It’s Showtime for 420 Toronto Impresario Chris GoodwinRandi DruzinApril 19, 2017
Thousands will pack a public square in the heart of Canada’s biggest city today for its annual cannabis festival, 420 Toronto. The 11th annual smoke-out starts at around noon and will feature live music, more than two dozen vendors, food trucks, speakers such as Abi Roach and Marc Emery and, of course, the ceremonial smoking of the joints at 4:20 p.m.
Coming just one week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government tabled legislation legalizing marijuana, the mood in Yonge-Dundas Square is expected to be especially jubilant.
'So long as they treat us as second class citizens, we will respond with civil disobedience.'Chris Goodwin, 420 Toronto Festival Director
But the man at the center of it all won’t be rejoicing.
Chris Goodwin, who organized Toronto’s first 420 celebration ten years ago, isn’t actively opposing the Liberal government’s proposal. But he’s not tossing roses in Trudeau’s direction either.
Goodwin says there’s much more work to be done to ensure that cannabis is fully accepted in Canada — “normalized” in his words. “So long as [authorities] continue to treat the cannabis culture as second class citizens, we will respond with civil disobedience,” he says. “I can be relentless.”
A Teenage Entrepreneur
A few weeks before the legislation was tabled, Goodwin sat down for a conversation with Leafly at a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. He was dressed casually, in jeans and a baggy top, but he was all business. Less than a minute into the conversation it was clear that he’s clear-thinking, motivated, and dedicated to a cause he believes in.
Goodwin's first business venture: Selling candles to mask the smell of cannabis.
The 36-year-old Canadian traces his interest in cannabis back to his days as a high school student in Hamilton, Ontario, a port city 38 miles southwest of Toronto. That’s when he started smoking marijuana and using scented candles to cover the pungent smell.
Aware that countless other teenagers were doing the same thing, the 15-year-old student saw a business opportunity. He started a company that sold scented candles to variety stores around the city. Within two years, the business had contracts with thousands of stores. Goodwin and his partners sold the business to the Canadian Candle Company — and the budding entrepreneur never looked back.
In 2003, he opened a cannabis cafe in Hamilton called Up in Smoke. In addition to offering bong rentals, rolling trays and other wares, the cafe had a private membership-based vapor lounge replete with leather couches.
In a stroke of genius, he created rolling papers with an image of future Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In 2007, he moved to Toronto and opened Vapor Central, a cannabis smoking lounge. In a stroke of retail genius, he created rolling papers bearing an image of future Prime Minister Justin Trudeau smoking a joint — and sold more than 100 packs within 36 hours.
In January 2016, he his wife Erin opened Good Weeds, a cannabis lounge and dispensary in the east end of Toronto. It sold cannabis flower, resin, and extracts that could be used in vaporizers at the cafe.
Later that year the couple took over a franchise of Cannabis Culture, a national chain of marijuana dispensaries owned by Marc and Jodie Emery, Canada’s “Prince and Princess of Pot.”
Arrested More Than a Dozen Times
Goodwin has dealt with a lot of adversity on his path as an entrepreneur — and not in the form of poor sales or personnel problems. We’re talking about arrest and incarceration.
His businesses have been raided repeatedly, and he has been arrested 14 times, not including the time the cops showed up at his door after his mother called them, allegedly to ask for advice on what to do about her pot-smoking teenager. He has faced dozens of charges and spent time behind bars, including one stretch of six months.
During the three years that Up in Smoke was open, for example, police paid the cafe hundreds of visits and raided it four times. Goodwin faced a series of criminal charges and ended up being sentenced to $3,000 in fines and jail time.
A few weeks after Good Weeds opened its doors in 2016, police raided it and arrested Goodwin. The next day the shop reopened as a lounge where customers had to bring their own cannabis.
Last month Goodwin’s Cannabis Culture franchise in downtown Toronto was raided as part of Project Gator, a sweeping series of raids by the Toronto police. He and Erin were arrested and charged with a number of offenses, including trafficking and conspiracy. The Goodwins and three others who were charged — including Marc and Jodie Emery — were released on $30,000 bail with instructions not to have contact with each other, with drugs, or the dispensaries. They were also prohibited from leaving the province.
The arrests have never upset Goodwin. Quite the opposite.
“[Cannabis activist] David Malmo-Levine says it’s better to get arrested in public with the cameras rolling than in the middle of the night when no one is looking,” he says. “The attention is good. It’s earned media for the cause.”
Inspired by Jack Herer
Goodwin’s dedication to civil disobedience can be traced back to the 1990s, when he read the book The Emperor Wears No Clothes. Author Jack Herer focused on the war on drugs in the United States, arguing that it was a fraud, and examined its roots in the reefer madness era of the 1930s. Emboldened by Herer’s work, Goodwin started on his own journey as an activist.
Six months later, Goodwin organized his first 420 event in Hamilton. A few dozen people showed up. He got arrested but wasn’t deterred; he continued to organize the annual event and moved it to Toronto when he took up residence there.
The Start of Something Big
In 2007, he held the first 420 smoke out in Yonge-Dundas Square. Only about 100 people marched through the streets and into the square that year.
The event grew steadily, though, and finally hit the big time in 2013, when a man named Bob Erb won $25 million in a lottery and used some of it to bankroll 4/20 events across Canada.
Erb gave $15,000 to Toronto organizers, who used it to stage a celebration that featured live bands, stand-up comedy, and rousing speeches by marijuana activists. For the first time ever, the city actually issued Goodwin a permit.
A number of politicians, government officials, and even some law enforcement agencies are coming around to Goodwin’s way of thinking on cannabis. It’s still a fight, though, and one that Goodwin is eager to continue taking to his opponents.
“Jodie [Emery] has cited an adage that says the oppressor never gives up voluntarily. Change has to be demanded by the oppressed,” he says before taking the final sip of his hot chocolate. “Authorities aren’t going to change the status quo on their own initiative. They have to be pressured.”
420 Toronto: Thursday, April 20, in Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto. Festivities begin at noon, culminating in the ceremonial joint lighting at 4:20pm, and wrapping up around 7pm. This is the final year for the festival at Yonge-Dundas Square; it’s reportedly moving to a new location in 2018. The event is free.