Blowing Smoke in Vansterdam

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Jul 31, 2001.

  1. By Ken MacQueen
    Source: Maclean's Magazine

    Murray's Downtown Marijuana speakeasy is no more, and he's a bit bummed out. His place was quintessential Vansterdam -- a third-floor walk-up with soaring ceilings and walls filled with good art selling at fair prices.
    There was a pool table, comfy seating and music set low enough to feed a conversational buzz. Tourists mingled with office clerks or Howe Street brokers. They'd buy pot from a little bar in one corner -- provided they were of legal drinking age.

    Murray -- who prefers not to reveal his last name -- was strict about that. They'd roll a few doobies and solve the world's problems, working up a killer appetite for dinner.

    For nine months, Murray's place was the gentle, nonthreatening face on B.C. Bud, the potent form of marijuana that, according to the province's Organized Crime Agency, is a $6-billion annual cash crop, second only to logging -- but ahead of mining and manufacturing -- among British Columbia's most valuable commodities. "It was a huge tourist attraction," Murray says of his business. "I had people from all over the world coming here." He and many others in the vocal B.C. cannabis culture have stoked Vancouver's stature as a pot-tolerant North American Amsterdam. It was Murray's undoing. Police hate that reputation.

    The authorities leaned on his landlord last summer, and although visitors sometimes light up at his place, as in other "smoke-tolerant" venues in the city, Murray now deals nothing stronger than artwork. No charges were laid, so he's not in a mood to complain. Still, like many, he's befuddled by what passes for a drug policy in the province.

    Tough one moment, tolerant the next, officialdom goes through wild mood swings in the enforcement of drug laws, well aware of B.C. opinion polls that favour decriminalizing the personal possession of marijuana. Far more troubling than pot for many is the ugly bazaar of hard-drug dealers and crack-addled hookers operating within view of the Public Safety Building, the monolithic police substation in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. The cost of crack and heroin in human life and property crime is enormous. This summer, says Insp. Kash Heed, who commands the drug and vice section, police have shifted some resources from busting marijuana grows to hit the open-air drug market.

    Even the final arbiters of the law, the judges of the B.C. Court of Appeal, seem bewildered by the ambivalent views about pot. In a March 29 ruling, three justices complained: "There are so many differing sentences for marijuana it cannot be said that there is any common judicial opinion as to what is the right thing to do." Penalties for pot growers vary from a conditional discharge to, in rare cases, sentences of two years less a day in provincial jail.

    While police complain about soft sentencing, they've racked up record busts. Vancouver police raided 388 grow operations last year, seizing marijuana, equipment and cash that they valued at almost $74 million. In the first half of this year, the drug squad and the department's specialized Grow Busters unit hit 299 grow houses and seized more than $77 million in plants and assets. The squad conducts so many raids that, in many cases, it doesn't spend time or resources laying charges against the growers, concedes Heed. Instead, investigators track patterns and similarities "so we can link these grow operations to various criminal cells."

    As for small quantities of marijuana, B.C. police have all but given up. While they reported 10,094 incidents of marijuana possession in 1999, barely 17 per cent resulted in charges, according to an analysis by The Vancouver Sun. That compares with a charge rate of 55 per cent in Quebec, and almost 71 per cent in Ontario.

    The law, in short, is applied in the famously inconsistent fashion that marked the rise and fall of four years of alcohol prohibition in the province, from 1917 to 1921. Then, as now, fortunes were made slaking the market in America, which clung to Prohibition until 1933. Feeding America's need then was, as historian Alan Morley put it, "one of the finest assemblages of adventurers, pirates, skilled seamen, gangsters and downright murderers the eastern Pacific had ever seen." It's no different today. British Columbia still drives America to distraction, though the product is Texada Timewarp, as one of the new pot strains is known, rather than bootleg rum.

    This April, when Rolling Stone magazine catalogued all that is cool, high on the list was the eastern B.C. ski town of Fernie. Its claim to fame was an abundance of snow, and another natural resource: "a fragrant green plant known to aid relaxation and enhance appreciation of, you know, pretty trees and stuff."

    Less enthusiastic are American authorities. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration will open an office in Vancouver next year, a move Heed applauds as a "beneficial" example of cross-border co-operation. DEA agents will share intelligence with Canadian counterparts -- confirming, in the view of critics, that drug policy is dictated from Washington.

    At the very least, the province's perceived laxity is a concern. Last December, the DEA produced a seven-page intelligence brief on B.C. Bud. It notes police in the province raid an average of eight indoor grow operations a day. Yet there is a steady climb of marijuana seizures at the B.C.-Washington state border. "The majority of grows are operated by Vietnamese organized crime groups (or youth gangs) or by associates of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club," says the DEA. It estimates the province's pot trade is a $1.4-billion-a-year industry.

    B.C. police say even that figure is low. An estimate released last month by the province's Organized Crime Agency puts the annual value of the marijuana trade at $6 billion -- with $4.2 billion of that grown in the populous Lower Mainland. The agency, which draws on the resources of the RCMP and municipal police forces, estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000 grow operations in the Lower Mainland -- more than double its estimate of two years ago.

    Why British Columbia? Police blame soft sentences, and that darn Vansterdam reputation. "What we hear is people saying, 'Oh, yeah, grow in B.C. because nothing is going to happen to you,' " says Staff Sgt. Chuck Doucette of the RCMP's provincial drug-awareness section. There's also plenty of expertise. Anything necessary to the cultivation, sale or export of marijuana is available within a five-minute walk from the 300 block of Vancouver's West Hastings Street -- Vansterdam's main street.

    Consider the global reach of potrepreneur Marc Emery, who is president of the B.C. Marijuana Party, which ran candidates (unsuccessfully) in all 79 provincial ridings in the May election; publisher of the internationally circulated Cannabis Culture magazine and its information-packed Web site; and founder of Pot-TV, an Internet operation that streams marijuana news, music and cultivation tips from its West Hastings centre.

    Emery sells marijuana seeds by mail order -- about two million of "considerable potency and quality" in the past seven years, he says. His 12-page seed catalogue reads like a stoner's version of Wine Spectator. The Western Winds strain, for instance, has "invigorating high-energy buzz. Great for conversation, dancing, romance."

    Emery estimates gross sales this year at $2.5 million. Much of the profits finance the magazine, Pot-TV and the Marijuana Party. The party's latest initiative is to underwrite the start-up costs for 25 "compassion clubs" to distribute medical marijuana to communities in British Columbia and Alberta.

    Watching Emery's effort with some concern is Hilary Black, the 25-year-old founder of the 1,500-member British Columbia Compassion Club Society, which sells pot, often with doctors' recommendations, to people suffering from such diseases as AIDS, cancer and multiple sclerosis. While Ottawa has dithered over its medical marijuana plans, the club has operated for the past four years in a legal grey zone, dispensing pot from its east Vancouver storefront. The club is so established that judges have even granted its growers conditional discharges, noting police turn a "blind eye" to its activities.

    While Black welcomes Emery's aim to increase the supply of medical marijuana, she worries that his confrontational style may provoke a backlash. Black knows how vulnerable the club is. Last April, she met in the Hotel Vancouver with a pot grower, her lawyer and Health Minister Allan Rock, who wanted her assessment of Ottawa's proposed medicinal marijuana rules. Minutes after Rock left, her cellphone rang with word that another arm of the federal government, the RCMP, had just raided a greenhouse in suburban Richmond that was growing pot for the club.

    Black doesn't blame Rock, but she wonders if the "Old Boys club in the RCMP" timed the raid to send the minister and the club a reminder: cannabis prohibition won't end without a fight, not even in British Columbia.

    Note: Vancouver is known as a pot-friendly North American Amsterdam. Officials hate that reputation -- but they're tough one moment, tolerant the next.

    Source: Maclean's Magazine (Canada)
    Author: Ken MacQueen
    Published: August 6, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Maclean Hunter Publishing Ltd.

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