Why Remembering the Grasstown Riot is Important

CANNABIS CULTURE – The Gastown Riot – or Grasstown Riot – of August 7, 1971, was the first major battle for drug peace in Canada. There were earlier “smoke-ins”, to be sure, but this was the first confrontation between protesters and police. Despite the brutality of the police, they lost this battle. 

Today, we as a society are failing to remember the important things about what happened that day and in the days before and after.

For example, there’s a massive photo montage of police and protesters on display in the atrium of the new Woodwards building that was meant to accurately re-create the events of that evening. But the photo recreation leaves the viewer unsure as to where the aggression originated. Who started the riot in the first place?

Actual photos from that night – posted to the Vancouver Sun’s website – leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that it was the police – charging into a peaceful rally on horseback or clips from the CBC archives showing police attacking with batons – that would lead one to believe that it was the police that were the aggressor. I wonder why those who decided to create the new photo-montage for the Woodwards building atrium decided to create ambiguity where none had existed before?

For another example, the only news media organization that bothered to re-print the demands of the protesters – listed in the August 6 Georgia Straight – was Cannabis Culture Magazine. Here they are again:

  • Total solidarity with the more than 100 people arrested so far in Operation Dustpan.
  • An immediate end to the harassment and intimidation campaign which is being carried out in Gastown by Tom Campbell’s police under the codename Operation Dustpan. We want an end to campaign which is designed to drive all poor people out of Gastown. We want an end to arbitrary police questioning and illegal searches. We want an end to Gestapo practices such as blocking the doors of a pub and searching everyone – without exception – who happens to be in that pub.
  • An immediate end to the physical brutality currently used by Vancouver police against long hairs in Gastown, Native people in Gastown, older residents of Gastown, Hip People in the Fourth Ave. area, and poor people generally.
  • Legalization of marijuana. We want marijuana legalized so that the drug laws can no longer be used as a weapon to drive poor hip people out of Gastown, or even send us to jail, while more affluent people who may also smoke marijuana are made welcome in the area’s emporiums of plastic.
  • We want Larry Killam, Ian Rogers, and the other big businessmen who own and control Ga$town to donate at least 10% of their profits for the next month to a legal defense fund for the victims of Operation Dustpan.

These elements of the story – that it was a protest against the arrest and harassment of pot dealers and the brutalization of the young, poor and Native people by police – that it was a protest for legalization so that POOR PEOPLE could be a part of the legal pot economy – that it was a protest against “Gestapo practices” and targeting the poor while ignoring the rich – all these things have been left out of the telling of the story by nearly everyone who has attempted to tell it:

The Smoke-In, organized by the Youth International Party (Vancouver Yippies)[1] against the use of undercover agents and in favour of the legalization of marijuana.


On the day of the ‘smoke-in’ protest, thousands of protesters peacefully took to Maple Tree Square in hopes of raising awareness towards the ongoing issues of police abuse (illegal drug raids) and strict drug laws (Clement 2008).


“I’m showing a place where a group of people—hippies—thought they had entitlement to occupy this space, and to use it as they wanted. They were denied that by the city and the police.”


The Smoke-In was intended to be a public display of civil disobedience by Vancouver’s ‘hippies’ and disaffected youth against Canada’s drug laws, as well as a forum to denounce the police department’s crackdown on ‘soft’ drugs.


For the previous week, Georgia Straight writers Kenneth Lester and Eric Sommer had been promoting the gathering to protest drug laws and recent drug raids in Vancouver (Operation Dustpan). Hundreds of young people, many described by the media as hippies, assembled in the square; some were smoking pot, others playing music or just wandering around. By ten in the morning, their numbers had reached almost two thousand.


That last one really got their facts wrong. It wasn’t 10 o’clock the following morning that the police were called in – it was 10pm that evening. And nobody mentions the anti-class war element to the protest – it’s almost as if that’s the part of the drug war nobody likes to talk about … because the people writing the histories are generally not homeless people, and are unaware of how drug laws are not enforced on rich and poor the same way.

Now that we are about to legalize cannabis growing and cannabis dealing for (probably) rich people only, we should take the time to familiarize ourselves with the true history of the movement towards pot peace … and maybe, just maybe, adopt the first set of demands from that conflict as the demands of today, as they might just turn out to be as relevant now as they were back then.

For those of you who want to remember in person, the 45th anniversary of the Grasstown Riot is coming up – this August 7, 2016. The event begins at high noon, and there will be materials distributed at 4:20 that will assist participants in re-creating the ambiance of the original protest. Please don’t bring any other drugs to the protest – but feel free to bring all your buds with you. And if you would like to help promote the rally, private message me or email me at [email protected] and I will get you the materials needed to do so.

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David Malmo-Levine