If you have an image in your mind of cannabis culture in its early days, the time it comes from is likely the heyday of the counterculure that emerged in the prosperous decades after the Second World War. In Canada, recreational cannabis use was almost nonexistent before the war – there were only 25 criminal convictions for cannabis use nationwide from 1930 to 1946, not even two per year. But then some returning soldiers brought back with them a taste for cannabis acquired in Europe, and smoking marijuana slowly wafted into the new youth culture of the time.
Cannabis became associated with a certain kind of adventurous, free-minded type – the hipster, the hep cat, the beatnik – and also became closely linked with the culture around jazz music in the late 1950s. By the early 1960s, most Canadian cities had some small bohemian scene on the go, a club or bar or coffee house where musicians played wild freeform bebop for an audience that found the music’s twists and turns were brought more vividly to life with a little THC.
Montreal was already well established as a global hub for live jazz, and it had many bustling live music clubs where cannabis smoke sometimes mingled with the dense clouds of tobacco.The most memorable might be the awesomely named Rockhead’s Paradise, a three-storey cabaret in the city’s Little Burgundy neighbourhood whose stage hosted performances by everyone from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to local legend Oscar Peterson. (The name, incidentally, came from its founder, Rufus Rockhead, a Jamaican immigrant, First World War veteran, and former railway porter, who used the money he’d made smuggling liquor into the United States to open his club in 1928.)
If Canada’s cannabis culture had an epicentre in the Beat era, though, it was Toronto’s “Village.” This was a few short blocks of bookstores, cafes and theatres along Gerrard Street near Yonge, where Beat poets and jazz musicians mingled in bookstores and small, smoky cafes with the first generation of Canadian literary superstars like Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. The grandly named Bohemian Embassy coffee house was the scene’s epicentre. The Embassy launched modestly as an apartment rented by a handful of CBC reporters who liked to host parties for a rotating cast of artists and musicians. They expanded to an abandoned hayloft in the alley behind their apartment building, charged two bits for a “Citizenship Card,” and hosted poetry readings, folk music concerts and avant-garde theatre performances for a crowd that was as likely to fuel the party with a few tokes of a joint as a another round of cocktails. Bob Dylan reportedly stopped by at least once, and Sylvia Fricker– who later found international fame as half of Ian & Sylvia – got her start on the Embassy’s small stage. And there at the Embassy and in a half dozen other little clubs and bars and coffee houses down the Village’s modest main drag, cannabis culture enjoyed its first full flowering in Canada.
As the fabled Sixties wore on, bohemian hipsters gave way to flower-powered hippies and marijuana became even more central to the counterculture. And in Canada, the centre of gravity in that culture moved west. The cause of the shift was the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s, British Columbia was welcoming thousands of draft dodgers and war resisters from south of the border each year, and those newcomers were particularly drawn to the remote, sparsely settled wilds of the interior of the province. The high mountains of the Kootenays became home to the most American dissenters per capita of any region in Canada, fundamentally transforming the culture of the region – and, in time, its economy.
Draft dodgers often arrived with handfuls of carefully stored cannabis seeds in their packs, and in the Kootenays they found a climate ideally suited to growing the plant outdoors. Like other global centres of cannabis cultivation throughout history – the high hills and mountains of northern India and Afghanistan, for example – the mountain valleys of the B.C. interior boast warm, wet springs, hot, dry summers, and cool autumns. These are prime conditions for growing cannabis. What’s more, there was unguarded, unpoliced Crown land in abundance. Soon, it became a sort of sprawling illicit cannabis farm. The Kootenays were thus transformed into Canada’s first major cannabis production hub and a centre of the hippie-era cannabis culture of free love, communal living, psychedelic music and mind expansion.
The communities that flourished in the late 1960s and 1970s turned the whole region into a wild-edged, experimental place. To this day there might be no city in Canada as committed still to those ideals as Nelson, the largest urban centre in the Kootenays. The wooded hills filled with hand-built dwellings where groups of like-minded souls lived off the land and off the grid. Draft dodgers joined Canadian hippies to carve out small enclaves dedicated to the radical philosophies of the age. They broke social taboos, explored highly unconventional living and family arrangements, cultivated their own food – and grew cannabis.
Similar experiments occurred nationwide. In the wooded Eastern Townships outside Montreal and the farm country of southern Ontario, communities emerged dedicated to the same back-to-the-land principles – and similarly enthusiastic about the mind-expanding properties of cannabis. In downtown Toronto, right on Bloor Street at the edge of the University of Toronto campus, a concrete apartment tower became a vertical anarchist colony called Rochdale College, complete with brazen cannabis merchants. In every city and university town coast to coast, smaller knots of the turned on and tuned in filled dorm rooms and public parks with big ideas and clouds of cannabis smoke. Not far from Rochdale College, meanwhile, the enclave of Yorkville took over from the old Village of the beatniks as the centre of Toronto’s cannabis culture. Yorkville was a dense row of coffee houses and clubs that launched a wave of international pop music superstars, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and the Band. And it was a place where cannabis – particularly high-quality hashish smuggled in from Morocco and Afghanistan – was as much a part of the scene as tie-dye t-shirts and love beads.
The fast growth and enthusiasm of this new cannabis culture soon spread to the political arena. As arrests for cannabis possession climbed from a few dozen per year into the thousands over the course of the decade, the counterculture’s many rallying cries came to include calls for legalization. In 1969, the federal government commissioned a major study on the topic (usually referred to as the Le Dain Commission, after the name of its chair). The commission’s report, released in 1972, stopped short of calling for full legalization but did recommend that use and possession of cannabis be decriminalized. Alas, it would be a long time before the advice was taken to heart by Canadian authorities.
In the meantime, cannabis politics took to the streets. In August 1971, a hundred legalization advocates came together in Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighbourhood for a “smoke-in” – lighting up cannabis joints together publicly in protest against the prohibition. The demonstration attracted a wider crowd and then the attention of the police, resulting in a night of violence and destruction that came to be called the Gastown riots. Unfortunately, this confrontational tone and over-zealous police response would continue to dominate cannabis culture’s relationship with the law for many years to follow, as the recommendations of the Le Dain report continued to go unheeded. And a new era of fearmongering about cannabis – the “Just Say No” Eighties – soon arrived to push back at the libertine attitudes of the hippie era. For the first time in many years, cannabis use started to decline in Canada, and the cannabis culture that had grown so prominent shuffled back into the underground margins of head shops and back-alley peddlers.
This era of renewed prohibition zeal wouldn’t last, however. And the next wave of Canada’s cannabis culture would be the one that eventually ended the cannabis ban forever.