Bohemians, beer, and BC Bud — part 2

Part two of a two part series in which Jamie Shaw examines the history of the BC Bud brand.

Alcohol prohibition was a muddled affair from the get-go. In British Columbia, one of the strongest supporters was a man named Walter Findlay. A tireless advocate on behalf of the People’s Prohibition Association, his work would result in the Province naming him its Prohibition Commissioner when they instituted prohibition in 1917. One year later, his sideline work came to light, namely by way of a trainload of rye whiskey from Ontario in his name, estimated to be worth around 1 million dollars today.

By 1919, smuggling wasn’t the only way around prohibition. The government had allowed liquor to be sold for medicinal purposes, creating a loophole that resulted in over 180,000 ‘medicinal liquor’ prescriptions written by B.C. doctors. An approximate value of 1.5 million dollars worth.

When BC repealed prohibition in 1921, it was certainly not finished with alcohol smuggling. But rather than smuggling in, the focus turned outward. Victoria shipbuilders turned out faster and faster ships, including the ‘Revuocnav’ (Vancouver spelled backwards) and the Malahat. And it wasn’t only Canadians that got in on the trade. One of the biggest operators in the area was a man named Roy Olmstead, an ex-police sergeant from Seattle. His fleet of boats and amazingly sophisticated infrastructure would see him become one the largest employers in the area, an operation that would finally be brought down in 1924 by a wiretap.

Even the repeal of BC prohibition was not enough to end unregulated trade within the province. The strictness of ‘post-prohibition’ licensing laws in Vancouver meant that bootlegging and speakeasies carried on well into the 1950’s, and it would be this legacy that would give birth to a new industry, and a new brand.

Vancouver has always been an odd city with a strange history. Founded by white people on First Nations territory, and forcibly populated by the British with Chinese and Indian workers that brought with them an opiate crisis the British themselves inflicted. The irony of this should not be lost when reading today’s headlines about opiates on the Downtown Eastside.

British Columbia, and Vancouver in particular, seems to have been torn between British Empire-era visions of a white utopia and the reality created by every single policy enacted with that in mind. Attempts to exclude the Chinese backfired spectacularly; attempts to outlaw and criminalize opiate use backfired; alcohol Prohibition backfired. The Jazz scene may have successfully been driven out of  Vancouver, but it left behind a thriving and vibrant black community — one the city would spend the next forty years zoning out of existence. The lessons of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside would not be learned, and while people could be displaced, philosophy is not so easy to dislodge.

Cultural movements are not born, they evolve. As discussed in Part One, the subculture that would come to be known as Bohemians would rail against industrialization with their vision that was outside of society’s norm. They would practice free-love, and delve into more philosophical outlooks on life.

The people in this movement would come to be known as beatniks, and would embrace Jazz wholeheartedly. Jazz was a music, like early rock and roll, that would cross colour lines and fly in the face of authority. Those beatniks were hip, and while they would inspire the Beatles’ choice of name and clothing, they would also inspire a whole new generation of Americans. As the beatniks evolved into the Hippies, the black clothes would be ditched for bright colours, long hair would become longer, and they would hold tight to the counterculture ideals of community on a new scale, a focus on personal growth, and of course, free love.

1970-vancouver-hippiesIn the US, this generation would have a greater impact than they are usually credited for, and cannabis’ popularity would bloom under their influence. It was in the early 1970’s that many states would begin decriminalizing cannabis, particularly for medical purposes. At odds with a federal government that was intent on demonizing both Cannabis and counterculture movements, these early laws would form a wedge that would not open further until the mid 1990’s in California. While the influence this generation would have on US policy was not yet a recognized undercurrent, it would sweep into British Columbia, where it found a ready home in Vancouver.

Starting in the early sixties, draft dodgers and deserters from the US began pouring into Canada. In 1969, Canada eased up on a policy of requiring proof that draft-age Americans had in fact been discharged before allowing their immigration. By some estimates, nearly 40, 000 Americans fled to Canada during the next few years. The nation had a population of only 20 million at the time. In 1971 and ’72, more immigrants came from the United States than any other country.

Many of these Americans relocated to BC, a province that only contained 1.5 million people in 1969. Those who settled in BC found a small population on a massive amount of land, much of it extremely fertile. The subtropical rainforest of lower BC, the gulf islands, and the Interior proved not only ideal for communes and new experiments in living — it was perfect for cannabis production, and almost impossible for authorities to monitor with any effectiveness.

These Americans had also brought something else with them to Canada: multiple connections to the US. Between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, most cannabis in the US had come from Mexico. Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs had had some limited effect in converting that trade into local production, particularly in California, Oregon, and Washington, but ever-increasing enforcement would serve to keep these markets fairly small. With massive tracts of available land, significantly less enforcement capability, and an influx of knowledgeable cannabis growers with an anti-authoritarian bent and lots of ties to the US, BC was primed to become a Cannabis world capital.

Dusting off the old alcohol smuggling routes and trails must have felt like a bit of a resurgence of prohibition era BC. The good old days returned, where unemployment problems could be solved by relying on home industry, even if it meant ignoring things like international law and national borders. The days of BC Bud, with a twist.

It is likely not a coincidence that this term would be applied to both beer and cannabis coming from BC under prohibition. This new industry was relying on the same types of policies, the same socio-economic factors, and even the same trade routes that the alcohol industry did.

In the late 1950’s, the grandson of one of the Chinese workers that had been imported by the British to work the railroad would return to Vancouver. His career had already seen him have a hit song in the latest Motown sound, a success that had taught him the importance of owning the venue. Over the next few years, he would import acts like Ike and Tina Turner, and would go on to own four clubs, one of which was a strip club in Chinatown. It would be there in the 1960’s that this Canadian would meet one of these American draft dodgers, and change the world in an unexpected way. As the pair began performing together, they would go on to become the quintessential stoner comedians Cheech and Chong.

cheech_and_chong_1972By the 1990’s, the influence of hippie thought would flower into compassion clubs, both in Vancouver and San Francisco. San Francisco would become the first city in the US to regulate these businesses, and Vancouver would become the first city in Canada to do so.

While hippie culture eventually fizzled and fractured into hundreds of different submovements and cliques, their influence, stretching back to the halcyon days of jazz, would continue to have a profound impact on world culture. As with any cultural movement, there was a dark side, and prohibition-era drug policy would ensure that less savoury players would get involved.

BC Bud became big business somewhere along the line, and biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels would get involved. They were organized, and had structure, funding, and the power to hold their piece of the pie. While the role of organized crime in cannabis has been overstated, it is naive to think there never was any. During the eighties in particular they were major players in the cannabis trade, but by the nineties, the further easing of state laws and the maturity of local US cannabis growing markets like Humboldt and the Emerald Triangle would cut deeply into cross border cannabis trade. In 1996, a huge bust of BC Bud in New York City, combined with California’s passing of The Compassionate Use Act,  would serve as a sign of the end.

And just like cultural movements, businesses are not born so much as they evolve. As with the alcohol business, there is a shift to post-prohibition practices. No longer would sneakiness and end-runs around the law be the order of the day, it would become positioning and branding. BC Bud is a brand that has gained worldwide fame. Cannabis cups around the world have been won by strains like BC God Bud, BC Blueberry, even UBC Chemo.

And while the cannabis industry has scrambled to keep up and evolve with the times, the Federal Government continues to hamper this brand and prevent it from taking its rightful place in the world market. The industry comprised of these growers with a long heritage has been reduced to begging the federal government to not kill this vibrant and historical facet of the cannabis industry. Despite the Federal Government’s move to create Licensed Producers, the nascent cottage industry is still here, echoing the sentiment expressed by Coast Breweries almost a hundred years ago. Not pleading to the consumer to ‘support home industry’ and ‘help solve our unemployment problem’, but pleading with the government to support home industry, and to not cause an unemployment problem.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Part one can be found here.

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