April 20th marks another yearly celebration of marijuana culture in Vancouver and across the world, and as such it creates an opportune moment to examine the complex relationship that our communities have with this little green plant.
While there is some speculation about the specific origin of the term 4/20, it has evolved over time to become both the quasi-official time of the day best suited for recreational cannabis use as well as a synonym for the marijuana culture in general. April 20th (4/20) thus became an important day within this culture; a day to promote the decriminalization of the drug, to advocate for its use as a medical therapy, or simply to get high with friends. Since 1995, thousands of supporters have gathered on this date in downtown Vancouver, with crowds swelling to above 10,000 participants in recent years. A similar contingent is expected once again this year.
Despite the rampant marijuana use at this event, local police have taken the approach of guarded tolerance towards it, which seems to be in step with the attitude that many Vancouverites show towards this culture, despite the fact that their focal point is a substance that remains illegal under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Constable Lindsey Houghton of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) elaborated on the department’s stance regarding the 4/20 rally. “The VPD polices approximately 200 demonstrations throughout the year and we have no concerns as long as they are peaceful. While in this case we know people will be in possession of illegal drugs, it will not be our first priority to intervene in this event. The VPD’s priority as part of our drug strategy is to focus on those trafficking controlled substances, not those in possession of minor amounts of marijuana.”
Someone who knows all too well about being the focus of drug law enforcement is Greg Williams. The target of a 2005 DEA raid against his employer, Emery Seeds, which sold marijuana seeds via mail order, Williams spent half a decade fighting drug trafficking charges that could have carried a sentence of more than 30 years in jail. Williams’ former employer, Marc Emery, is currently serving a five year jail sentence in the United States, while Williams served two years of probation.
As he sits at his desk in the upstairs office at the BC Marijuana Party headquarters on Hastings Street, with a cloud of pungent green smoke wafting from both his lips and the burning embers of a freshly lit joint, Williams explains why he believes Marc Emery, co-accused Michelle Rainey and himself were singled out by Canadian and American law enforcement. “We sold pot seeds by the millions around the world, but we used the money to fight prohibition,” he said. “We collected and distributed about four million dollars over eleven years, and used it to finance many of the medicinal marijuana initiatives in the United States.” Williams added that the company financially supported court cases, ballot initiatives and other pro-marijuana organizations globally. “The DEA made a statement the day that they raided us, saying they had toppled the ‘main marijuana activists group’ and they seemed less concerned about us breaking laws as they were about us advancing the notion that prohibition should end.”
Williams purposefully uses the word prohibition frequently, framing the recreational use of marijuana in the same context as the consumption of alcohol during that substance’s prohibition period. He dedicates his time and energy to fighting for the widespread acceptance of cannabis in our society, and while his calls to end the marijuana prohibition seem improbable, he sees one avenue where progress has been made: its legal acceptance as a medical therapy. “We were fairly responsible for that,” he said. “The people who started the very first compassion club in Vancouver came out of this organization, as have others who started their own organizations.”
While it is understandably difficult to separate marijuana use from stoner or hippie culture and the negative societal labels that often go with it, some in the legal medical marijuana dispensary business are working hard to put distance between the two in terms of public perception. Jay (who declined to give his last name) is the manager at Westcoast Medicann Dispensary on West Broadway. The clinic-like facility, which has the same look and feel as any conventional medical or naturopath’s office, is operated by a non-profit group whose goal is to help bring relief to people suffering from a wide variety of ailments. As long as they have received a Health Canada marijuana license, patients there are able to fill doctors prescriptions for medical marijuana.
“That whole stoner culture, I’m not really into it,” said Jay. “Most people don’t realize they’re setting it back by going downtown, making a huge fuss and blowing smoke in everyone’s faces. It sends the wrong message to people in government and the police that people who smoke weed are just like ‘this’. If people who actually used the product for health reasons showed up, it would be a completely different story.”
Jay characterizes many of his roughly 1000 customers, who suffer from conditions ranging from glaucoma to terminal cancer, as regular people, professionals, seniors and other average people from our community. While they do not want to be branded with the same derisive labels often placed on marijuana users, they have gained much sought after medical benefits such as pain and nausea reduction by using marijuana. Jay feels that going through official government and medical channels to get the drug into peoples hands will create a much greater chance of earning cannabis acceptance in society.
“I’m going to be unpopular for saying this, but I think Mark Emery has set things back a little bit too,” he said. “I think he was flaunting it so badly. It’s better to run under the radar, help some people, do your thing, make sure you’re doing things above water. That’s what’s going to get this legalized, not having big rallies, making a ton of money off it and that whole thing. It kind of irks me. I’ve seen it for so many years and that’s never going to get this legalized as a medicine. It makes people angry, makes people think poorly of marijuana and gives it a stigma, and that stigma has to be lifted because it’s not just going to go away.”