VANCOUVER, CANADA, June 2008
The international cannabis trade has become a major industry in Canada ranking alongside tourism and forestry, with billions of dollars of marijuana being smuggled across into America every year. But much to the anger of the Americans, far from cracking down on it, Canada boasts its own Marijuana Party, allows pot to be smoked in public and barely punishes people who are caught growing it – although technically it’s all illegal.
“Do you smoke, Mr Reporter?” asked a woman, her blonde hair tied back by a brightly coloured scarf. She was sitting at a conference table in the boardroom of her political party, looking up curiously, while exhaling a lungful of smoke that drifted away in a skilfully designed smoke ring.
“Here, we better start work on this,” said a young man sitting opposite. He stood up and emptied a huge bag of marijuana onto the middle of the table, then sunk his fingers into it like kneading dough, to break up the lumps for rolling into joints.
At the end of the table, the chairman of the meeting, put down the phone. He pushed some marijuana into the bowl of a water pipe, lit it, took a huge inhalation, closed his eyes, and said. “We reckon there’ll be ten to fifteen thousand. The police reckon three to five thousand. Let’s see who’s right.”
“That was the police on the phone?” I exclaimed.
“Yeah. Sure,” he said. “I’m talking to them everyday on this.”
The room was thick with the sweet smoke of an illegal drug. A few days from now Canada’s Marijuana Party would take 12,000 specially rolled joints to a rally in a square in Vancouver to hand them out to anyone and everyone. They were organising it with the police just like a run-of-the-mill public event.
The door opened and in came the party leader, Mark Emery, fifty-years-old, trim, swept back bouffant hair, alert, in command and with a mission to legalise pot.
“Are you a politician or a criminal?” I asked him.
“A politician often is a criminal before they win,” he countered. “So you’ve got to be careful there.”
Mark Emery, the self-styled King of Pot, represents many of the contradictions of the international drugs trade. He’s a free man here, but wanted for extradition in the United States. His crime selling mail-order cannabis seeds. B. C. or British Columbia Bud, regarded as one of the best strains in the world, such that the Canadian cannabis industry is now estimated to be worth more than seven billion dollars a year (about four billion pounds a year), supporting tens of thousand of workers.
The plants are grown in sealed rooms of private houses and on swathes of near-inaccessible land in the empty interior – from where it’s often packed into canvas sacks, tied to the skids of helicopters and flown across the US border, much to the anger of the American government.
The Vancouver police showed me a mock-up ‘grow-room’ that had huge lights, ventilation tubes and dummy pot plants on the floor.”
“In a ten by ten room like this,” explained Rusty Fotsvelt, an agent with a squad known as the grow-busters,” you could make $20,000 dollars a year.”
“But what if you get caught?” I asked.
“May-be a two thousand dollar fine.” His eyes twinkled mischievously.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police flew us by helicopter to a mountain-side grow-op recently found near the remote small town of Grand Forks. In thick undergrowth, the cannabis farmers had built an irrigation tank with pipes running downhill to the grow area. Some of the buds were still in coloured cups waiting to be planted.
“We’re talking about a football pitch size here,” said Harland Venema, the local constable. “Sixteen hundred plants, a thousand dollars a plant. One point six million dollars. One of ten we found around here last year.”
“And you know who did it?”
“Sure. They’re members of our community.”
He shook his head. “We didn’t have enough evidence.”
It’s an argument that doesn’t wash across the border, where American prosecutors and police work on a completely different set of guidelines.
“It’s a very poor policy,” said David McEachran, the frustrated prosecutor for Whatcom County. “If they have laws they should enforce them otherwise there’s no reason to have them. It’s impacting on all of us.”
But that didn’t stop the Marijuana Party’s big rally for legalization. With stalls offering plants, seeds and joints for sale, with music pumping, people mingled and smoked, while the organizers, some half naked, their bodies decorated in coloured paint, threw into the crowd.
On the fringes, I spied two policemen “Why aren’t you arresting them?” I asked.
One slapped his belt. “Get real,” he smiled. “I’ve only got one set of handcuffs.”
“Don’t ask,” said the other. “Welcome to our world.”
Despite numerous phone calls, I never worked out exactly what Canada’s policy was. A bit of a blur, really. so when I bumped into Mark Emery at the rally, I asked him what it was like being high all the time.
“It adds a sixth sense to your other five senses,” he enthused. “The way you touch things is elevated, the way you hear things is finer, the music….”
“But doesn’t it harm you?” I interrupted, thinking of various reports about cannabis causing mental damage.
At that moment, his younger wife, Jodie, fresh from handing out joints, wrapped her arms around him while he replied. “I’m not sure my life would be miserable if I didn’t have cannabis, but I tell you in the thirty years since I’ve been smoking it my life has been delightful.”