Hemp BC, our original retail store that opened on July 2nd, 1994 at 324 West Hastings Street in Vancouver, launched the first cannabis website in the world on September 30th, 1994. The World Wide Web had gone live in August of 1994, and now web sites could actually be created and put “online”. In fact, our launch party for Hemp BC was shared at a location where our Hemp BC site was ‘launched’ in tandem with CBC.ca, Canada’s largest national TV and Radio network.
We were the 8th and 9th websites in Vancouver to go live, and in those days, a big gala party was held to announce a website going ‘live’, just like an art gallery opening. Within a few months, with thousands of websites flooding online in every community, you never saw website launch parties ever again. Those innocent days! We had perhaps 200 people come to this joint launch party for CBC.ca and HempBC.com. Our website CannabisCanada.com went online four months later, first as a link on the Hemp BC site.
Pot TV was the first website in the world devoted to exclusively video, and the first website devoted to cannabis video. This project turned out to be very costly, and the production, distribution and reception of streamed video was technologically challenging, although the technological challenges of archive video were less so.
Here is the story about how Pot TV came to be.
After four raids from January 4th, 1996 to September 2nd, 1998 on Hemp BC, Marc Emery Direct Seeds, The Cannabis Cafe, and Cannabis Culture Magazine, I had retreated to living on the Sunshine Coast of BC. I would go to Vancouver every week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to pick up the mail to Marc Emery Seeds, and then hunker down in a windowless 6’x15′ foot office at 21 Water St. that was previously the storage room for Cannabis Culture Magazine, and there I would answer seed inquiries by phone and email.
Despite the four raids, I had not discontinued selling seeds – and, in fact, I put all my efforts into expanding the seed business and using those profits to expand Cannabis Canada magazine into a larger circulating magazine that was now, by 1999, distributed into the United States and Canada as Cannabis Culture.
In October 1999, a person I had never met contacted me over the phone and said that I should consider a cannabis video website. I said I had never seen video on a website, or anywhere on the internet (this was true, there was not yet any video on line), and asked what he meant. He said, ‘theoretically it’s possible.”
I said, “Well, how would we make that happen?” He said, “You would bring me to Canada and get me to put it together for you.”
This hustler was a fellow named Lance, from New Jersey. I had never heard of him, and he wasn’t with me long (he had addiction issues that really came to the fore once he arrived penniless on the Sunshine Coast). But he had sent me a list of equipment we would need to buy and we agreed I would bring him to the Sunshine Coast and he would put it together, and we would make the hitherto-never-before-done-video-content for a video website all about cannabis.
I bought up all this tech equipment, and on the morning of January 1st, 2000, the equipment was spread out on the floor of the downstairs of my Ninth Street home in the Bonniebrook neighbourhood of Gibson’s on the Sunshine Coast.
Lance had just arrived a few days earlier; I paid for a one-way flight from somewhere on the US east coast to Vancouver. Lance was a character, with a few days’ stubble always on his chin, and Jewish Brooklynese patter with speaking. He liked cigars, and pot – and heroin too, which I discovered within about eight or nine weeks, to my dismay. He was addicted, and always in a kind of ragged desperation, though at the time I couldn’t pinpoint quite why. But now he was on the payroll.
I looked at him on January 1st, and with my website tech guy Karlis, I said to the two of them, “Okay, make it happen.” I remember that day well. At least 30 or 40 switches, motherboards, microphones, video cameras, computer parts, stuff for the most part I had no idea what they were or what they did, were on the carpet of the Pot TV ‘studio’ waiting to be assembled into something that worked.
They set about building the studio in my basement. Some ‘basement’! This studio area looked out through floor-to-ceiling windows on to a gorgeous view of the Pacific ocean, Douglas Fir trees, a walking trail along the sea. It was a very idyllic and bucolic setting for the world’s first video website. While Lance and Karlis worked on this “theoretically possible” idea of a video streaming/cannabis video website, I set about to branding it. Our first domain name acquisition was www.Pot-TV.net, and our first slogan was “You’re watching the POT.TV Internetwork”, which became “Pot TV: as high as you can get on the net.”
In 2001, I found out that the island nation of Tuvalu had offered its national domain address .TV out to anyone (most likely TV networks) who wanted to pay a premium to get the .TV domain extension. At first they announced they wanted $10,000 per domain extension, but that got no takers. Then I was informed that Tuvalu had decided to sell annual .TV extension rights for $500 a year, and one of my happiest days was when we successfully got the www.Pot.TV domain name in February.
In March, while working on the development of Pot.TV and figuring out how it would work – and realizing there were obstacles to overcome that seemed insurmountable – I saw two or three news websites from major television networks having one or two short 30- to 60-second clips appear in ‘archive’ video form on their largely-text sites. These were the first examples I had seen of what was possible. Downloading them was difficult, time-consuming, and playback was herky-jerky; even our latest computer struggled to process the volume of data required to play back the video.
That was our first intimation of trouble. Our plans were to stream “Live” video, for hours on end, like a TV broadcaster but only on the web. Oddly, I had not really considered ‘archive’ video, just a continual stream of live content, until I saw this kind of ‘playback anytime’ style of presentation called ‘archive’ video. I hadn’t really considered any of the obstacles that existed, like costs of webcasting all that bandwidth, the ability of modems and computers to process large volumes of bandwidth (live) or data (archive). On January 1st, I just presumed it was possible and our organization should do this project.
That was how I always thought about any project: commit now, and figure out the details as we went along. This usually resulted in the project getting done, but requiring much greater time, resources, and expense than I had counted on. It’s a dangerous way to do anything in business, but that’s why I’m an entrepreneur and not so much a businessman. If I knew the costs, obstacles, and actual difficulties involved in projects like the Cannabis Cafe (North America’s first vapour lounge I opened July 2nd, 1997 at a cost of $300,000 and eight months, though the initial budget was $60,000 and three months), Pot.TV, Toker’s Bowl (2002-2005), I would likely have never done them. In fact, I’m certain I would never have attempted them!
I was told that our online videos would have to be produced using proprietary video browser formats. A “player” called “Real Player” was launched so video could be streamed or played on your computer. To produce video by this just-announced company Real Player would cost $8,000 for a production license, so we got it.
Problems dogged us. By March, the project was going slowly, Lance was behaving erratically, and I was told that live streamed video might not be possible. One of the problems was that the amount of bandwidth almost everyone in North America had back then was received by ‘dial-up’ through the telephone lines, not through a dedicated modem. (We were fortunate that in January of 2000 the Sunshine Coast was one of the first jurisdictions in Canada to have high-volume fibre-optic cables, allowing for the use of dedicated modems hooked directly into the network.) For our first official live stream show, advertised on CannabisCulture.com and featured as exclusive content at www.Pot.TV, people tuned in on their computers to watch video cannabis history being made, and told us that they just received one image frozen for about 5-20 seconds with a scratch of the audio, so that it was unwatchable. So, “theoretically” people could receive our live-streamed webcasts if they could receive much higher volumes of “bandwidth”, which virtually none of them could.
Within days we realized that an uninterrupted audio stream could get through clearly on Pot.TV, so on March 23rd we started regular daily program of what amounted to Pot.TV radio, with Richard Cowan webcasting the cannabis news, our first Pot.TV production. It was a 30-minute to one-hour daily live show, and in its own way, it was thrilling enough; but it wasn’t what I imagined as Pot.TV. Then Karlis and Lance determined that if we made a video show, and then made it an archive video – not live – it would be permanently available on the Pot.TV site, and downloadable onto computers, and then once all the data was downloaded onto the receiving computer, it could be played on that receiving computer anytime using Real Player. That worked and we went with it.
Soon I discovered that Lance had serious heroin addiction problems, and one day while he was in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, he ‘lost’ our expensive video camera. Our one camera. So we bought out Lance’s contract with a paid $4,000-car in June 2000, and he drove back to the US east coast. Lance was a lot of trouble and worry, but he did put the marijuana video website idea in my head, so for that I’m thankful.
All across North America, and in other parts of the world more slowly, homes and offices were getting faster bandwidth access, and people moved away from telephone line reception to dedicated modem lines on fast-developing fibre-optic networks. But in May 2000, it took many people fifteen minutes to up to six hours to download a fifteen-minute video show from Pot.TV. And most shows we did were fifteen minutes to sixty minutes long, the average being about thirty minutes. These shows used up expensive amounts of bandwidth in the early years, and there was a problem with that; as the ‘shipper’ of these high bandwidth programs, Pot.TV had to bear the costs. That was one of two major reasons no one had ever done it before: the cost of that bandwidth, and the inability of most modems through telephone lines to receive that volume of bandwidth quickly enough.
The following year, 2001, USA TODAY gave a plug to Pot.TV as the pioneering video website of the cannabis world, and our monthly bandwidth costs were already $8,000-$10,000! By 2002, Pot.TV bandwidth was $15,000 per month and nearly $200,000 for the year! Each time a person watched a one-hour show in that early era, it cost Pot.TV 10-30 cents! The more popular we became, the more our costs rocketed up. And there was little way to monetize the product – the shows – on Pot.TV, except for video ads for Marc Emery Direct Seeds. That is what subsidized Pot.TV. from 2000 to July 29th, 2005, when Marc Emery Seeds was busted by the DEA and their Vancouver police lackeys. Emery Seeds provided $890,000 to finance Pot.TV in those six years.
In May 2000, Richard Cowan was doing a daily news video show you could download to your computer. By that summer, Pot.TV was run by Chris Bennett, who did a show on cannabis and religion called Burning Shiva. Other shows quickly developed. By May 2001, shows were being recorded in a dedicated studio at 307 West Hastings St. in the BC Marijuana Party building, and I started my Prince of Pot show that month, which was a kind of weekly/bi-weekly show of me fulminating over the issues of the day.
Over the years, the “Pot TV News” – a Pot.TV staple throughout five and a half years – was done by Steve & Michelle Kubby, Loretta Nall, Chris Bennett and others. By 2005, Pot.TV was doing a massive cannabis judging contest in a ten-part series called ‘The Contest’ where we solicited marijuana samples to be sent us in the mail, and we received over 140 different samples. Watch that epic series here (LINK). Not a single sample sent to us went missing in the mail or intercepted by police, despite (or because of?) the fact we were unknowingly being surveilled by Vancouver police, the DEA, the RCMP, the US Justice Department and Canada’s Justice Ministry when the contest was being recorded in the POT.TV studio in the months prior to the bust of July 29th, 2005.
Once Marc Emery Seeds was busted, and bail conditions on me prohibited me from continuing to sell seeds, and all the enterprises that relied on the profits of Emery Seeds were in big trouble. This included Pot.TV, Cannabis Culture magazine, and the BCMP bookstore (formerly Hemp BC). All had to become self-sufficient or perish. Without the 12-page catalog that Marc Emery Seeds paid Cannabis Culture $35,000 an issue to put in, the magazine was in dire trouble. But it downsized its staff (from eleven to six), moved its office to the basement of the retail store (essentially free rent), and managed to survive and publish a great magazine until it was evident I was going to prison for five years; once I had accepted a plea bargain with the US prosecutors, we announced that Cannabis Culture Magazine would cease publication in early 2009, and we refunded everyone whatever money they had remaining in their subscriptions.
The magazine took up huge amounts of my and Jodie’s lives and energy, and it still lost $10,000-$20,000 an issue, which the retail store (changed from being called the BCMP to CCHQ – Cannabis Culture Headquarters – in 2008) would have to earn to cover. To replace me, the editor, with a hired hand would have simply have been too burdensome on the store and Jodie, so we agreed to fold the magazine after 82 issues (five of The Marijuana & Hemp Newsletter, twelve of Cannabis Canada, 63 of Cannabis Culture and three Best Of Cannabis Culture), with time to refund people any money owed them. My only regret in that regard was for the people who had lifetime subscriptions, about 15 people, including five guys in a rock band in North Carolina who had the CC logo tattooed on their bodies, because in previous years we offered a lifetime subscription to anyone who tattooed a Pot.TV or CC logo on themselves.
Pot.TV pioneered some groundbreaking shows, which are still available to be seen online. Then-CC Editor Dana Larsen did shows with himself taking LSD, or smoking DMT, or smoking pot and driving a vehicle, while a camera recorded him the entire time. The LSD show is, in fact, the most interesting show Pot.TV ever did! Unfortunately, when Dana was running for Parliament many years later, this video was discovered by the media and used by the NDP to pressure him into resigning his nomination. (Another thing used to get Dana to resign was a photo of him with approximately 100 joints in his mouth, a photo we took when we rolled about 1,000 joints for the Chris Bennett and Renee Boje wedding celebration. I love that photo, it’s so wonderfully outrageous, but so politically ‘incorrect’ I guess. No place for a sense of humour in Canadian politics!)
All shows from 2001 to 2005 were done by Chris Bennett and a quiet fellow named Ian as full-time staff members of Pot.TV, and for their time, they were excellent shows. Once the bust of Marc Emery Seeds occurred, there was no money for Pot.TV, and it languished for a few years. It was in 2006 when Flash Media debuted, and YouTube’s shrewd exploitation of Flash made video transmission hundreds of time cheaper to send over the internet. YouTube became our distributor of video material, greatly reducing the cost of archive video, and Pot.TV content slowly re-emerged.
By 2012, LiveStream made live video shows practical, which were then archived. Mind you, whereas Pot.TV had a virtual cannabis video monopoly from 2000 to 2005 due to prohibitive bandwidth expense, now there are thousands of cannabis videos recorded each week from around the world, all competing for eyeballs to watch them, sponsored by YouTube (Google) and their advertisers. Pot.TV produced over 6,000 archived video shows from 2000 to 2006, at a great cost financially – but with an immeasurable benefit to the millions of viewers who have been watching our shows worldwide.