There’s something about Mary Jane

Canada’s weed cultures from coast-to-coast

St-Viateur vs. Fairmount, La Banquise vs. Patati Patata, Mont Royal metro vs. Berri-UQAM.  Montreal is a city of debates, and you’ll find vehement supporters on any side when comparing the best places to get bagels, poutine, and weed.

Wait, weed?  In the same echelon of Montreal society as poutine and bagels?  Yes – marijuana is as much a part of this city’s society as its legendary foodstuffs. The bud is better, here the dealers are friendlier, and the police couldn’t give a shit.

What is weed culture? Cat Morrison*, who has dealt weed in Montreal for two years, said broadly that “weed culture encompasses people with an interest in weed, in its usage, and in its legalization.”  She recognizes that this “includes a lot of people” – and this is certainly true in Montreal.  Maybe it’s the laid-back Quebecker joie de vivre, or maybe it’s just an overall increase in society’s open-mindedness in general, but marijuana use in Montreal is considerably more accepted than in other North American cities.

Canada has had an amicable relationship with marijuana for decades – it’s popularity boomed in the ’60s, and it even reached the cusp of legalization in the ’70s. In 1994, the Ontario Court of Justice dropped charges against the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Canada for handing out pro-legalization brochures to high school students in Ontario.  This revolutionized national attitudes toward marijuana use, leading to an increase in the availability of weed paraphernalia, despite its restriction under section 462.2 of the Criminal Code.  This is consistently the case in Montreal: there are several head shops downtown, and pipe sellers at tam-tams have as little problem with the omnipresent public security officers as smokers do.

However, despite the limited flack users get from the police, extensive operations go on behind the scenes to stop marijuana production at its source. RCMP officer Peter Ormshaw, who deals specifically with drug enforcement in Alberta, said that “it’s…typical for the marijuana grow operations to be housed in residences…a way to ‘hide in plain sight.’”  The marijuana grow-ops hiding in Alberta suburbs are surprisingly lucrative, which risks exposing innocent neighbours to gang violence. Ormshaw added that “It concerns me personally that this activity takes place amongst unsuspecting families who have invested their life savings to buy houses in places they hope are safe.”  “Green Teams” – RCMP squads dedicated specifically to marijuana busts – may be unique to Alberta, but nationwide, Operation SABOT – a collaboration between the RCMP and Canadian Forces – has led to the destruction of over one million marijuana plants (each valued at $1,000) since 2002.  The eagerness to fight the marijuana industry does not lie simply in the illegality of the product, but in the wider context of its production. As Ormshaw explained, “[Not] all persons who grow marijuana are members of a criminal organization, but organized crime groups recognize that it can be a lucrative business.”

But this isn’t what most people think of when they’re smoking a joint on Mount Royal. Spend a week here in the summer and you quickly get used to people smoking in public – the fact is that everybody knows that everybody does it.  When there is less of a devious connotation attached to the idea of pot-smoking, it becomes easier and more socially acceptable to refuse it if you don’t smoke yourself.  It’s so integrated into recreational life, it’s like turning down a piece of gum. Amy Marle, a second-year at UVic, remarked, “it’s become more of a funny thing to do…. It has basically lost its ‘badass’ factor.”
Students across Canada share a common perspective of weed – it’s cheap, very available, and the stigma attached to it as being only for a certain subculture has disappeared.  Nick Hamilton, a second-year student at Western, observed, “For almost any given group of students, there are bound to be some that are smokers.” Julia Richards, who’s in her first year at UBC, also noted a widespread popularity, saying, “There isn’t really a stereotype, because for most people it isn’t their defining feature.”  Marle agreed: “A lot of my very smart friends smoke weed a lot, compared with the original ‘stoner’ stereotype that previously existed.”  University certainly does expand many students’ exposure to marijuana. “At Western, I am in such close proximity with my fellow students that I inevitably encounter –  nearly am surrounded – by smokers,” Hamilton said. U1 Arts student and native Montrealer Maude Hurley agreed, but mentioned that “there’s an in-between in Montreal – CEGEP is the middle ground and I think that’s where people become more exposed to it.”

Morrison echoed weed’s popularity among diverse groups and cultures. “I have honestly met a huge variety of people that smoke weed. Here, I mainly associate with university students, but it’s students of all types: male, female, French, Canadian, Indian, in fine arts, in chemical engineering.” She confirmed the popularity of weed above other drugs in Montreal – selling to at least five people a day, it eclipses the consumption of the next most popular drugs: MDMA, psychedilic mushrooms, and LSD.

However, to limit this conversation to students’ use of weed is – perhaps disturbingly to some – short-sighted. The idea that their parents may smoke is a creepy one to many teenagers, but it’s true that marijuana use isn’t always something that stops the instant you leave university. “It’s totally a class thing,” Moore said. “It’s like upper-middle class folks in their 30s, 40s, 50s who smoke really nice weed… better stuff than I was ever able to afford.” All the baby boomers who lived out their teenage years in the ’60s and ’70s are now all grown up, and don’t see a need to stop. “I have friends in their early 30s with jobs who smoke weed, some on a daily basis,” Morrison emphasized.

Whether you smoke or not, chances are that if you’re in Montreal you’ve been exposed to it, and I would hazard a guess that this exposure hasn’t been negative. Weed isn’t seen as an isolating, detrimental mark of an immature desire to be anti-establishment.  It doesn’t even carry the connotations of a gateway drug so commonly associated with it elsewhere.  The Montreal attitude toward weed is almost unanimously that it is a way to have fun, meet people, and enjoy the summer.  Whether this is healthy or not is for other people to discuss.  For some, it’s as simple as Morrison put it: “Weed culture is incredibly welcoming to everyone.”

* Name has been changed