Nothing hammers home the notion that public perception of cannabis has changed like a look through a few issues of the Georgia Straight from half a century ago.
These days, the Vancouver Police Department has made it clear that cannabis is pretty low on its list of priorities. (A VPD spokesperson told the Straight in May that the most an officer might do if they came across a person consuming in public is seize the cannabis in question, and even that doesn’t occur very often.)
But in the late ’60s and early ’70s before the VPD’s time, infamous RCMP narc Abe Snidanko made it his mission to see that all hippies, beatniks, and stoners be thrown in jail for the possession of pot.
During that time, the Straight had its finger on the pulse of the police station, documenting and photographing violent arrests for non-violent offences and publishing the stories in the paper, and eagerly outing crooked cops.
The subject came up in almost all early issues, often in a regular column called the Bum-Tripper’s Guide, which offered commentary on the situation between Vancouver’s “marijuana fiends” and the cops who tried to bring them down.
As such, it’s fair to assume that a fair number of the Straight’s first reporters used cannabis. When it wasn’t being discussed in relation to the police, writers took to discussing its benefits, often focusing on the clarity and relaxation that came with use.
But, in 1969, when the Straight thought it would be a good idea to publish an issue featuring a cannabis growing guide, police stepped in.
Publisher Dan McLeod and managing editor Bob Cummings were both charged with ‘counsel to commtt an indictable offence’ for sharing growing tips with readers. Both were convicted, but appealed and won their cases.
Reading the article behind the cover above was, simply put, ‘a trip’.
In ‘Terrifyingly Far Out’, writer Stephen Brown tells of a public meeting in November 1969 between young drug users and Peter Stein, who, at 32, was the youngest member of the federal drug commission at the time.
‘[Stein] wanted to hear the views of middle-class professional people who use drugs,’ Brown wrote.
But instead of the town hall community engagement session you’re picturing, Stein had friends in Vancouver rent their home out for a secretive but informal meeting where almost 60 20 to 30 year-olds attended and shared their views on drugs. The group included lawyers, teachers, social workers, musicians, and even a doctor or two.
‘They sat in circles on the basement floor, around Stein and a candle. Stein, a social worker and former child and youth care worker, sat in the lotus position. He had on a turtleneck, jeans, and sandals,’ the story continued.
It wasn’t long before joints were being passed among the group, but not until hosts ensured there were no narcs present. Stein stuck to 7-Up, according to Brown.
A few paragraphs in it becomes clear the conversation among this group of progressive hippies wasn’t one about drug use, but about the prospects of legalization, and not just of cannabis: One attendee, an ex-correctional officer, suggested that the government legalize heroin, because street drugs were costly and ‘filled with methedrine and other paranoia-producing stuff.’
Brown wrote, ‘Peter pointed out that some experts feel there’s no way we can have fair research on drugs while they are illegal because pro-drug findings will never get the same treatment or validity as anti-drug findings.’
In the end, the conversation came down this: President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs was raging, and there was no way Canada would have the balls to be the first of the two to legalize cannabis.
‘To second-guess the U.S. is impossible. Canada could renegotiate its anti-drug treaty with the U.S. or pull out completely… But will we? Dare we? Canada would be the first western country to legalize marijuana.’
While some covers played on visual metaphors, others were much more simple, like this one, published on May 13, 1970.
Days earlier, a riot erupted on the streets of Downtown Vancouver after a sit-in at the Hudson’s Bay Company went awry. A group of 200 people had gathered peacefully to protest the store’s practice of asking longhaired people to leave, but when police swarmed the group and blocked the entrances, the crowd fought back and rushed into the streets.
As the crowd funneled into Granville Street, it doubled in size. Fights broke out, windows were broken, and police exercised their power over hippies, with one reported incident of an officer pulling a man into a paddy wagon by his hair.
The weekend riot reports took up two full pages of the issue. Perhaps after all of that action, all Straight staffers needed was some time to ‘relax’ and ‘enjoy’.
When the Vancouver Liberation Front planned a party featuring music, workshops, food, and more at Stanley Park in June 1970, the Straight, being ever so considerate, thought the image of a pack of joints might remind people what to bring.
‘The Party is an alternative to high cost rock festivals that exploit youth… and an attempt by youth to control their own lives and their own culture,’ reads the accompanying story, submitted by the VLF. ‘For this reason, workshops on ecology, basic rights, organizing, woman’s liberation and survival skills are an important part.’
Another important aspect of the party, no doubt, was drugs. While the Straight’s cover claimed that cannabis was ‘not hazardous to your health’, VLF warned readers of being ripped off by dealers: ‘If you get burned, tell people with bullhorns what the person who sold you the stuff looked like. Collectively, we can make sure that pushers of bad acid, mescaline, or whatever don’t burn more of our sisters and brothers.’
In the ’60s and ’70s, cover imagery usually leaned toward illustrations, which made sense given the capabilities of local artists like Bob Masse.
While most tied to a story inside the paper, there were odd cases in which artwork was simply chosen for its unique appeal. This is one of those cases.
We were struck by this cover for its use of photography, but also for its simplicity. While illustrations of fictional characters consuming cannabis might have been easier for Vancouver’s bourgeoisie to brush off, we’re pretty sure this cover featuring a man smoking a stomper irked many a suit-wearing stiff.
On rare occasions, the cover wasn’t tied to a story, but on even rarer occasions, the cover told a story of its own.
Perhaps the Straight wanted Vancouverites to start off the year on the right foot with this issue, published in January of 1971, by getting stoned and flushing out their ‘karmic conjestion’.
I’ll summarize the advice given within the comic on the over: Instead of visiting a shrink, one must simply adopt a habit of consuming ‘at least two’ joints per day for a year. Inhale, hold, and slowly exhale.
‘When the miracle molecules hit the centre of the brain, you will find yourself in a new world.’
(Luckily, our discussions around cannabis have become a little more nuanced.)