Harsh pot rules spark need for underground parties
Marijuana 'speakeasies' won't fade away once drug's legal, organizers say
A haze hangs over the room as partygoers pass around joints, while others inhale marijuana through vaporizers.
Pot enthusiasts from all walks of life are gathered in this rented room at a private recreational club in central Ottawa to hang out, listen to music and consume their favourite drug.
"It smells like Amsterdam," said Mike Foster, one of the attendees.
Welcome to Reefer Madness, the latest in a series of underground cannabis parties organizers liken to Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Like the basement drinking clubs of the 1920s, this party has a clandestine feel. Admission is restricted and the location is kept under wraps until the night before the event. There's a bouncer at the door, but attendees merely require a ticket — not a secret knock or password — to get past him.
CBC News has agreed not to reveal the precise location of the latest party at the request of both organizers and the facility's owner.
But despite the secrecy there's no sense of danger here, only a shared interest in smoking up.
"I wouldn't describe it as Capone-ish," said partygoer Yowan Joyeux.
'A very social event'
"It's a very social event. People get to meet other like-minded individuals and talk about the plant," said Wayne Robillard, the event's organizer.
There are also vendors displaying tables of merchandise and marijuana-infused edibles including truffles, cotton candy, juice and hot chocolate powder.
Attendees heard about the party through word of mouth or received an invitation through Facebook, then coughed up $10 to get in — $50 for a VIP ticket including a swag bag.
"We've opened it up a bit more, to more of the public. Previous events you pretty much had to know somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody to get an invite," Robillard said.
"This one we were a little more liberal. We allowed the details — not the location — but other details to be published early."
Not a money-maker
This is the sixth Reefer Madness event Robillard has hosted in the last two years. The parties are named ironically after the infamous 1936 public service film that warned parents about the dangers of the evil weed.
Robillard, who said he barely broke even organizing previous parties, earned about $400 from this one.
But he doesn't seem down about it, and the mood at the party is decidedly unmercenary. A guitarist entertains guests while people sit around, smoking and chatting.
"I'm just here for fun. Come in, hang out, and then go have something to eat," Foster said.
But there's a big question hanging in the air along with all that smoke: With marijuana legalization just weeks away, and provinces including Ontario scrambling to come up with regulations governing how people can purchase cannabis and where they can smoke it, how much longer will these underground parties last before they fade away?
Hazy legal area
The pot parties exist in a hazy legal area. Marijuana remains illegal, but charges for pot possession in Canada are at an all-time low, and many partygoers including Joyeux are medically licensed to consume the drug.
Bylaws prohibit smoking inside public places such as bars or restaurants, but only deal explicitly with tobacco.
Robillard said police showed up at one of his events, but they were only concerned about attendees driving while high.
"They left without incident," he said.
At the most recent event, a CBC reporter was asked if he was in fact a police officer, but his interrogators didn't seem overly concerned.
"If this was maybe like 10 years ago, I'd be really paranoid. But the way things are trending ... I feel like [police] have more to worry about than people chilling, smoking joints," Joyeux said.
This was the final Reefer Madness party before marijuana becomes legal, but organizers say the events will likely remain underground affairs after Oct. 17. The idea of a public pot festival is still a long way off, Joyeux said.
They're making it legal but you can't smoke anywhere. It's ridiculous.- Wayne Robillard
"I mean a Ribfest on Sparks Street [type of event] would be an interesting idea for sure, but definitely with the current laws there is no way that that could happen."
That's because in Ontario, recreational cannabis use will remain restricted to private residences. Even condo and apartment balconies could be off-limits.
"Prohibition 2.0," Robillard calls it.
"Unless you own your own home, and you can find a little corner of your basement to smoke in, they're making it legal but you can't smoke anywhere. It's ridiculous."
Not fade away
When Prohibition ended, the speakeasies of the 1920s dried up and disappeared.
Foster believes unless the government relaxes the rules to legalize marijuana lounges where people can get together and smoke in the open, the strict rules could in fact lead to a proliferation of the modern-era underground parties.
"If the only people that are going to be able to consume it are homeowners, then the general public is going to need a place to go to smoke if they won't let you smoke it in public," he said.
Joyeux believes events like Reefer Madness will one day emerge into the daylight — they just have to wait.
"This is probably a good kind of vibe to start right now, and watch the snowball roll down the hill and see where it ends up in 10 to 15 years from now," he said.
"I'm sure long term we're going to look back on this and go, 'Hey, it had to start somewhere.'"