” says Emery. “About $1.2 million goes to the growers, our advertising is $500,000, and then a lot of the rest of it I give away or use to support activism.”

Emery says he makes a salary of $300,000. About $145,000 goes to taxes, the rest he spends as quickly as he can. He’s had his worldly possessions confiscated several times in arrests; now he says he prefers not to own anything.

“Believe me, the police do more damage when they seize all your assets,” says Emery, noting his biggest fine to date was $2,000.

Other people involved in the above-ground marijuana industry are a little less outspoken, preferring to just go about their business and let high-profile advocates like Emery take the flak, and the busts.

Employees of the Blunt Bros. Cafe, for example, have been told not to give out their last names. This seems to be the standard for the industry: when interviewed, few people will give out their full name. At Westside Technologies Inc.’s hydroponic store downtown, the manager’s card reads “Jer.”

Hydroponic stores have been the big winner in the pot boom: there are 84 B.C. hydroponic stores listed in the back of Maximum Yield, a hydroponic gardening magazine. By comparison, there are 69 hydroponic stores listed for Ontario, which has three times B.C.’s population.

In a brazen bit of marijuana marketing, Westside called its on-line branch Terra Hydroponics Corp., or THC — the active ingredient in marijuana.

THC’s big seller is The Cage, a $2,500 pre-fab grow-op that’s 170 centimetres tall and 121 centimetres by 121 centimetres across. It has its own reservoir and timing system, holds up to 72 small plants, and is lit with four 250-watt light bulbs, or four 400s, which gives you 1,000 to 1,600 watts of light.

The rule of thumb is that 1,000 watts of light will produce one pound of pot, every six to eight weeks. A pound then wholesales for $2,300 to $3,100. Because The Cage is so efficient, it can produce up to six pounds in one growing cycle, or approximately $14,000 to $18,000 worth of pot every six to eight weeks.

THC has now come up with a bigger, better pre-fab grow-op, The Coliseum, so-called because it’s shaped like the Roman Coliseum. The $3,500 system is 213 centimetres tall, holds up to 300 plants, and runs off four 400-watt bulbs or two 400s and two 600s.

The Cage is small enough to operate in an apartment closet. The Coliseum requires a bigger space, such as a high basement.

They seem quite substantial, but Emery considers any grow-op with less than eight lights small.

“To make it lucrative, you need 40 lights or more,” he says. “That’s when you go to an industrial mall. Nobody has 40 lights in a house, unless they’re stupid, because it’s so immediately obvious you’re going to be in trouble soon. People notice. You can’t hide the light output; it’ll leak through windows. You won’t be able to hide the temperature, houses aren’t really built for that kind of thing.

“It’s way easier to go to some industrial mall and have a front guy with an arc welding machine, which is what most people do. They have an arc welder guy or some guy who can justify a lot of power, a lot of smell and weird hours. That’s where the big ones are.”

The majority of grow-ops are small operations, but Emery has been in one that had a staggering 120 lights.

“It was two feet underground,” he says. “Get this: it required 10,000 litres of motor fuel every month to run the generator that powered the 120 lights.

“It needed bricks two feet thick to keep the sound from the generator contained. The noise it made was phenomenal, and it sucked up phenomenal amounts of air because it was underground. So they had to draw in the air from an underground pipe near a riverbed nearby which wouldn’t be noticed.”

Grow-ops of this size cause some unusual problems, such as when the roof collapsed one night and the growers had to patch it up before morning lest it be discovered. But they can also be quite profitable: Emery says the eight people involved hoped to produce 150 pounds of pot per harvest.

Because of the black market nature of the pot industry, no one’s really sure how much is grown, how much it’s worth, and where it goes to.

American officials have said that up to 95 per cent of B.C. bud goes south.

“The United States government has sought to so vilify Vancouver and B.C. as being the major exporter of marijuana to the entire hemisphere,” states Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) in Washington, D.C.

“There is an American-sponsored pure lie that B.C. bud is traded pound for pound for cocaine. This would make the cocaine dealer the dumbest marketer on the face of the earth, considering their product is worth five to seven times the value of marijuana. But it doesn’t stop the American government from basically driving that propaganda home.”

The irony is the American government seems to have convinced many Americans pot is legal in B.C.

“I get e-mails all the time: ‘I hear pot’s legal in Canada,'” says Cannabis Culture editor Larsen.

“I’m like, ‘Not yet,’ and I have to explain to them what’s going on. But they see the headlines in the U.S., and compared to America, it is kind of legal.”

Tommy Chong concurs. He thinks the growing movement for decriminalization is a good example of Canadian “common sense.”

“I think part of it is the Canadian social movement, the way Canadians are socialistically inclined,” he says. “We take care of our own up there. Canada’s always been sort of that workers’ paradise, in a sense.

“Even though they’re unemployed,” he laughs.

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Some facts and figures about marijuana and B.C.:

– According to a recent poll by the Toronto-based Strategic Counsel, 56 per cent of British Columbians want marijuana use decriminalized, and only 38 percent want it to remain a criminal offence. Quebec is the only other province where a majority (51 per cent) of the populace want pot use decriminalized;

– The West Coast is North America’s most pot-friendly region. “Oregon had the first decriminalization law. California led on medical marijuana,” says Richard Cowan of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). “There’s something about the left coast, a cultural continuum from San Francisco to here.”

– Possession of marijuana was made a criminal offence in Canada in 1923, but the first pot bust in Canada wasn’t until 1938, in Toronto. Pot guru Marc Emery says the modern craze for marijuana began with students at McGill University in Montreal in the late 1950s, then spread to Toronto and Vancouver.

– Emery says most grow-ops are small operations by individuals, not giant operations by organized crime. He also says most growers don’t get rich: “Most farmers are terrible money managers. They’re always broke. Two-thirds of the way through their crop they’re crying the blues.”

– A pot plant doesn’t have to grow tall to be worth a lot of money. Many indoor plants are kept to about 60-centimetres tall.

– The key to how much pot you can grow isn’t in the number of plants; it’s in the number of lights. The rule of thumb is that you can grown one pound of pot for every 1,000 watts of light.

– Small grow-ops don’t use much electricity, therefore there’s no need to bypass BC Hydro meters to avoid detection. “The suspicious thing is when you move into a house that has a $50 electrical rate and you’re now at $750,” Emery says. “But stealing power usually gets more people in trouble than it helps them to save money and/or avoid detection.”

– B.C. Bud is not stronger than pot grown elsewhere. Because a lot of pot is grown hydroponically indoors, the key to making stronger pot is getting the right seed, which Emery sells via his mail-order seed empire.

Cannabis Culture magazine is published six times per year and has a circulation of 70,000. The centrefold is a series of soft-focus closeups of pot plants.

Ran with fact box “The world of pot”, which has been appended to the end of the story.

? Copyright 2003 Vancouver Sun