The laid-back attitude about marijuana use in Vancouver, B.C., contrasts starkly with the position of U.S. officials, who report a growing problem with drug smuggling from the province
Sunday, May 09, 2004
After work, James strolled inside a crowded Hastings Street cafe in his sage-green stockbroker's suit, pulled out a bud the size of a golf ball, broke it up and rolled a joint as casually as if he were shelling pistachios.
Like a wine expert who knows everything about his favorite vintage, James knew exactly what marijuana he was smoking: "MC-9, a strain of skunk bud No. 3." He also could describe exactly how it was grown and how it made him feel. "It does the body good." He exhaled. "It gives you wobbly legs."
James danced in place, then passed the joint to Robert, a construction worker he just met. They shared another joint and raved about how wonderful it was to smoke pot in public without fearing arrest -- although their puffing was still illegal, which is why they asked that their last names not be published.
At first glance, this recent 6 p.m. crowd at Blunt Brothers cafe looked like any happy hour in North America -- except the smoke smelled different, there was no alcohol, and nobody was boisterous.
Until fire gutted it recently, Blunt's -- its motto: "A respectable joint" -- was the centerpiece of a gritty half-block strip of Vancouver that has earned the city the nickname "Vansterdam" and inspired High Times magazine to crown it the world's best tourist getaway for pot enthusiasts.
The strip, which doubles as headquarters for Canada's movement to legalize marijuana, is the product of a gentlemen's agreement with police that allows pot smoking as long as there is no dealing or other drug use.
But it frosts U.S. drug czar John Walters, who sees Hastings Street as alarming proof of a lax attitude that has turned British Columbia into one of North America's marijuana growing and smuggling hotspots.
Marijuana seizures tripled along the northern border during the past three years, as did the U.S. forces charged with intercepting the illicit herb. Still, B.C.'s motorcycle and ethnic gangs continue to pour high-quality pot into the Northwest by car, truck, plane, boat, backpack and snowmobile. In February, a 16-year-old American girl was caught sneaking 8 pounds across the border in her school bus.
On April 14, Walters accused Canada of flooding the United States with potent "B.C. bud," branding it the "crack" cocaine of marijuana. Yet, America's war on drugs remains an abstraction in a city where even the mayor openly favors legalizing pot.
With Blunt Brothers in ashes -- police suspect arson -- Vancouver's public pot party moved just a few doors down Hastings Street, past the B.C. Marijuana Party bookstore and the headquarters for Pot-TV to the New Amsterdam Cafe.
More than half the customers at that cafe -- the "Munchies" menu includes sandwiches and wraps -- come from Washington, Oregon and other states, said Stewart McKay, the manager.
Customers can smoke pot freely although they can't purchase it as they could in the city of Amsterdam, Netherlands, where marijuana is legal.
"I've had so many people from Portland ask me, 'Why can't you go to the States and do this?' " McKay said. "I tell them I'm scared as hell of George Bush. You guys are police states, in my mind."
Interpreting the laws
U.S. and Canadian marijuana laws look similar. It's the way politicians, police and judges view them that is vastly different.
Canadians busted for growing or possessing marijuana rarely serve jail time, and many national politicians favor softer laws. In 2002, a Canadian Senate panel concluded the drug should be legal. It didn't happen, but Canada is soon expected to decriminalize pot such that possessing fewer than 15 grams would simply be a fine of $80 (U.S.) or more.
By contrast, the U.S. war on drugs includes an aggressive anti-pot campaign driven by studies suggesting pot, not alcohol, is the top drug treatment issue among Americans younger than 18.
One illustration of the nations' different mind-sets: the way medicinal marijuana is handled.
In Washington and Oregon, state and physician-approved patients acquire medicinal pot by growing their own or through networks of approved patients or growers. There are no clinics or pharmacies where they can simply and legally pick up, much less smoke, their medicine.
And while the U.S. government continues to challenge state medical marijuana laws, Canada intends to make pot available in pharmacies, starting with a pilot project later this year in British Columbia.
In Vancouver, the medicinal marijuana scene is already a pot-lover's fantasy.
The first thing patients see when they enter the B.C. Compassion Club is the daily marijuana menu. Choices on a recent day included Queen Jane, Juicy Fruit, Time Warp and Sugarloaf -- a bud that is a mixture of indica and sativa strains that purportedly provides "digestive, relax, pain relief" at $9 a gram.
There also are two types of hash -- Moroccan Gold and Bumblebee -- as well as cannabis-infused butter and olive oil or Bill's Banana Bread. Beautiful Brownies sell for $4 each.
The club has rooms for massage, acupuncture, counseling and more, but the busiest is the smoking lounge, where puffers included a part-time waiter with HIV, a high-rise window washer with nerve damage in his leg and a mechanic undergoing chemotherapy.
At one point, a distraught Katherine Slieker wheeled into the lounge on her scooter. "I had chemo today, and I don't have any money for pot," she lamented, her head and hand shaking.
After sorting out how to buy a gram, Slieker shared a pipe load with her hip-damaged boyfriend and explained that marijuana accomplishes what other multiple sclerosis drugs can't. "It takes my mind off it, and allows me to be a normal person," she said. "This place is a godsend, an absolute godsend."
When lounge discussion turned to national health insurer Health Canada's plans to make marijuana grown by government contractors available in pharmacies, Slieker demurred: "It's crappy pot."
"I wouldn't even bake with it," added Hilary Black, who founded the Compassion Club seven years ago at age 21. It annoys Black that she has to buy most of the marijuana for patients on the black market. Yet police have never bothered her or the club, which sells pot to patients at about half its street value.
About 20 percent of the club's 2,700 registered patients live in the States, Black said. She gets bombarded with calls from Americans who want her to mail them pot -- something she won't do.
Huge cash crop
Mike Littlejohn, a team leader for the Organized Crime Association in British Columbia, said it's hard for Canadians to grasp the dark side of the marijuana bonanza. Pot farms used to be mom-and-pot operations, he said, but the industry is now huge. Some put the trade at $5 billion a year, surpassing British Columbia agriculture.
"Until we educate the public on how bad this is, there will always be the nudge-nudge, wink-wink, it's-just-kiddy-dope response," Littlejohn said. "People can laugh at it until, gee, the guy down the street was murdered in a grow-operation ring."
Littlejohn, who works undercover, said it's hard to overstate the role the pot trade plays in organized crime. A recent bust charged local Hell's Angels with conspiring to smuggle $20 million worth of B.C. bud through Indiana. Gang-related killings have spiked since 2000, along with an abundance of unsolved slayings and confiscated caches of automatic weapons.
U.S. border officials in Western Washington seized more than 20,000 pounds of marijuana worth $50 million to $60 million last year. A pound of B.C. bud sells for about $2,500 in Seattle, $2,700 in Portland and $3,100 in Los Angeles.
U.S. officials know they are intercepting but a fraction of the pot crossing the border, which is largely a fenceless, invisible seam. "The geography lends itself to smuggling. It always has," said Peter Ostrovsky, a special agent with the U.S. Homeland Security Department in Bellingham, Wash.
He points to July 11, when five randomly searched boats along a trafficking corridor between Vancouver and the San Juan Islands turned up 20 pounds of cocaine headed north and 450 pounds of B.C. bud headed south.
"This is definitely the new frontier for our agency," Ostrovsky said. His Canadian counterparts are helpful, he said, but Canadian courts don't always back them up. "I think there's a lack of judicial will."
Canadian attitudes about pot are akin to those in the United States 30 years ago.
Jack Layton, head of Canada's New Democratic Party, seemingly even courts the marijuana vote. Asked recently about his pot-smoking past, Layton humored University of Waterloo students with this response: "I never exhaled. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it."
When Walters, the U.S. drug czar, visited Vancouver in December 2002 to air his concerns about B.C.'s marijuana industry, local police showed him the city's pot cafes. Walters made it clear he was appalled.
Kash Heed, the Vancouver police inspector who led Walters around, said police continue to focus on more important issues than the recreational smokers at places like the Hastings Street strip.
The strip bustled on a recent day.
A steady stream of customers came to Emery Seeds, which offers more than 400 varieties. For $40, buyers could get 10 seeds of Oregon Purple Thai, described as a "trippy euphoric high, very strong medicine."
Downstairs, pot activist and self-described "idea guy" David Malmo-Levine asserted that marijuana is simply "the best stimulation, relaxation and euphoria for your dollar." He also accused soccer moms and others of being "euphoraphobic."
Across the room, Chris Bennett, director of Pot-TV, which offers online activist programming, was busy collecting pot memorabilia, including 1,000-year-old hash pipes, for a marijuana museum project.
The financier for Pot-TV, the bookstore and much of the legalization movement is seed tycoon Marc Emery, aka "The Prince of Pot," who on a recent speaking tour across Canada denounced the proposed decriminalization plan as inadequate.
Emery routinely smokes pot in front of police stations and insists marijuana is legal in Canada even though his lawyer, John Conroy, concedes that he's wrong. Conroy lost an argument last year before the Canadian Supreme Court in which he asserted marijuana should be legal because there's not enough proof it harms anyone.
Gathering spot gone
Some Vancouver cafes other than the New Amsterdam also allow varying levels of pot smoking. And many people feel comfortable puffing cannabis on city streets and in parks, although they stress that they "respect the police" by not smoking it in front of them.
Still, it may be hard for Vancouver's pot culture to swiftly replace the ambience of Blunt Brothers, which thrived nightly until it burned April 25.
Blunt's crowd on one of its final nights included a Vietnam draft dodger, an actor/musician from Chicago, students from Germany and Holland, a couple of middle-aged Texans with bloodshot eyes and a lot of locals.
"Most of us work 9 to 5 jobs," said Brent, a Blunt's regular for three years. "We don't make much, but we've got jobs." Brent claimed that he once saw a Vancouver cop step inside Blunt's to use the ATM and that he's seen American celebrities there, too.
An hour later, the music was turned off and Blunt's quieted. Brent, with a freshly lit joint, and just about everybody else, turned their full attention to the big screen overhead.
A Canucks hockey game? No -- "The Simpsons" were on.
Copyright © 2004, The Oregonian