In the early 1990s, Marc-Boris St-Maurice wasn’t yet a legendary legalization activist or the founder of the Bloc Pot, Quebec’s pro-cannabis political party. Back then, he was spending a lot of time feeling like a bad person because he liked to smoke cannabis.
In the early 1990s, St-Maurice became a public advocate for cannabis. In the ensuing 25 years, he's become the face of legalization to all of Quebec.
The fourth time he was arrested, he felt even worse. Catching St-Maurice with three ounces, Montreal police took him first to Station 38 (across from renowned poutine restaurant La Banquise, which supplied food for the inmates), then transported him, shackled, downtown to a holding cell.
“I was really heartbroken, because I wanted to be a good member of society,” he remembers. “And I was in a cell, overnight. At that point I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is wrong.’ I didn’t want to be a bad guy. I wanted to be a productive, contributing member of society. I wanted to make the world a better place, but there I was getting the full force of what you do to people who are bad.”
This was in the zero-tolerance Montreal of the nineties, “right in the crackdown of the Mulroney years,” recalls St-Maurice. “I had a lot of simple possession charges for small amounts. The nineties were a bad time. I felt guilty because I was breaking the law, but at the same time I enjoyed what I was doing.”
Sitting in a gigantic holding pen in Montreal’s old central police station, he discovered someone in the back of the pen had smuggled in some hash oil.
“I took two or three puffs and lay back down on the bench,” he recalls. “Five minutes later a felt a wash of mellowness come across me, and a smile. Then I thought, ‘For the first time in this ordeal, I feel not so bad.’ That’s when the light bulb went off. I’m in jail for pot and the first thing that happens to me is I smoke a joint. Any questions I had about whether this was wrong, or I was wrong, they went away.
That was the first of two epiphanies during that arrest. The second occurred a few hours later, when the investigator tried to convince him to give up his source. St-Maurice refused to say where he’d gotten his cannabis, and told the investigator that he shouldn’t get too comfortable arresting people for it, because it would be legal one day soon.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that? Why should it be legal?” the officer replied.
St-Maurice could not answer him. “I was 22 or 23,” St-Maurice remembers, shaking his head. “After that, I decided I was never going to be in a position to not be able to answer that question. That’s the day I became an activist.”
“I’m in jail for pot and the first thing that happens to me is I smoke a joint. Any questions I had about whether this was wrong, or I was wrong, they went away.”Marc-Boris St-Maurice
We’re sitting in Café Pi on Montreal’s Boulevard St-Laurent, two doors down from the Compassion Club, the pioneering medical dispensary that St-Maurice founded in 1999. It’s early 2018, and it’s been eight years since the police last raided his dispensary. It’s also been a year since author Jean-Marc Beausoleil published the biography Monsieur Boris et le cannabis – Le long road-trip vers la légalisation [Mister Boris and the Cannabis: The Long Road-Trip Toward Legalization].
The title captures the way St-Maurice is embraced by his community. When he walks into the café, the middle-aged woman behind the counter and the shouting retired men playing chess all hail “Monsieur Boris!” There are birthday greetings. Everybody on Boulevard St-Laurent knows Marc-Boris St-Maurice and his business.
That’s not an accident. St-Maurice left the holding pen at Bonsecours in the early 1990s with a mission to become a public advocate for cannabis. In the ensuing 25 years, he has become the face of legalization to all of Quebec.
It has been a long road trip indeed—one that began when he left that holding cell. His first stop: the Université du Québec à Montréal’s law library, where he pored over obscure legal volumes. Eventually St-Maurice discovered the long-lost report of the 1972 LeDain Commission Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs.
That groundbreaking report, led by future Supreme Court Justice Gerard LeDain, drew on three years of research along with public hearings across Canada and private interviews of drug users to recommend that Canada decriminalize cannabis.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government ignored the recommendations.
From Protests to Politics
In 1993, St-Maurice organized Montreal’s first of many annual anti-prohibition smoke-ins in the newly opened Parc Émilie-Gamelin at Berri Square. As fun and gratifying as those events were, his lawyer told him that demonstrations alone wouldn’t change the marijuana laws—St-Maurice would need to get elected to do that.
“I thought of running for office, but someone said, ‘If you run as an independent, no one knows who you are. You need to have a political party.’”
“That idea kind of stuck,” he recalled. “After three or four years of organizing demonstrations, we needed to do more. I thought of running for office, but someone said, ‘If you run as an independent, no one knows who you are. You need to have a political party.’ So I started to wonder how we could put pot on the ballot in this country.”
In Quebec in the nineties, all a person needed to form a political party was 1,000 signatures, so St-Maurice set out to get them. He received guidance from a variety of sources, including early Montreal cannabis crusader Michel Lalancette, feminist-criminologist professor Marie-Andrée Bertrand (who authored the minority view in the LeDain Commission Report calling for legalization of all drugs, including cannabis), and Charlie McKenzie, a figurehead in the satirical Rhinoceros Party.
Volunteers pitched in here and there. St-Maurice played in the popular cannabis-oriented punk-metal band GrimSkunk, which he cofounded, and the band’s drummer Alain Vadboncoeur offered a name for the party: Bloc Pot, playing on the visibility of federal Quebec-focus party the Bloc Québécois. (Later, Bloc Québécois caucus chair Bernard Bigras told St-Maurice the federal Bloc fought hard for a way to block Bloc Pot from using “Bloc” in their name. Bloc Québécois worried that voters would confuse Bloc Pot with their own party. But since the established Québécois group was a federal party, and Bloc Pot was a provincial party, their argument held no legal sway.)
In March 1998, Directeur Genéral des Élections du Québec informed St-Maurice that his request to register a political party had been approved.
“I thought, ‘Oh shit, what do I do now?’” he laughs. “I was happy, there was a lot of pride. But also the feeling of ‘What the hell have I done? Now I have to do this!’”
He did it by selling party membership cards at GrimSkunk shows that spring and summer. The Bloc Pot accumulated more than 500 members, and shortly thereafter held their first assembly, which culminated in St-Maurice’s election as party leader.
Things were getting serious. And mainstream politicians were growing nervous. That summer, Québec Premier Lucien Bouchard revised the election rules. In order to run in an election, a party previously needed to field ten candidates. Bouchard raised the minimum to 20. Uneasiness over the Bloc Pot’s rise, St-Maurice believes, drove Bouchard’s unusual move.
Still, the plucky potheads forged ahead. They signed up 23 candidates to join St-Maurice on the hustings. After three weeks of campaigning, they garnered 9,944 votes and came in sixth on a ten-party ballot—an impressive turnout. The Equality Party, an Anglophone-rights group, got 12,543 votes in the same election, which was held only three years after the contentious Referendum on Quebec Independence.
The 1998 election turned Bloc Pot into part of the provincial political discourse—and made them eligible for provincial funding.
That election turned Bloc Pot into part of the provincial political discourse—and made them eligible for provincial funding.
“I got a letter from the Directeur Genéral des Élections du Québec saying, ‘Your monthly calculations amount to $487,’” St-Maurice remembers. “I called them and said, ‘Do I owe you money?’ They said, ‘No, this is money you’re getting.’ In Quebec you get a certain amount of money per vote, but it has to be spent on the party’s expenses.”
St-Maurice rented a space for $250 and called it party headquarters. “It was the second floor on top of a bar on Rachel and St-Hubert—just down the street from Station 38. We had that, a phone line, a web site, an internet connection. The basics. I used to call that $487 our political party’s welfare cheque. But it paid to maintain us. And having that physical space—it was a hang-out spot, too. A lot of pot was smoked there!”
The Marijuana Party Goes National
This is the point where a lot of activists would have patted themselves on the back, celebrated with poutine and a pinner, and called it a day. After all, St-Maurice and his team had not only opened the dialogue about ending cannabis prohibition across the province—they’d put it on the ballot. But cannabis still wasn’t legal, and St-Maurice had more work to do.
After the 1998 election, former Rhinoceros party leader Charlie McKenzie called St-Maurice to tell him that the Communist Party had just won a constitutional challenge, striking down a federal rule that required each federal candidate to put down a $1,000 deposit before every election. Now all a party needed to run federally was a single $1,000 deposit for the whole slate of 50 candidates—each of which required only 100 signatures to get on the ballot.
In all, 73 Marijuana Party candidates ran in the 2000 national election, capturing a total of 66,000 votes.
“I said, ‘Alright, we’re doing this,’” says St-Maurice. He embarked on a cross-Canada tour to recruit candidates. “There was a Canadian Cannabis Coalition meeting in Grand Forks, so I loaded up my car. I got money from Cannabis Culture to put big pot-leaf logos on my car.”
He set out from Montreal, driving west, and stopped in every city along the way. “Every city has an activist,” St-Maurice recalled. “I looked them up, met with them, and asked them, ‘Hey, can you run for the party, and if not, can you find someone?’”
In each city, St-Maurice contacted the local media and organized an event in a local park. “I had a portable sound system and I’d just make a spontaneous demonstration.”
That was the beginning of the federal Marijuana Party.
St-Maurice took every opportunity he could to draw attention to the cause. On the drive back home he joined the Toronto Gay Pride parade, entering his own car as a float.
Shortly thereafter he set out west again, knowing that by the time he made his second run through town, local media would have heard of him and give him more coverage.
“That was the idea. You generate enough small local stuff everywhere, and then it got picked up nationally.”
“By the time I was coming back and stopped in Winnipeg,” he says, “Reg Sherren from Country Canada called me up, and he did a spot on it for the national news. That was the idea. You generate enough small local stuff everywhere, and then it got picked up nationally.”
In a 2000 summer byelection, St-Maurice ran in the British Columbia riding of Penticton against the flashy Stockwell Day, leader of the second-place Canadian Alliance. A right-winger with a penchant for publicity, Day was a Young Earth Creationist who promised his party would prevent the Supreme Court from judging same-sex marriage a constitutional right. He once arrived at a lakeside press conference in a wetsuit, atop a jet ski. St-Maurice used Day’s flash against him, hitching himself to the Alliance publicity wagon and gaining widespread recognition for the Marijuana Party.
St-Maurice didn’t win, but “it was a great promotional tool,” he recalled.
Shortly after the byelection, then–Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called a national election, “and we had a good flow,” St-Maurice said. “I’d done the cross-country tour. Then I did the byelection. My other friend ran against [Progressive Conservative Party leader] Joe Clark in Nova Scotia, so both ends of the country had Marijuana Party people running.”
In all, 73 Marijuana Party candidates ran in the 2000 national election, capturing a total of 66,000 votes.
“The Bloc Pot and the Marijuana Party, they’re now kind of part of our collective consciousness,” St-Maurice says. “Even random people, it’s like, ‘Oh, the Bloc Pot? We know the Bloc Pot.’”
The Jump to the Liberal Party
Momentum slipped over the next four years, and in the 2004 election, only 33,000 Canadians cast their ballots for the Marijuana Party. That was when ex-Rhinoceros Party leader Charlie McKenzie called St-Maurice and urged him to join the federal Liberal Party, which was then in power.
In 2003, the Liberals tried to decriminalize cannabis possession—possessing up to 15 grams would have been only a fineable offense—but buckled under pressure from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In 2004, the Liberals tried again, only to drop the issue as the election approached.
St-Maurice had gone as far as the Marijuana Party would take him. Canada was ready for cannabis issues to be a part of mainstream politics.
“I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?” St-Maurice remembered. “Are you crazy?’”
“No, think about it,” McKenzie answered. “If you don’t do something now, you’re just always going to be the Marijuana Party guy. This is as big as the Marijuana Party is ever going to be. It’s downhill from here. The next fight is within the Liberal Party, because if any party and candidate has a chance of legalizing it, it’s going to be them.”
St-Maurice heeded the call. He bought a Liberal party membership. Six weeks later he signed up to be an observer at the party’s national convention. The day before it was to begin, he put out a press release announcing, “Marijuana Party Leader Quits to Join Liberals.”
“I’ve put out a lot of pressers,” he laughed. “This one got the fastest response I ever had.”
At a press conference at the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa, he told a crowd of assembled reporters that he had gone as far as the Marijuana Party would take him. Canada was ready for cannabis issues to be a part of mainstream politics. It was simply a matter of cultivating that potential.
The ploy worked. “At the convention, journalists were asking Liberals, ‘You’ve heard that the leader of the Marijuana Party has joined. How do you feel?’”
“Of course, any party has to say, ‘Well, I’m very glad to have new members.’ They can’t be like, ‘We don’t want that bastard.’ Then I went around the convention and introduced myself, and people would say, ‘Oh yeah, I read about you.’ So I was able to enter the Liberals with a bang.”
In the federal Liberal Party, St-Maurice became more than just a token cannabis-friendly member.
In the federal Liberal Party, St-Maurice became more than just a token cannabis-friendly member. After the Mayerthorpe, Alberta, shooting, in which a cop killer was found to have 200 plants in a grow-op, St-Maurice did dozens of interviews to talk about how marijuana issues and policing issues should be different things from the outset. Then he threw his support behind Stéphane Dion in the 2006 leadership race.
“I figured he’d come in a good second place, and as the second place winner, we’d get the crumbs—they want to bring you in and you can be the kingmaker,” St-Maurice said. “Stéphane Dion’s campaign manager Marc Lavigne saw that I knew the game, so I got more and more responsibility. I was in charge of tracking all of the delegates for Quebec. When the convention came, I was on the floor 7 am until 11 pm, greeting candidates with a bullhorn. And then Stéphane Dion won.”
St-Maurice suddenly found himself on the team of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition Leader. And that didn’t really work in Dion’s favour—the newly elected Conservative Party of Canada won points by using St-Maurice as evidence that Dion was soft on cannabis.
In truth, the whole party was embracing a more progressive policy on cannabis. Once the party that ignored the LeDain commission, the Liberals had by 2006 gone from talking decriminalization to seeing the ex-head of the Marijuana Party help get Stephane Dion elected. Though Dion never held power—becoming one of the two Liberal leaders that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party would chew through before meeting their match in 2015—he’s a socially liberal Montrealer like Justin Trudeau. He laid the ground that ultimately supported Trudeau’s stand on legalization, and St-Maurice, in helping elect him, tilled the earth.
The Fight to End Pain and Suffering
St-Maurice’s greatest legacy may not be his work toward ending prohibition. Since 1999, he’s been fighting to end pain and suffering, and recently that fight has taken him back through the courts for the first time since he was getting busted for simple possession.
In 1999, St-Maurice was reflecting on the work his friend Hilary Black was doing with the British Columbia Compassion Club Society. Black, who today is Director of Patient Education & Advocacy for Canopy Growth, co-founded the BC Compassion Club Society in 1997 as a service to critically and chronically ill patients.
“Four days before (the raid), I’d announced that I'm starting the Marijuana Party of Canada, so when they busted me, I got a lot of media.”
“I was 20 years old,” Black remembered to The Georgia Straight. “We were all in our mid- to young 20s. It was just a group of women who were willing to engage in civil disobedience and provide services for marginalized and chronically ill people.”
In Montreal St-Maurice knew two young women, Caroline Doyer and Louise Caroline Bergeron (known as “Caroline and Caroline”) who were willing to co-found and front a similar project in Montreal, and they opened a space for the city’s first Compassion Club—directly across the street from Station 38, where he had been jailed a few years before.
“I was kind of paranoid to front it,” he said. “I was really afraid of getting busted.”
Montreal police were promising to close the club down. But then St-Maurice visited Hilary Black in her space, saw how many members she had and how much she was doing for them, and decided the cause was worth the risk. He returned to Montreal and began putting in five volunteer shifts a week at the club.
“That lasted a whole two weeks and then they busted me in February of 2000. Funnily enough, four days before that, I had announced that I’m starting the Marijuana Party of Canada, so when they busted me, I got a lot of media.” The police took 66 grams, but in return they gave St-Maurice a media pulpit. Now every time he went to court, he was able to plug the Federal Marijuana Party. While he fought his way through the courts, the Compassion Club was open by appointment only.
In December 2002, he was acquitted. His lawyer, Alan Young, came up with the winning strategy: Pair a strong constitutional argument with the testimony of patients helped by the Compassion Club.
“My lawyer said, ‘Look, you want to make the judge cry.’”
“Alan Young said, ‘Look, you want to make the judge cry,’” St-Maurice recalled.
During the course of St-Maurice’s case, Terry Parker won the nation’s landmark medical cannabis case in the Ontario Court of Appeals. Parker proved that it was unconstitutional to block access to cannabis for medical patients. The next year, in 2001, Federal Liberals passed the Marihuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), creating regulations for licensed users and producers. St-Maurice would sell to those who brought in a notarized sworn declaration of a medical need, because most Quebec doctors were too conservative to recommend cannabis.
The Compassion Club operated without much interference from Montreal police until 2010. St-Maurice thinks the primary target of that bust was a chain of clubs called Culture 420, whom he describes variously as “yahoos,” “scammers,” and “medical-in-air-quotes.” They too were operating with sworn declarations.
“We had just opened in Quebec City about a year and a half prior to that. I think the authorities said, ‘Look, we’re just going to take everyone down to try and stop this,’” he said. “They probably saw what was happening in Vancouver and Toronto, the snowballing of it. They didn’t want Montreal to become like Vancouver. I got lucky, because I managed to still remain to be able to [access the Compassion Club space] while I was in court.”
The 2010 raid left St-Maurice devastated. Police seized 150 pounds of cannabis.
“But then I said, ‘You know what? I’m going back, I’m opening again.’ At that point, I would only sell to people who had a federal license. After two, three months of that, we started taking our old members that were already signed up, that we knew, and as time went on, we started taking new members as well.”
Commiseration From a Curious Source
Not long after the raid, St-Maurice says, a Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal official approached him and said, “We know you’re serious. We do respect you, but our hands are tied.”
The official—whom St-Maurice declined to name for both of their protection—asked if they could meet for coffee, explaining that his bosses wanted him to continue hammering the Compassion Club. Rather than set up an investigation team, he set up a meeting with St-Maurice.
They spoke for about an hour. The official told St-Maurice the authorities had expected the raid to shut him down for good. St-Maurice responded: “Look, if someday tomorrow someone told you can no longer be a police officer, what are you going to do, just pack up and leave? Or are you going to do everything in your power to stay a police officer?’”
The police official let St-Maurice know that packages that had gone missing from Canada Post had been picked up by police.
“I’m like, ‘Okay…?’” St-Maurice recalls. “Then he said, ‘Next time, use a different post office.’”
With that, the conversation became more friendly. The two talked about their families, their wives, their lives. When they ended it, the official told St-Maurice, “‘Look, if I have to do something, it’s not personal.’”
St-Maurice told him, “No problem. You’re doing your job, I’m doing mine, and let’s both do the best job we can.”
And that was that. A little while later he heard through the grapevine that the private opinion of the Crown Prosecutor was that the Compassion Club was the devil they knew, and if they shut St-Maurice down, the person who might reopen might not be as concerned for serving the sick and suffering.
“So they’d rather keep me in place,” he says with a shrug. “I don’t know. That’s some interesting stuff.”
Into the Legal Future (with Reservations)
Eight years after the last raid, the Compassion Club has become so much a staple of Montreal’s Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood that it has its own listing on the St-Laurent Development Society webpage. Canada is finally approaching the legalization that St-Maurice predicted in his holding cell beneath the Bonsecours police station during the Mulroney era.
“It really is something to be sitting down today and actually saying, ‘This is where we’re at,’” he says. “Twenty five years ago when I started, this wasn’t quite what we were aiming for, but it’s something to see. And I’m grateful I can see it. These are strange and exciting times. And alarming times, too, with what the federal government is doing.”
St-Maurice sees a number of flaws in the federal and provincial plans for legalization, the most glaring of which is the lack of restitution for those who have cannabis convictions.
St-Maurice sees a number of flaws in the federal and provincial plans for legalization, the most glaring of which is the lack of restitution for those who have cannabis convictions. The city of Oakland, California, he notes, has a regime that gives those convicted for cannabis the first crack at legal recreational licenses.
“Here, it’s being done by corporate and government lobbyists, and it’ll probably work, but in the longer term” he said. “In the short term, there’s no room for the activists. [It’s like] we’re going to legalize gay marriage, but we will only allow heterosexual wedding planners to be in the business of organizing these marriages.”
Despite being home to the most significant cannabis political movement in Canada, Quebec is today the least cannabis-friendly province. Its leaders are being dragged kicking and screaming toward legalization—a begrudging and restrictive approach that St-Maurice says is focused more on preventing people from accessing cannabis than it is on making cannabis legal for sale.
“So we’re not done yet,” he said. “That’s the thing. This legalization coming, it’s a great step. It’s great for the social climate, for the attitudes on pot. It sucks for the activists who are being shut out, but it’s going to bring a whole new wave of a whole different style of activism to come along, and I think it will still be a good thing, as much as a lot of it pisses me off. The minute the government starts to see the money they can be making, they’re not going to let that go. So it may just become completely institutionalized, which worries me,
All images by Nick Iwanyshyn