Straight 50: Remembering Vancouver’s cannabis wars

In the 1960s, the city’s pro-pot counterculture faced fierce opposition from RCMP narcs and a notoriously hippie-hating mayor

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      These days, most Vancouverites don’t think twice about smoking a joint in public.

      But ask former concert promoter and ’60s wild child Jerry Kruz what the climate around cannabis was like when the very first issue of the Georgia Straight hit the streets and a very different Vancouver comes to mind.

      “People thought it was evil, that it was going to kill you, that if you smoked it you’d never live to your old age,” Kruz says during an interview at the Straight offices, recalling claims made by authorities at the time.

      “Well, I’m 68, and I think I’m doing pretty good.”

      A lifelong cannabis user and passionate advocate for the plant’s numerous uses, Kruz is happy to know that his 50-year wish for legalization will soon be coming to fruition—especially because at the height of his success as a young entrepreneur, a pesky charge for possession led to the end of one of his most famed ventures.

      The year was 1967, and a 19-year-old Kruz was successfully running one of Kitsilano’s hottest dance halls.

      The Afterthought, which had been in business since ’65 and brought in big names like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, was known among hippies for its groovy headliners and psychedelic light shows.

      But to police and city officials in Vancouver, including hippie-hating mayor Tom Campbell, the hall on West 4th Avenue was nothing but a cesspool of drug use occupied by dirty beatniks.

      Infamous RCMP narc Abe Snidanko had made life hell for stoners and freethinkers of the day, and Kruz’s experience was no different: busted for the first time in October of ’66, he’d been visiting a friend’s West End apartment when Snidanko arrested him, resulting in a possession charge for carrying two joints. He was busted again a year later for carrying the same amount.

      These days, Kruz uses Abe's Tonic, a CBD-heavy oil. The bottle features the same Bob Masse artwork found on the cover of The Afterthought.
      Amanda Siebert

      “It was his mission to bust us all,” Kruz says. “He felt he was vindicated to bust anybody he could because of the mayor, who wanted a citywide purge of cannabis.”

      On a separate occasion, Kruz remembers Snidanko and his team visiting the Afterthought and lining guests up against the wall, searching their pockets for drugs.

      “They actually stopped the traffic across an entire city block. It was like a scene from a movie,” he says. “You were constantly watching over your shoulder, just terrified of getting busted for something that’s an herb. It was absurd.”

      (Snidanko, who later in his career was forced to change departments after the Georgia Straight cheekily published his home address, was immortalized in the Cheech and Chong film Up in Smoke as Sgt. Stedenko. Tommy Chong, a good friend of Kruz’s, was a frequent guest of the Afterthought, and Kruz says it’s likely that a lot of the comedian’s early material came from his time spent at the venue.)

      Eventually, Kruz’s criminal record—later wiped clean with an unconditional discharge—prevented him from holding a business licence, and he was forced to close the dance hall.

      It was around this time that Kruz had a chance encounter on the street with a man handing out newspapers. That man was Straight publisher Dan McLeod, and the newspaper was a brand-new biweekly called the Georgia Straight.

      Among the pages of the first-ever issue, released on May 5, 1967, was a story written by Peter Hlookoff called “The Bum-Tripper’s Guide”. It was the first in a series of pieces that offered commentary on the situation between Vancouver’s “marijuana fiends” and the cops who tried to bring them down.

      During their encounter, McLeod told Kruz of his struggle to locate someone to print the paper’s second issue. The first had been so full of so-called lewd material that four Lower Mainland printing companies had refused to print the follow-up.

      Kruz, whose father ran a print shop, didn’t think twice about offering his services to McLeod.

      “Dan had to go through so much to keep this paper alive, just because it was open about the stupidity around cannabis,” Kruz says. “He’s a smart man, and he had the insight to see that what the authorities were doing was crazy.”

      The Georgia Straight went to court for publishing this cover and a story inside that instructed readers on growing their own cannabis.
      Amanda Siebert

      From the get-go, the Straight was committed to outing crooked cops and debunking the idea that cannabis and other drugs made people crazy.

      “The official line from the authorities was that it was worse than any other drug,” McLeod recalls during an interview in his office.

      “Everybody in the scene we were in was using pot—mostly marijuana, but sometimes hash—and it was quite common in our group. I guess we were just using our own rationale.”

      That rationale, combined with the influence of publications like Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Review, led to a slew of articles on the topic of cannabis and prohibition, articles that, at times, landed the Straight in hot water.

      Among the ways that McLeod and his team of writers shone a spotlight on the era’s harsh penalties was by publishing a recurring feature that highlighted unlucky hippies who had been charged with things like drug possession and vagrancy.

      “Dan sometimes asks me, ‘How come you were never in that, Jerry?’ I have to remind him that I was busted before he started writing the paper,” Kruz says.

      One issue in particular, that of March 28, 1969, led to a court battle that McLeod remembers quite clearly.

      “We had an issue on growing your own hemp. There were pot plants on the cover,” he says.

      Accompanying the cover photograph was the following statement: “Cannabis—Our objective is clear: To bring about a situation in which it is extremely unlikely that anyone will go to prison for an offense involving only possession for personal use or for supply on a very limited scale.”

      Following the issue’s publication, the Straight, McLeod, and managing editor Bob Cummings were charged for sharing the alternative-gardening advice with readers.

      “The police used to dig up these laws out of the Criminal Code that were rarely used, and that was one of them: telling people how to grow marijuana was called ‘counsel to commit an indictable offence’,” says McLeod, who was convicted before appealing and winning the case.

      “They were really after us to close us down, so according to my lawyer, if we were to start losing cases without appealing, we really could have been closed down.”

      For McLeod, being an early advocate of cannabis legalization was simply natural for a publication that wasn’t afraid to challenge the received wisdom of the day.

      “Everything that we read and knew and experienced from [cannabis] was very positive, more so than alcohol,” he says.

      “It just seemed like such a weird thing: alcohol is much worse, and it’s legal, and pot is so benign—and even has medicinal properties that are positive—and it’s illegal.”

      With legalization now on the way, McLeod admits he’s a bit skeptical about the proposed laws and hopes that businesses in the cannabis industry pay attention to those who paved the way for the plant’s acceptance into mainstream culture.

      “I figure that we’ve covered it from the very beginning. We’ve been pro-cannabis all along, and we’ve certainly paid our dues—being busted for it and everything, ‘counselling’ people—and now that it’s close to being legalized, all the straight people want to get in on the action.

      “I figure that we deserve a piece of that action, because we’ve paid in blood,” he says with a chuckle.

      “It’s taken people using it and finding no ill effects for us to get here. A groundswell of people can see the reasonable argument and are not just saying what they’re told to think.”

      For Kruz, the Straight played an important role not only in challenging stereotypes about cannabis and the people who used it but also by laying the groundwork for alternative publications in Canada.

      “The Georgia Straight turned a corner in making people know about freedom of the press, and that’s huge,” he says.

      “It’s the only one that stuck with it and kept writing about freedom of speech and cannabis. I’ve been talking about this and doing interviews since my book came out two years ago, but the paper? The paper was doing it before it was acceptable.”