Pubdate: Saturday, September 20, 2003
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Author: Daphne Gordon
A whiff of freedom
After Canada's pot laws ended up in limbo, those who like to indulge emerged from hiding
The Hot Box Café is nestled quietly among butcher shops and vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and, like most cafés, it's a place for meeting friends, talking philosophy and getting a fix.
But while caffeine is readily available here, the substance of choice is a little more chill: weed, pot, marijuana, grass, herb. Call it what you will, people are smoking it, sharing joints with people they've never met before.
"It's a hell of a lot better than smoking alone," says Denis, who prefers not to give his last name because he's still in the closet when it comes to pot smoking, even though he's been smoking for 30 years.
"I grew up when being caught toking put you in jail. But I heard there was a smoking parlour here, and I came in. When you're with others, the high is accentuated."
Hit the Hot Box any afternoon at around 4:20, the international hour of herb, and you'll find it hard to score one of the 40 or so seats in the garden out back. It's strictly BYOW — bring your own weed. The Hot Box makes its money selling sandwiches and fruit smoothies, not drugs, since selling marijuana is still against the law in Canada. The "no dealing" rule is enforced by staff and faithful customers who don't want to see the place close down because of legal trouble.
Located at the back of a head shop called Roach-O-Rama on Baldwin St., the café opened in May, shortly after a court decision rendered Canada's law against possession of marijuana ineffectual, forcing police to forgo laying charges, at least until an appeal clarifies the law.
The Hot Box opens at 9 a.m., the hour of "wake 'n' bake," and 300 to 400 people pass through on any given day for a toke and a sandwich or fruit smoothie, whether it's a sunny Saturday or a workaday Tuesday.
Sharing is de rigueur. Pot lovers mingle and pass blunts, pipes, bongs and cookies from hand to hand. Some play chess in the fenced garden. Others chat. But, mostly, they just sit back, way back, and relax.
And it's not just your standard hippie potheads that drop in for a doob. There are grandmotherly types —with their kids and grandkids, no less — doctors, lawyers, students and lots of other people who look perfectly straight, but aren't.
Similar cafés have been operating in Vancouver and Saint John, but the idea is new to Toronto and it could soon become part of the local cultural landscape. Other cafés are rumoured to be ready to start up, including one at the very heart of the city, near the intersection of Yonge and Bloor Sts.
The cafés are just one part of a trend that has emerged in Toronto this summer, as pot smokers take advantage of the fact that the laws against marijuana are in a state of limbo. While public indulgence has been happening for a long time in hidden back alleys and remote areas public parks, this summer, it's become a common occurrence in the light of day and in populated places, where bystanders can smell the skunk.
"I've definitely noticed that people are smoking in places where you wouldn't expect them to," says actor and scenester Scott Sheehan. "I've noticed it on regular bar patios," says Sheehan. "And I've noticed it in the daytime, too, which was kind of weird. You could be sitting there eating brunch on a patio and smell it ... And I've smelled it more on the street, too, just like, a little group of people walking by."
A quick poll of local restaurants found that most won't allow pot smoking on their patios if they find customers indulging, even though it's not technically against the law.
"We don't allow people to smoke (pot) here, even though it's technically permitted. We still enforce the no smoking rule," says André Rosenbaum, owner of the Rivoli restaurant on Queen St. W. "But I have noticed people smoking it on Queen St."
The same rule applies at the Black Bull Hotel and Tavern and Bambu by the Lake, both of which have large patios.
Trinity Bellwoods Park is a hotspot among hippies, who often congregate in large groups and pass a joint around under the big tree at the north end of the park. On the first night of the big blackout in August, the tree was a veritable pot smokers' paradise, as precious buds were shared among friends and strangers alike.
Toronto city councillor Joe Pantalone, Ward 19 Trinity Spadina, in which Trinity Bellwoods Park is located, acknowledges that people do smoke pot on city property.
"It goes on in our streets and obviously, it goes on in our parks," says Pantalone. "But it's not up to the city or the city inspectors to enforce federal laws. It's up to the federal government and the police to enforce. And obviously, pot is not a high priority, so this goes on."
The issue has never come up in city council meetings, he notes.
Subway stations and streetcar stops have also recently become spliff-spotting locations, even though smoking of any kind on TTC property is against the rules. At least one party at the recent international film fest was alight.
"There was something going around at the party, for sure," says Ron Mann, a filmmaker whose documentary Go Further premiered at the festival. The film told the story of activist and actor Woody Harrelson's recent trek across the United States to promote organic living. The cast and crew partied down at an organic food and wine bash at the Distillery District, and the action went on till the wee hours.
Mann, a Torontonian who made Grass, a 1999 doc narrated by Harrelson about the history of marijuana prohibition, also made a public comment prior to a screening of Go Further protesting the arrest in the U.S. of actor Tommy Chong, the star of the popular Cheech and Chong movies. Earlier this month, Chong was sentenced in a Pennsylvanian court to nine months in federal jail because he was selling marijuana pipes on the Internet. Selling drug paraphernalia is illegal in the U.S.
As a board member of the U.S.-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Mann is an advocate of decriminalization, and he used the film festival platform to make his point.
"We want to move public opinion against the stupidity of this kind of thing," says Mann. "It doesn't threaten the health or welfare of anyone, and I think most people understand that. But we can't leave the pot laws in the hands of the police. It's a waste of law enforcement money to prosecute and imprison a non-violent seller of pipes."
Mann's public statement was motivated in part to bring the subject of marijuana out into the open.
"There are many, many marijuana smokers in Toronto and around the world," he says. "This is not a marginal group of people, but they're not visible because of the harsh laws against it. It's only a matter of time until it becomes legal in Canada, because people aren't believing the propaganda any more."
Indeed, it seems public opinion about pot is changing in Canada. A Sun/Leger poll earlier this summer found that 83 per cent of Canadians want pot laws to be less stringent, and shortly after the results of that poll were made public, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced plans to create legislation that decriminalizes possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use, as recommended by a House of Commons report last fall.
According to the proposal, smokers might receive a ticket, but no criminal record, for possessing less than 30 grams of the drug, while drug dealers would be punished more harshly than ever.
But until that legislation is enacted, users are free to smoke whenever and wherever they want, without the risk of a ticket or even confiscation.
"The last time I got stopped by a cop, he said, `It's not legal ... yet,' and he let me go," says Denis.
"I've always been smoking publicly, and I think a lot of people have," says Jason, a regular user who prefers not to use his last name. "But now it's just more open, like you don't worry about it as much. You don't really think about offending anyone any more. Because even if they are offended, what are they gonna do? Call the cops? I don't think so."
Toronto police chief Julian Fantino advised officers earlier this summer to confiscate pot and record the names and addresses of people found using it. However, the Hot Box Café, which operates in the bright light of day in a heavily populated area, has not had trouble with the police.
Could new attitude toward pot smoking turn Toronto into Amsterdam of North America?
"The cops around here are really nice. They come in and say hi," says Abi Roach, who owns the café and the attached head shop. "But they don't even walk all the way to the back," she says, referring to the crowded garden patio where the air is thick with the pungent smell of pot.
Police at 52 Division, which patrols Kensington Market, said they've never heard of specific pot cafés in Toronto and referred inquiries to headquarters.
"We don't know of any specific locations where that's happening," says Constable Shehara Valles, a communications officer for the Toronto police. When the Star informed her of the address of the Hot Box, she checked to see if police had visited the café on official business.
"I have checked with uniformed and plainclothes officers in 52 Division, and we have not received calls to attend that address," she said.
She explained that it's common for officers to drop into businesses while walking on patrol, but that they don't necessarily report or record those casual visits.
Though Roach isn't breaking the law by allowing people to smoke pot in her café, legal expert Alan Young says it's unlikely the police don't know what's going on there.
"In light of the media coverage, and in light of the fact that (Roach) has not tried to operate her café in a clandestine way, I think it's unlikely that they don't know about it," says Young, who has defended many pro-pot activists. "But it's better to say they aren't aware than to admit they aren't equipped to deal with it," he adds.
Young says marijuana seizures are more theory than practice.
"I think they're embarrassed to do it because their authority is so dubious," says Young, a defence lawyer active in the movement to decriminalize pot. He says seizures could create a "legal quagmire" down the road that would be far more trouble than they're worth.
"They really should reconsider their decision to seize," says Young. "Because without legal authority, a seizure is theft. It's very clear in the law."
Could this new attitude of acceptance turn Toronto into the Amsterdam of North America? Perhaps.
Just as Amsterdam has become a destination among Europeans who want to spend a weekend indulging in their favourite herbal treat, so are North Americans turning an eye to Toronto.
"We have tons of Americans who read about us on the Internet," says Roach. "We had a family from Rochester recently, and a couple of kids drove up from Boston. The response has been mad good."
Roach may have been the one to start the bandwagon, but others are hopping on, notes Young. "I get about two calls a week from people who are interested in doing this," he says, noting that people are taking advantage of this temporary loophole in the law to test how much Canadian legal authorities will tolerate when it comes to marijuana. Unless there's a grassroots community backlash — which he says hasn't yet happened — it could lead to a de facto legalization of pot similar to that in Amsterdam.
"Right now there is no lawful basis for the police to be involved," says Young. "It's when people move to the next stage, which is inevitable. When the cafés start small-scale distribution, there could be a problem."
But Roach-O-Rama, says Young, sets a good example of how peaceful and law-abiding a pot café can be. He recently dropped in for a visit.
"I'm pleased with the cleanliness and the lack of rambunctiousness, which is very important for maximizing marijuana use," he says.
"People tend to associate it with alcohol, which often causes community disturbance. But this is exactly the opposite. What I saw was 15 people sitting around enjoying themselves. You could hear Latin salsa music and everyone was enjoying the sunshine."
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