Humanist Perspectives: issue 152: The Morgentaler of Dope

The Morgentaler of Dope
by John Dixon

Carole Gwilt, of the Da Kine café, is on her way to becoming the Morgentaler of dope. She was jailed for selling marijuana at her East Vancouver cafe, after an astonishing bit of retro civic theatre provided by the swat-style ‘take down’ of her establishment by Vancouver’s finest.

That paramilitary police operation on Commerical Avenue recalled me to my youth on the Berkeley campus of the 1960s. Clouds of tear gas, mobs of Oakland cops in full riot gear charging around bashing in teeth, the sweet intermingled scent of marijuana and the medicinal Eucalyptus of that hallowed place of instruction: ah, to be young then! as AmeriKa (so dubbed by the student paper, the Berkeley Barb) went absolutely and completely nuts.

I don’t know if Vancouver’s Chief Constable, Jamie Graham, is a student of that storied period of culture wars, but it looks as though he is keen for us to re-live it, right through the required stages of tragedy and farce. In my one conversation with the Chief, in his office, he sternly informed me that he had never come across a heroin addict who hadn’t started out on marijuana. I responded that I had never come across a devotee of sado-masochistic sex who hadn’t started out on kissing. He ordered me not to presume to lecture him on drugs. I pleaded that I was only lecturing on sex. We got along beautifully.

The Chief continues to develop his odd view of causation, opining recently that those who give money to beggars actually cause the presence of the beggars in the first place. “It’s the business principle of supply and demand” Jamie Graham explained, because if people wouldn’t give money to beggars “they wouldn’t be there.” (Vancouver Sun, Oct 5th) Stay tuned for the Chief’s call to eliminate hunger by closing down the food banks.

But I digress from my theme, which is Gwilt as the Morgentaler of dope. Canadians of the boomer generation will remember Henry Morgentaler as that stubborn physician of the 1980s who set up ‘free-standing’ clinics dedicated to the provision of no-fuss abortions.

He had to be stubborn, because he kept being arrested and tried under the abortion laws of that time, which required women to plead for abortions before special committees. Any abortions provided without the approval of one of the ‘therapeutic abortion committees’ of that Alice in Wonderland period were criminal offences. Getting the nod of medical necessity from a committee was a chancy business, largely dependent upon where you happened to live. At the Vancouver General Hospital, at least by the final days of the system, it was fairly easy. But if you were a young pregnant girl in Hayseed, Alberta, pleading before the committee of the Hospital of the Sisterhood of the Seven Wounds, you were out of luck. We have a patchwork quilt of administration of justice, like the present day enforcement of dope laws in Canada, which have managed, in their endearing crazy-quilt way, to garner criminal convictions for about 600,000 Canadians so far.

Usually Dr Morgentaler was acquitted by sympathetic juries, but eventually he wound up in jail, and the experience terrified him. Nevertheless, when he got out he just went back to setting up clinics. He was eventually vindicated at the Supreme Court of Canada, but not before his life was pretty thoroughly mangled.

Morgentaler was one of those strange people who emerge, from time to time, to embody and personalize a sea change in social morality and law. He knew, with that special kind of conviction that turns into obsessive activism, that the value Canadians put on the equality of women had become much stronger than their concerns about the morality of terminating an early pregnancy.

Carole Gwilt, the owner of the Da Kine cafe, simply believes, in her own words, that “there’s nothing criminal about marijuana.” And she is convinced that the sensible thing to do is take the marijuana business out of the hands of bikers and other criminal gangs, and normalize its sale and use for the tens of thousands of ordinary Canadians who smoke it.

So she opened a café that didn’t make a secret of its menu, and refused to join in the comedy of pretence used by the many other cafes in the Lower Mainland that are conducting much the same business on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis. The Da Kine is sort of like a speak-easy in the Prohibition Era that just came right out and called itself a Bar. Or, to use a more contemporary example of social and legal hypocrisy, like an escort service that dared to advertise that its workers provided sexual services.

I’m not claiming that Carole Gwilt is a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King; but she is placing herself among those remarkable people, like Henry Morgentaler, who say to the laws: ‘I’m not a revolutionary, and I don’t think I fit most Canadian’s notion of a criminal, but this law is so bad that if you insist on enforcing it you will have to throw people like me in jail.’

Her plea should capture our attention, it should wake us up to the fact that these laws are hurting our community and our citizens, and it should determine us to support those who are fighting in our legislatures and courts for a saner approach to the sale and use of marijuana.

It will be a long struggle for Gwilt, who has been out on parole, off and on, for many months. When I asked her lawyer, Jason Gratl, what interested and concerned persons might do to help, he suggested that they join the BC Civil Liberties Association (604-687-2919 or, because it is the BCCLA that he looks to for long term support as this case winds its joyless way through the courts.

John Dixon is vice-president of the BC Civil Liberties Association and has served twice as president of the BC Civil Liberties Association. For two years he was senior policy advisor to the Deputy Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Canada. He is in a recovery program for past marijuana users that builds on a foundation of single malt scotch.
reprinted from The Democratic Commitment, Winter 2004