A Short History of Weed and the Phat Kats!
By the last count, there are 1700 cannabis shops fully operational in Ontario. $13.3 billion tax dollars in the provincial coffers and $43 billion nationally. That’s a lot of late-night Popeye’s chicken and Doritos runs.
As we approached legalization three years back, I scripted a FYI column anticipating big change. With time on my side and a few hours to think about what seems a relatively smooth transition, the sordid back history and how we got here is still on my mind.
I recently caught Grass Is Greener, a documentary from 2019 on Netflix that tracks the rise, popularity, and cultural shifts behind the evolution of weed from its roots 28 million years ago on a plateau in eastern Tibet. To the jazz clubs of Harlem in the 1920s - the incarceration of primarily black and Latino men by malevolent hardliners, giving rise to anti-drug charlatans, Richard Nixon and ‘Hollywood’ Ron Reagan.
My generation is still bruised by the stigma, turmoil, fear, and tactics used to prevent citizens from growing, buying, selling, and taking part in the ceremonial herb. As rapper/impresario Snoop Dogg alluded, “Put a thousand people in a room - pass a blunt, and everyone will be loving on each other. Put another two in a room with a bottle of alcohol, and someone could get shot.”
Much like Harlem during the jazz and hip hop decades, Toronto had its ‘weed laureate’ in the early days of large-scale dealing, Robert ‘Rosie’ Rowbotham living only a few doors down from us on Gothic Avenue in High Park.
Rosie and crew ruled Rochdale College, having secured the top three floors, and overseeing a large-scale marijuana distribution industry. The paranoia and complexity of navigating the building’s security apparatus was out of my league. I was once an invited guest to weed heaven. Bales of stacked ‘boo’ looking much like a farmer’s late August harvest, spent seeds and stems covered the floor. Windows covered in Indian prints and linen, softening the sun’s penetrating rays.
I was in for a beggar’s quarter, which didn’t sit well with the proprietors bent on moving pounds, not two fingers of shake. The sale went down, and I was then escorted back to the elevator, and bell hopped down by a Hell’s Angels type. Beyond the entrance were two undercover cars. “Open that bag hippie,” screams an intimidating voice. The boys up top insisted I cram the weed down the pants and whirl a paper lunch bag in their faces. It worked. I tossed the sandwich bag in a waste bin and kept walking.
Not long after, Rosie is arrested, charged, and sentenced. A first conviction in 1968 for pot trafficking. Through the years, Rosie was belligerent, steadfast, with no words of remorse and in 1985, sentenced to 20 years for smuggling. It was pointed out that the same men who arrested and convicted Rowbotham would soon profit from his resistance. It’s always been political.
Rosie was a player (early 70s), like my pal Dave. Dave and company orchestrated a massive scheme to ship tons of hashish from Israel in cranes. Dave was one of eight investors. He never discussed his clandestine shenanigans with me, just casually smiled with that ‘lucky lotto look’ in his eye. Luck wasn’t his lady. During pick ups a local farmer caught sight of shadowy bodies returning with garbage bags filled with bricks. The RCMP began tracking each pickup and delivery, tailing to its destination.
The RCMP tracked a shipment to Dave’s home, slipped in, detained his wife until Dave appeared, then popped him. Out on bond, Dave’s every movement was tracked. Even when he crept up on me playing the Mad Mechanic. Dave’s catching the band, flanked by two undercover officers, and sends a note on a cocktail napkin. “The ten-million-dollar man is in the house.” I waved and kept on trucking. Dave did time.
Dealers were local celebrities. The ‘get high,’ superstars.
Harlem had jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow, Harlem’s white jive-talking reefer man of the 1920s and 30s’. This from Important Potheads.
“Mezzrow was soon more famous for his marijuana than for his clarinet playing. Mezz, or the Mighty Mezz, became synonymous with good weed or anything good, the Phat of its day. Cab Calloway’s Hipster’s Dictionary defines mezz as “anything supreme, genuine.” The Stuff Smith song, “If You’re a Viper,” starts out:
Dreamed about a reefer five foot long
The mighty mezz, but not too strong,
You’ll be high but not for long
If you’re a Viper.
Mezz describes “acres of marijuana” being smoked at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, with performers lighting up as well as the audience. The kids in Harlem dressed sharp like Louis and Mezz, and the slogan in their circle of Vipers was, “Light up and be somebody.” Mezz wrote,
“Us vipers knew that we had a gang of things in common…We were on another plane in another sphere compared to the musicians who were bottle babies, always hitting the jug and then coming up brawling after they got loaded. We like things to be easy and relaxed, mellow, and mild, not loud or loutish, and the scowling chin-out tension of the lushhounds with their false courage didn’t appeal to us. Besides, the lushies didn’t even play good music-their tones came hard and evil, not natural, soft and soulful…We members of the viper school were for making music that was real foxy, all lit up with inspiration and her mammy.”
Mezzrow soon attracted the attention of New York racketeers, who pressured him to expand his business and cut him in. But neither Mezz nor his supplier was interested in going big time. Mezz writes, “Soon I was getting visits from Dutch Schultz’s boys and Vincent’ Babyface’ Coll’s boys every day in the week. With each day, they got less good-natured about it. Each day their voices got harder, and their demands more insistent.”
From the Beat Generation to the Hippies, weed became the drug of choice. Jack Keroac, Allen Ginsberg, bongos, and rhythm poetry. Enter the war in Vietnam. Fields of broken bodies. Boredom, heat, and more weed than ever imagined – a stoner’s paradise near the outskirts of a civil bloodbath with no clearly defined purpose. Back home, free love, boho beads, funny dancing, and reefer magic.
The rebel rousing imagery of Jamaica’s Rastafarians passing cone shape spliffs and Gantsa apparel filtered into the 70s hip hop scene. During the ascent of hip hop, it was Harlem’s Branson Belchie, a revered dealer now referenced in some 70 hip-hop songs, who became the Godfather of weed. From bush king to prince of champagne. Soon after, High Times magazine began featuring the kingpins of the movement through a series of front-page covers. Even my partner Kristine pasted the ‘bad bud of the month’ posters along the kitchen walls in our Atlanta bungalow.
Grass is Greener looks at weed from a black perspective. Through prejudice and containment. Long-held racist fears white women would get dragged into an underworld of hot jazz, smoking sex and drug addiction. Perfect fodder for modern day white conspiracist and FOX TV host Tucker Carlson and replacement theory conspiracist.
Carlson said the current U.S. border policy is designed to ‘transform the racial mix of the country’. ... In political terms, this policy is called the ‘great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more compliant people from faraway countries. Carlson concluded that President Biden’s policies regarding Haitian migrants had put the U.S. on a “suicidal” path. Really? Carlson is again weighing the colour of one’s skin.
How about a bit of retro propaganda to lube a morality squad wet dream? 1938 Reefer Madness, that gang goes wild. Reefer murder. Keep Off the Grass, lazy dope fiend Tom. The famous pot needle in Narcotics: Pit of Despair, Go Ask Alice—marijuana a gateway drug, Marihuana, The Reed with Roots in Hell. That’s a goodie - skinny-dipping leads to drug smuggling and death.
Marijuana - some suggest the word was promoted by opponents of the drug, who wanted to stigmatise it with a “foreign-sounding name.” According to Lizzie Post, “marijuana” is deprecated because “in the early 1900s, the term marijuana was purposely used to negatively associate it with the Latino community.” However, the word was codified into law and became part of everyday American English with the passing of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.
I’ve come to terms with the freewheeling economy associated with store front retailers. I haven’t smoked in nearly three decades but occasionally drop in to buy gifts for friends. In fact, I’ve priced checked competing bud merchants in the Annex, not far from my hood. At first, I marvelled at the hodgepodge of rarefied buds, then stunned by the prices. This shit costs! Mostly why I quit. It was feed a passion for photography or ‘get high’.’ Get high was gone in days.
Midtown—Value Buds—best price for that gift of bud.
Let’s not forget the pain, division, and cruelty politicians and police wrought on innocent kids, adults, and our colony - musicians. Long sentences, financial apocalypse, families torn apart, lives shattered. Have a close look at those profiting this side of October 2018, when weed became legal. From enforcers to impresarios. Where have the righteous soul savers gone? The big mouth opportunists?
Before I exit, we all have a great celebrity pot tale. This is mine.
I get a call from ace photographer Art Usherson. It’s George Harrison, Ravi Shankar, and Billy Preston Maple Leaf Gardens 1974. The land line hums and bounces. I answer. “Bill this is Art. I have someone who wants to talk to you.” Arts passes the phone. “Hey man, is this Bill?” I pause. “Who is this?” “It’s Billy, what’s happening Bill. I’m here with a friend of yours and he says you have the best hashish. Why don’t you come down to the Hyatt and bring some of that good shit? I’m here in my room listening to some new tracks.” Hummm. “Don’t fuck with me. Billy who?” “Bill Preston, your buddy Art will tell you which room, it’s me.” Damn, Billy Preston – Beatles Billy Preston?
I had just purchased a quarter ounce of Royal Nepalese and stuffed in a side pocket. Upon arrival, Art greets me with a ranger finder camera dangling from his neck. Billy comes running. “You, the guy with the sweet shit, let’s get this cooking.” Meanwhile, a sidecar of lively characters, eyeball the same chunk of wicked hashish. Billy trims a bit and stuffs in a pipe mixed with tobacco, and inhales. “Fuck me, that’s the good shit.” Behind him, a posse of takers line up. “Gimme some.” I knew the rare square would soon be history, but fuck it, it’s Billy Preston.
Preston takes another hit, then unveils a cassette recorder on a bedside stand. “Art says you are a musician. Check this out.” Preston hits a button and out comes what sounds like a rewrite of Will It Go Round in Circles, Preston’s massive hit record and then another. After that, a couple of working jams. Songs in progress. Preston dances, swings his body to the beat, sings and points to the ceiling above, blissed to the max. “Bill, that shit is dangerous. What do you call that?” “Royal Nepalese.” Damn that’s something, and a pretty name too. Royal Ne-pal-ese. Let me tell you a true story.
“So, we’re down in Mexico on tour and invited to the presidential palace. The president of fucking Mexico man. As we are about to leave an aide hand him an exquisitely carved long thin wooden box. El Presidente says to me, don’t open until you get home. I’m listening. He then takes it back. I’m thinking the guy is fucking with me and forget about it.
I’m back home and hear a knock at the door. There’s this dude in a tight suit looking like a Latino James Bond who asks me for my name. I’m worried and thinking, what the hell did I do? I don’t know no bandidos. So, I answer the guy. Billy Preston. He then hands me this gift-wrapped package and leaves. I unwrap and inside is the same beautifully crafted box with that Inca stuff carved on it or whatever. I try to open, but I can’t find an entrance or lever. Late in the day, a buddy of mine drops by, and I show him the gift and tell him of my adversity. He says, “Preston, you don’t know shit. Let me open this for you.” Wham, he pops it open. Before me, three, foot and a half long sticks of potent herb. Like overgrown Thai sticks with some nasty-looking buds, maybe the devil’s crop and dripping in grease. Damn. This shit stuck to my shirt and fingers all the way to the pipe. It was the best stuff I ever smoked and came from the presidential palace. The fucking president of Mexico. I’m not saying your shit ain’t bad, but this was from another planet. Anymore of the royalty?
Exit stage left!
Really the Blues – Mez Mezzrow
“American counter-culture classic Really the Blues [is] a stylized oral history that anticipates the Beat novel…Really the Blues is part quixotic adventure novel, part inside-scoop…Mezzrow’s voice is funny, impulsive, full of itself and often spectacularly scatological….Listening to “Mezz” is tremendous fun…the book’s true literary inheritance is its style…one of the great, flawed, jubilant, jive-talking characters of American literature.”
—Martin Riker, The Wall Street Journal
The Emperor Wears No Clothes: The Authoritative Historical Record of Cannabis and the Conspiracy Against Marijuana
- Jack Herer
Jack Herer has updated his authoritative history of hemp's myriad uses and of the war on this plant, just as it has become high-profile news, with supporters such as Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson. Herer thoroughly documents the petrochemical industry's plot to outlaw this renewable source of paper, energy, food, textiles, and medicine.
Grass is Greener
As marijuana becomes legal, either for medical or recreational use, in most states around the country, it’s still a Schedule 1 narcotic according to the federal government. How did that come to be? Legendary rapper Fab 5 Freddy looks at how cannabis contributed to the Black music scene from the early days of jazz on forward, and how the government’s motivations for making possessing it a criminal act, in his new documentary, Grass Is Greener. Decider.