Retail Activism: Dom Cramer’s Yonge Street Hempire

The cannabis movement has come a long way since 1994, the year of my initiation into the “cannabis culture”, when I founded Toronto Hemp Company (THC). I began humbly at the age of 20 while finishing a torturous stint at the University of Toronto and sharing an apartment with an old high-school friend. One day he showed me an Internet announcement by – and correspondence with – Marc Emery, then owner of a “revolutionary retail” Vancouver store called HEMP BC. My graduation was quickly approaching and with no idea of what to do with myself, but inspired by Marc Emery’s own “Vansterdam Hempire”, I decided to get a pot-friendly retail business started. I looked into the city and beyond for funding, suitable space, suppliers, store fixtures, promotion, and all the other details involved in launching a store. Combining my lifelong experience in my parents’ retail business, with a few thousand dollars from a 1982 insurance settlement and a genuine burning desire to make a difference while making a living, it really came together quite naturally. It also enabled me to plant the seeds of future business organizations and activist events.

In early 1995, following Marc Emery’s bold marijuana seed selling example presented in his CC #3 article “How to Open a Hemp Store”, I began my foray into seed sales at THC. But after being featured on the full inside front page of the Toronto Sun newspaper with a big photo and the headline “He’s Selling Marijuana Seeds – A Potshot At The Law”, I had the chance to meet the head of Toronto Police’s Drug Squad and quickly learned that selling viable marijuana seeds wasn’t going to fly at THC. So I waited until the medical marijuana situation evolved enough for me to jump into the game again.

That chance came in 2002 when the Canadian government authorized medicinal users to grow and produce their own cannabis but gave no source to obtain seeds from. The necessity for a walk-in retail medicinal seed store was too obvious to ignore, so Sacred Seed was created, designed specifically to provide over-the-counter seed sales and information. I set up Sacred Seed in such a way as to insulate it from my other operations, and do everything possible to ensure we were operating in as acceptable and tolerable a fashion as possible. I love that little store. It’s been relatively successful and a very rewarding way for us to help people who
are in need.

In July 2005, I finally managed to open my long-planned KindRed Café, a beautiful upscale organic fair-trade fresh-roasted coffee shop. It has a rooftop members-only smoking patio, and three private, surround-sound DVD-theatre and X-Box-equipped meeting rooms available for rent by the hour. KindRed Café has a comfortable, classy and dignified atmosphere. By all accounts, the café exceeds every visitor’s expectations; most people are completely blown away and instantly fall in love. KindRed Café is intended to be an easily emulated example of how to “do it right”, and until a few weeks ago was the icing on my retail cake. It still is in ways, but the Toronto Hemp Company’s new 7500 square foot three-storey space is absolutely incredible.

At the new THC, the straightest-laced families, suits, and old ladies can walk into a ground-floor hemp and environmental products store that couldn’t possibly be considered distasteful. There’s incense, hemp information, and natural clothing and accessories all the way to the back. Only when you climb our floating metal staircase to the second floor do you enter the realm of the pot head. The entire floor is dedicated to the herb, with rolling papers, pipes, bongs, and vaporizers of every kind, and stacks of marijuana-related books, magazines, movies, and more. If you climb down the stairs and head to the bottom level, the big bright basement is chock full of plants, lights, and supplies – a full-fledged hydroponics and general gardening supply store.

Our arrival at 665 Yonge Street marks a true coming of age for THC, and I hope that over the long run we are able to make another big impression with the latest addition to my personal “Hempire”. Though it has taken quite some time for me to reach the point at which capital and time permitted me to “branch out” as I have been doing, it is undeniable that my time spent behind the counter in the early years provided many of the valuable revelations and lessons that sparked some of our best spin-off concepts and greatest successes. For example, it was interaction with, and empathy for, medical marijuana-using patrons at THC that revealed the glaring need for a compassionate buyers’ club dispensary in Toronto. Ultimately, I decided to fill that need, and became co-founder and director of the Toronto Compassion
Centre (TCC).

The TCC, like THC, started out modestly: a few ounces of kind bud, a long-time buddy (good old Warren Hitzig) willing to take the heat, a skateboard, and a pager. As we expanded we sent letters to all relevant agencies requesting authorization for our dispensary, and held a press conference announcing our plan to open a storefront location. While most of the other clubs have long since folded, TCC has been fortunate to evolve and endure against incredible odds, such as robberies, assaults, police raids, arrests, protests, 17 months of bail conditions and trial preparation, relocation, and so much more! Through it all, we’ve made incredible strides forward, with amazing support from our rapidly-expanding 2000+ strong membership. The success of TCC is owed to regular improvements in every area of business operation, including service, production, processing, security, staffing, public service, media relations and event management. One of the things that I love about my work is most of the entities I create and run are quite unlike any other; I had never considered myself an artist until I realized how excellent an outlet for creativity my work had become.

Obviously the uniqueness of our endeavors is a double-edged sword – while the businesses are enjoyable, interesting and full of potential, I have been dealt some incredible losses when things didn’t work out as planned. I’ve seen so many “flash in the pan” activists and “here today, gone tomorrow” businesses that I’ve made sure I won’t burn out by taking on too much by myself. I wouldn’t be able to manage my various enterprises alone so I surround myself with various happy and productive people, and delegate, encourage, unite and reward them to the best of my ability. It’s truly amazing how much an enthusiastic, motivated employee or friend can ease your workload burden!

Some of my most proud and memorable experiences have been things that I never necessarily planned, such as being Master of Ceremonies for 2004’s day-long “Fill The Hill” cannabis protest on Canada’s Parliament Hill; participating in televised talkshows alongside such inspiring people as the late Greenpeace founder Bob Hunter and the late Bill Cameron of Ryerson University and “I Channel” (Intelligent Television); meeting and discussing our issue with celebrities Tommy Chong, Jack Herer, Bill Maher, Woody Harrelson, and William Sadler; joining my publisher at a table for (New Democratic Party Leader) Jack Layton’s Victory Gala; being part of Hitzig et al. v. Canada in court (Hitzig was the one who helped co-found TCC); and hosting events in our stores and café.

I am always pleased to serve and support groups that represent regular Canadians, such as Canadians for Safe Access (CSA) and NORML Canada. The difference that can be made by organizations such as Educators for Sensible Drug Policy (ESDP), Students Against Prohibition (SAP), and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) should not be underestimated. Supporting others in the cannabis industry – collaborating with, instead of competing against – is vital for our movement to continue making progress, and I am proud to collaborate with other organizations sharing our goals. I encourage others to begin hemp businesses of your own so you, too, can educate the public and help the anti-Drug War movement push forward.

• Please visit Dom Kramer’s websites for more information about
his stores and organizations: