Reefer Madness

Art by Grady McFerrin
WE WERE LOOKING FOR ACTION, BUT NOT the kind offered by the porno shops and dive bars in this seedy section of Granville Street, Vancouver's main drag. I'd heard of a couple of coffeehouses in Gastown where you could actually smoke the devil's weed. So my best friend, Martin, a major viper in our college days, booked us rooms nearby at the Ramada downtown. After we checked in, we took a stroll up Granville and right off the bat saw some teenage stoners on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign: "Need Money for Pot." I tossed some change in their cup and asked the kid whose girlfriend was braiding his hair the burning question, "Where are the cool cafés?" He said there were some herbal shops on Hastings, about a mile away, or we could buy from a guy selling in front of the McDonald's just up the street. We wanted to be discreet, so we hopped on a bus to Gastown.

Fifteen years ago I'd been to Amsterdam to see the blooming of the tulips, but what I secretly wanted was to buy some hash. I didn't pursue it, though, because the friend I was traveling with was straight, and was also paying my way. So when I was told a couple of years ago that Vancouver was the new Amsterdam -- or "Vansterdam" -- where you could walk into certain cafés and openly buy marijuana, I thought it was my chance to experience the lost weekend I missed in '84.

When we got off at Hastings, we were surprised by all the office buildings -- it was hardly the Haight Street of Vancouver. But down at the eastern end near Cambie we noticed a cluster of bookstores, boutiques and cafés. We stopped in a thrift store, and the salesgirl told us to check out the Amster-dam Hemporium Coffeeshop around the corner on Cordova. The Amsterdam is a combination head shop and café with green wrought-iron pot vines on the windows and a sign prohibiting pot smoking in the entryway. But an unmistakable sweet smell wafted out from the main room, which at first glance looked like any other café, except the mostly male patrons sitting at the dozen or so tables were smoking dope and made no attempt to hide their paraphernalia. Ironically, cigarettes weren't allowed.

We approached a girl at the counter, where mushroom grow-kits and pot seeds were for sale. To our disappointment, she informed us that they didn't sell weed, because it's a felony, and the cops had been harassing them, so we would have to buy it on the street. She told us to go to the bus stop on Hastings, across the street from another herbal shop, Blunt Brothers, where guys sell dime bags. And she warned us to smell it first, because a friend of hers had bought a bag of seaweed.

Out on the street, we bickered over which one of us would procure the pot, and Martin finally agreed to do it. We trucked up Hastings toward several young men loitering near a bus bench. One guy with a ponytail propositioned a couple of blond girls: "Buds, baby?" A clean-cut teen with a baseball cap on backward approached us with, "Wanna buy some weed?" We asked him what kind it was and he shrugged, "They don't tell me. I just sell it." Another kid with yellow-tinted glasses chimed in, "It's good!" Martin asked for two dime bags and opened them before handing over the money. He sniffed and nodded, "Yeah, it smells good."

We crossed the street and peeked inside Blunt Brothers, also a combo head shop and café, but without the laid-back atmosphere of the Amsterdam or the telltale reefer odor. To the left of the doorway was a Plexiglas booth with a couple of tables and a red-lettered sign above it reading "Hot Box." A large dude standing out front explained that this designated toking room was the only place huffing was allowed on the premises. We asked him why Blunt Brothers didn't permit smoking in the main room, like the Amsterdam. He said the police tolerate smoking in the cafés so long as they ban smoking in the general seating area and don't sell weed or seeds. He showed us a recently renovated coffee shop a couple of doors down called the Cannabis Café, which had sat unopened for two months because the new owner was unable to obtain a business license. Its original owner was marijuana activist and former mayoral candidate Marc Emery, the "Prince of Pot," who'd started a shop, Hemp B.C., that was shut down for selling seeds and growing equipment a couple of years ago. A private club across the street, Crosstown Traffic, had closed around the same time because of bad management.

It might not have been the Vansterdam I'd hoped for -- pot is in fact illegal, though sometimes the law looks the other way -- but still we marveled at how much easier it was to score than in the U.S. Back at the Amsterdam, we sat on pillows around a coffee table in the back and lit up with a pipe we'd borrowed from the café. It was a very civilized arrangement.


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