Day 6·Analysis

Rosie Rowbotham landed Canada's longest sentence for dealing pot, but he's not cheering legalization

In 1985, Robert 'Rosie' Rowbotham was sentenced to 20 years for smuggling cannabis. But instead of celebrating legalization, he's stung by the hypocrisy of having the people who helped jail him cash in on the industry.

'The hypocrisy of the police officers and MPs being involved, it just throws me off'

A female cannabis plant is pictured at a cannabis plantation. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

by Brent Bambury

When weed becomes legal in Canada next week, the nearly three million Canadians who use it regularly won't see much change in their lives. 

They'll have more choices about about how they buy their product and they won't have to worry about a criminal record.

The lives of Canadians who have been busted for possession won't change much either. While others freely buy and use legal pot, anyone with a record of crimes relating to marijuana will remain a convicted criminal.

There's no official plan for an amnesty, not yet. For now, they'll still have issues clearing a background check or crossing into the U.S.

Robert 'Rosie' Rowbotham is one of those criminals.

"I have three children in the United States. I have seven grandchildren. I have three great grandchildren. They have to come up here to see me," Rowbotham, a former CBC producer, told Day 6. "I'm an undesirable."

An estimated half a million Canadians with pot related convictions are undesirables at the U.S. border. But none of them has a rap sheet like Rowbotham's.

Sentenced to 69 years

In the 1970's, Rowbotham ran an enormous pot dealing operation out of Rochdale College, ground zero for Toronto's hippie movement. He imported thousands of kilos of product from Jamaica, Mexico and Lebanon and became a huge figure in the underground.

Rowbotham strictly dealt marijuana and pot derivatives, but the scale of his network attracted the police and his charges accumulated. In 1977 he was hit with his first major conviction.

"The first time was a tonne of hash at the airport and I got 14 years and appealed it down to nine," he remembered. He told the judge he'd do it again.

This is Rochdale College, an 18-storey cement and glass structure in the heart of Toronto populated by young members of the "counter culture." Inside the $5.7 million building, walls are covered with murals and graffiti, elevators are littered and floors are dirty, but this is where young people come in their search for freedom. (Archive/Canadian Press)

Eight years later he received the sentence that made Canadian history.

"In 1985, I was convicted of importation and conspiracy to traffic, conspiracy import. And I never had substantial charges, always conspiracy — the big net — and I was sentenced to 20 years," he said.

It was the longest sentence Canadian courts ever handed out for dealing so-called soft drugs and Rowbotham says the prosecutors thought it wasn't enough.

"They asked for life and the judge said 'No, I can only give him 20.' Like he was giving me a break," he recalled.

Ultimately, over the course of four trials, Rowbotham would be sentenced to 69 years for cannabis-related crimes in Canada. He served 20 years, two in maximum security, before his release on parole in 1997.

'We're going to make some money'

Rowbotham never saw himself as a pot activist like Marc and Jodie Emery. He says he was an entrepreneur whose business was disrupted by police and the courts.

"In jail, I saw myself as a prisoner of the war on drugs," Rowbotham wrote. "One of the thousands of others who lost part of their future in the long, cruel and ultimately futile attempt to stop people from buying, selling and smoking weed."

Now the figures that prosecuted Rowbotham are crossing over to the selling side of the business. Julian Fantino, former federal cabinet minister and former chief of the Ontario Provincial Police, is fronting a medical marijuana company. He's joined by a former RCMP deputy commissioner and another ex-MP.

Former police chief and Conservative cabinet minister Julian Fantino speaks about his company, Aleafia, which authorizes patients with authorizations for medical marijuana use. (Canice Leung/Reuters)

Fantino was a hardliner on pot when he was a cop and the police departments he ran spent millions busting dealers like Rowbotham.

"Well, the hypocrisy of the police officers and MPs being involved, it just throws me off," Rowbotham said. "Really, really throws me off, because I don't understand how they … I don't know how they can have the guts to stand up and talk to the press ... stating that 'Yeah, we did that, that but that was then.'"

"'Now we're doing this and we're enjoying our work and we're going to make some money.'"

Rowbotham knows how much money is at stake as pot goes legal, but his previous convictions bar him from participating in the industry he once dominated. He says his street knowledge could be useful to the world of legal weed.

"I'm not actually into the money part of it, but why can't I participate? I have things to bring to the table. So [do] a lot of other people, which I would bring along with me, because I would want it to work," he said.

No amnesty for Rowbotham

After legalization happened in U.S. jurisdictions, some governments acted swiftly to remove criminal records for possession. There are hints this may happen here as well.

Bill Blair, former Toronto police chief, former drug cop and now the cabinet minister responsible for the weed legalization strategy looks ahead cautiously.

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Starting on the 17th of October, when the law is repealed and replaced, it gives us an opportunity to take a look those convictions that some people have for simple possession of cannabis and deal with those in the appropriate way at the appropriate time."

But Rowbotham's convictions are not for simple possession, so his criminal record will be harder to expunge. He doesn't make a distinction.

"I didn't see me as a criminal," he said. "I was doing time with all these people for 20 years, and I'm not putting them down or anything, but ... I came from a different place. I was a hippie. There's no violence. We were just hippies, you know, Rochdale College."

So Rosie Rowbotham's life won't change on Oct. 17. His pot dealing days are likely to remain in the past.  He seems wistful.

"When I think of all the good times I have wasted having good times," he said.