Closeup/The Society

Johnny Reeferseed

Was Robert Rowbotham punished for society's sins?

Barbara Amiel June 13 1977
Closeup/The Society

Johnny Reeferseed

Was Robert Rowbotham punished for society's sins?

Barbara Amiel June 13 1977

Johnny Reeferseed

Was Robert Rowbotham punished for society's sins?

Closeup/The Society

Barbara Amiel

The Courtyard Café in Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel is filled this May night with unseasonably tanned people showing gleaming expanses of golden skin in opennecked Italian shirts. The tables are cluttered with goblets of Perrier water and Rosenthal coffee pots, and the sweet aura of success—a mingling of expensive perfume and throaty laughter—wafts over the restaurant’s wicker chair and plant decor. Except at one table, where accused drug dealer Robert Wilson “Flower” Rowbotham sits. He is wearing the same clothes he has worn every day of the last month of his trial. By now the multicolored cobra skin platform shoes are peeling and scuffed, but they are his favorite shoes, his “lucky” shoes he says, and so he keeps wearing them. The imitation suede waistcoat with the embroidered partridges on the back is open and underneath is the Mexican shirt he has worn for the last four days of his cross-examination.

It is the home stretch for Rowbotham. Three and a half years ago on January 8, 1974. he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to import one ton of hash into Canada. One ton. Four people charged as coconspirators pleaded guilty, and by now one of them is already out on day parole. But Rowbotham is fighting the charge, pleading innocent. Twenty-seven miles away in the Brampton, Ontario, courtroom where Rowbotham’s trial is slowly winding up, the empty crates from Lebanon sit piled up to the left of the judge’s chair, the sickly smell of hashish still clinging to the burlap wrappings. Tonight Rowbotham has left his wife, Paula, and their three children in their rented east-end Toronto house to come out here to the whiteon-white tablecloths and drink a couple of bottles of Heineken. Tomorrow the Crown attorney will wind up cross-examination of Rowbotham and then the jury will hear the last speeches of the Crown, defense and

judge before retiring to consider its verdict. If convicted Rowbotham could face a life sentence. He leans back in the wicker chair, his stomach protruding a little above the flashy turquoise and silver Navaho belt buckle, the extra flesh on his five-foot-11 frame the result of too many pizzas hastily grabbed during court recesses. He drags heavily on his cigar, the dark hazel eyes growing soft as the hash oil placed so delicately on the tobacco is inhaled. Now he shifts uneasily, the Afro hairdo framing a soft, slightly pouty face, his voice easy and nice, his manner ingratiating, seductive, a practised, polished salesman.

“Do you think it’s right,” he asks the others at his table plaintively, “even if I were guilty, to take a man away from his family for maybe 12 or 14 years because he deals in hash and marijuana which lawyers. judges and middle-class straights smoke? Does that sound right to you? I’m 26 years old. My youngest kid is nine months. He won’t even know me.”

Rowbotham will be convicted. He will be convicted in courtroom number three in Brampton on May 11, one week from that night in the Courtyard Café. The jurors will come back into the courtroom after 14 hours of deliberation with their eyes averted, not looking and smiling at Rowbotham anymore, and he will know their verdict even before the foreman speaks. His defense council, Moishe Reiter, will ask that he be allowed to spend the last night before sentencing at home with his wife and children, and the Crown prosecutor, Patrick Duffy, will rise to say he has no objections. But the judge, Stephen Borins, will not permit it, and Rowbotham will be taken straight from the courtroom to the Brampton lockup. Next day he will be sentenced to 14 years—a sentence equal to the maximum for conspiracy to murder. And so last May 12. the flashy multimillion-dollar international drug-dealing career of Robert Rowbotham came to an end in a windowless county court. Aspects of his treatment by the authorities attracted editorial protests and charges of “persecution, not prosecution.” Flashbulbs clicked over the diminutive figure of American author Norman Mailer coming to Canada to testify on his behalf. But the real significance of the case lies not in Rowbotham's

crusade for changes in the “soft” drug laws, nor even in the procedural mix-ups that resulted in his 308 days in jail awaiting trial—important though such “mix-ups” may be. The lasting significance of Robert Rowbotham is that from the first day he became involved with drugs he had the support and encouragement of the same society that would later sentence him to 14 years in jail for them. In every sense of the word Robert Wilson Rowbotham is our creation.

He was born in Belleville, a small Ontario town on the Bay of Quinte, favored with good sailing and a strong sense of community. His parents were born there too. Decent people who made sure their four children went to Sunday School and learned “what was right.” They never made a lot of money, but Grace and Alf Rowbotham never wanted for much. Alf purchased the lot for his family’s home in 1946 for one dollar as an ex-serviceman and built the house with his own hands. All told, the home in which Robert Rowbotham was born cost his father $4.500 to construct.

By the time the mid-Sixties came, Robert Rowbotham was restless. Belleville closes up tight in the evenings, and apart from hanging around Front Street’s Cosy Grill or the next door poolhall there was very little to do. If he had been more academically inclined he might have made use of the library. Perhaps if he had been more spiritually resourceful, he could have contented his heart with the beauty of the harbor, and the foam-flecked waters bubbling in the locks and weirs along the Moira River. But in 1967 North American pop culture interpreted mental and spiritual growth to mean the psychedelic world of rock music and “mind-expanding” drugs. The CBC was busy interviewing and re-interviewing Dr. Abraham HofTer who had once administered mescaline to Aldous Huxley, while Timothy Leary was all over the press talking about the new states of consciousness to be reached with LSD. Psychiatrists from such institutions as the Ontario Addiction Research Foundation were growing their hair and earnestly explaining the difficulties implicit in making valuejudgments on the use of mood-altering drugs. Sixteen-year-old Robert Rowbotham was drawn to the flame of such enlightenment.

He traveled the 120 miles from Belleville to Toronto’s Yorkville district where the Canadian version of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury culture was thriving. On the crowded pavements of midtown Yorkville, hippies, bikers and surburbaniteson-the-make jostled against one another and vied for the few uncomfortable wrought iron chairs in such outdoor cafés as the Purple Onion and the Penny Farthing where espresso was served, and—if you made the right connection—drugs could be bought. All the action was right there on the streets in between a smorgasbord of miniskirted thighs, vacant black-penciled eyes, and gaily turtlenecked lawyers and accountants of middling years.

“I’d get some money together,” explained Rowbotham, “and go into Yorkville. I’d take turns with my friends and we’d buy a few ounces, maybe half a pound of marijuana and some hits of LSD, whatever was going, and get it back to Belleville and sell it around. 1 was trafficking, making a little money.”

“I remember.” says Malcolm Ewashkiw. one of Rowbotham’s English teachers, “when Flower or Rosie—as he was called—came up to my desk one day before class started. He was in grade 10 or 11. He took out a wallet stuffed with $20 bills and just riffled it through and all he said was ‘Look.’ ”

But schools were changing. In Ontario, under the leadership of the then education minister Bill Davis and. later. Thomas Wells, courses were being made more “relevant.” Students were being taught about Eastern philosophies and World Religions. Rowbotham’s teachers themselves may have had mixed views about the use of cannabis and its value as a mind-expanding substance. Claimed Rowbotham: “One teacher used to bring in records of Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and the Beatles. We used to roll up dobbies [joints] at the back of the class while the music was playing and get a real buzz.” At the same time, Rowbotham was picking up snippets of information about “sacred” practices, hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote seeds without the schools giving him the basic academic training necessary to evaluate such information. Meanwhile, in the real world outside the classroom, the casualties of indiscriminate drug use were beginning to surface.

They were a familiar sight half a dozen years ago in any city. Strung out, sometimes sick near to death from bathtub acid (impure, homemade LSD) and generally flat broke, the listless teen-agers drifted into town with nowhere to go. The Sixties solution was to create drop-in centres. Belleville joined hands with other enlightened communities and with the help of funds from the local YMCA and concerned citizens set up centres run by real “street people.” Which is how Robert Rowbotham came to organize one of the first havens in Belleville. The appointment seemed a confirmation to him of his special understanding of the new currents of society. But his career as social worker was short-lived. Rowbotham was not destined to play Spencer Tracy to Belleville’s Boys’ Town. On Good Friday, 1968, Rowbotham was arrested purchasing three quarters of an ounce of hashish in the small community of Point Anne just outside Belleville. He served 30 days in reformatory where he was sent for counseling sessions with a psychologist. Claims Rowbotham: “He said to me: ‘Rowbotham. you know the only thing that’s wrong with you is that you’ve got to either get into dope more heavily or get out.’ Which I thought was really neat for a government dude. He wasn’t sold on the competitive society. He was alive from the head up.”

It’s possible, of course, that Rowbotham’s account of the psychologist’s remarks may have been exaggerated. But it didn’t need a lone psychologist or anyone else to tell Row botham that soft drugs were society’s latest fad. A new morality based on the anti-war movement, civil rights and legitimate dissent had merged imperceptibly with the cult of pot. Half-articulated ideas about love and peace became the muddled philosophy of a group of young people who barely read a book but quickly picked up notions from television and newspaper headlines.

“My life began with the assassination of Kennedy,” explains Rowbotham. “I didn’t need books to know that the Vietnam war was wrong and that the Vietcong could bring real peace to the people and that understanding of human beings could only come to the world through marijuana.”

School no longer appealed to him. After his 30-day sentence he tried to go back. But his eyes were fixed on a new Jerusalem. The straight society was beginning to wake up to Rowbotham’s ideas of an alternate society. In the distance, 120 miles away, the turrets and spires of this new world were actually being built. In 1969 Rowbotham borrowed $10 from his mother and left Belleville for the shimmering horizons of Toronto’s Rochdale College.

Its reputation was to spread the length and breadth of North America as the drug supermarket of the Western World. But when Rochdale opened in 1968 it was meant to be—in the words of one of its founders, poet Dennis Lee—“a community of men and women who love wisdom and are actively pursuing it.” The 18storey building cost $5.7 million and was financed by a Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation loan. It was a nondegree granting college with no formal educational structure (i.e., no exams, no homework, no classes) and offered informal seminars or rap sessions on any subject its members chose. Just about every Canadian newspaper and magazine ran glossy articles heralding the rise of student power and the new Utopia of Rochdale. Later on some journalists even explained how society had nothing to fear from the use of soft drugs such as hashish and marij uana at Rochdale. Dr. Bruce McLeod, when he was moderator of the United Church, voiced this view on television. Columnist Kenneth Bagnell echoed it in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. By the early Seventies, although any pretense of Rochdale as a “college” had long evaporated, it was still getting government aid through Local Initiative Program grants ($219,000 in 1972) and the federal Opportunities For Youth program. A Toronto psychiatrist had released a survey that said 62% of Rochdale residents used pot and hashish at least once a week, 1.8% used heroin daily, 13.5% used liquor daily and an estimated 50% of the 900 residents would have had treatment by a psychiatrist at least once, although explained the psychiatrist “perhaps only for a bad trip.” A committee investigating Rochdale submitted a report to the federal government advising against the closing of the college because such action “could have repercussions for the federal government and its emerging youth policy.”

But Robert Rowbotham could not know that the media world and pace setters of Canadian society are as ephemeral in their tastes as the world of fashion. He would swallow the Rochdale myth and hang onto it, act upon its values long after the editorial writers and youth cult enthusiasts had become bored and moved on to shinier new issues. Still, all that was to come when Rowbotham arrived at Rochdale in 1969 and was greeted by an old Belleville friend, Ian Argue, who was rental manager for the building. Rowbotham moved in on credit and made a brief stab at working: two days as a truck delivery boy for The Toronto Star before he hurt his thumb, lost the job and never worked again. He began dealing in marijuana and LSD almost immediately. “I bought it from this guy called Neal. He’d give me 100 hits of LSD at a dollar a hit and I’d sell it for two dollars a hit. And I made $100 in three days.”

Rowbotham had found his calling. By then Rochdale was being haunted by the bikers and speed freaks who were terrorizing residents. Bad dope was floating around the building. Rowbotham parlayed a Timothy Eaton approach to merchandising into big drug business. “My customers knew they’d get what they paid for. No rip-offs. I was just a small-town boy.” In the straight world, Rowbotham might have become a Garfield Weston or an E. P. Taylor. As it was, his combination of charm and con rapidly established a Friday night lineup outside his room of 50 customers or more. Plans for expansion were inevitable. Rowbotham went to Vancouver in 1970. moved into a commune and applied for welfare. “Everyone took welfare there. It’s wholesale, you just grab it. We pooled our welfare money and bought a couple of pounds of pot. I went to the airport, got a real cheap ticket as a student standby, flew to Toronto and sold the stuff for double. I spent the summer doing that.”

Soon Rowbotham was financing other ventures—$20,000 here, $10,000 there. He invested in Etherea Natural Foods, a vegetarian restaurant in Rochdale, and turned it into a coffee house at night. In partnership with a friend he formed a company called Fillmore North which produced several rock concerts at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market including one of Alice Cooper’s first Canadian appearances. Then there was his boutique called Sweetwater specializing in the paraphernalia of pot. “The police and the RCMP would come in to check out what was new in hash pipes. Seventy-five percent of our buyers for head magazines were nares. They kept us in business.”

But it was drugs that kept the money flowing in. By 1972 Rowbotham had moved out of Rochdale, although he con-

tinued to keep a suite of rooms for stashing drugs and accommodating overnight buyers. Now he was organizing marijuana trips to the United States importing as much as 1.000 or 2.000 pounds of the drug from California. He had half a dozen employees working for him, doing the smuggling and distribution of the dope in specially outfitted vans. By 1974 Rowbotham was known across North America as the Mr. Big of marijuana with as much

as five million dollars’ worth of drugs passing through his hands and an annual profit conservatively estimated at $250.000. “But I put all the money back into the alternate community. Into the vegetarian supermarket and the rock music. That’s the people the money had come from and I wanted it to go back there. That’s why I was in this. To build the freak society.”

Whatever Rowbotham did with all his money, it never showed in his lifestyle. He lived in rented farms in Ontario where he bred dogs and never paid more than $500 a month rent. His clothes were not expensive. His cars were usually at least a couple of years old. underground garage and race it around the block a couple of times and wait for the police forces to hem him in. It was his game. His way of thumbing his nose at straight society. But nose thumbing has its price.

His wife, whom he met at Rochdale, rarely sported jewelry more expensive than the silver and turquoise bracelets Rowbotham imported for the Sweetwater boutique. There were Swiss bank accounts at one time, but no evidence that they ever contained more than $60,000 in them. His one extravagance, like rock stars and other members of the soft drug culture, was an eclectic diet of food and dope. He would order the most expensive items on the menu and treat a dozen friends at the same time. His consumption of hashish and marijuana was the envy of status-conscious Rochdale, where the amount of drugs a man could handle before flaking out was a guide to one’s place in the hierarchy. “I smoked the best. Black Afghani hash. I never dealt much in it because the supply couldn’t be controlled like marijuana. Good hash comes from the Middle East and Afghanistan and there's customs and airports. Marijuana comes from Mexico via California and you just have to get it across the Canadian-0.S. border. With the publication of that book Between Friends the trip’s a lot easier. It’s a drug smuggler’s guide to every border crossing.”

Hashish and marijuana are both products of the cannabis plant. Marijuana is the chopped dried flower and top of the plant while hashish is made up of the very much more potent pure resin. By 1972 Canada’s LeDain commission on the nonmedical use of drugs had recommended decriminalization of possession and cultivation of cannabis for one’s own use. One of the commissioners, Marie-Andrée Bertrand, a Montreal criminologist,had goneeven further and recommended the legalization of its importation and distribution. At Rowbotham’s trial a Toronto rock promoter John Brower testified that he, John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent a pleasant evening back in December 1969 smoking marijuana with two of the LeDain commissioners. In the course of the LeDain study at least one research scientist working for the commission was fined for personal possession of hashish and by the time the final report came out its recommendations were anticlimactic. The enemies of cannabis no longer believed that it was the killer weed. The problem with marijuana in the Sixties was that it made intoxication respectable. The same kids who would have sneered at a wino longed to emulate potheads. But by the Seventies, thoughtful people, who had been rightly alarmed by the socially harmful effects of the drug which fostered an atmosphere in which the most basic values of Western civilization were being questioned, could relax. Lamilies were no longer being torn apart by children running off into the night to smoke pot. High-school students were no longer dropping out to experiment with alternate lifestyles or to drift along the sweet fumes of some paradise of Rousseauistic socialism. They might still continue smok-

ing dope, but by 1975 they would also be lining up to get into the professional faculties at university which could guarantee a job on graduation. Cannabis was on its way to becoming accultured. Lew people thought that it was more ennobling or mind-expanding than a martini—but few people believed that it was much more dangerous. The advocates of cannabis were quiet too. They had new causes to engage them—aboriginal rights, environment. baby seals. Lor most, the drug wars of the Sixties had ended; the combatants had moved on. The only people whose emotions could still be engaged by the great cannabis hunt were the RCMP.

Rowbotham had always been an irritant to the RCMP. Unlike dealers in hard drugs, he made little attempt to conceal his activities. He proselytized. He enjoyed telling the officers who searched his various body orifices for concealed drugs that they should relax and learn to love society by smoking pot. At the preliminary hearing before his trial, he even had T-shirts made up with a stenciled picture of Ottawa's peace tower being destroyed bv a rampant penis and the legend “Rowbotham versus Regina” on the back. He gave the T-shirts to the defense attorneys and offered them to the Crown and the RCMP. While at Rochdale he would deliberately gun his car out of the Back in the spring of 1973. Rolling Stone magazine sent free-lance writer Richard Stratton up to do an article on Rochdale. Stratton had never published much more than the odd short story in obscure literary magazines such as Shank Painter but with friends like Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson it seemed okay to call oneself a writer without actually pressing too many typewriter keys. Stratton seemed to have more substantial resources too. such as a 200-acre farm in Maine where he entertained his friends. The story on Rochdale never made it into print but Stratton met Rowbotham and decided to coauthor a book on Rochdale and the drug subculture with him. On Labor day. 1973. Rowbotham went down to Stratton’s farm all geared up to the exciting prospect of meeting Stratton’s friend Mailer. Mailer, who had been hearing euphoric reports about this Canadian apostle of the new marijuana age. was fascinated with Rowbotham.

The RCMP was growing increasingly irritated with their inability to break up the Rochdale drug trade. Their valiant charges against the sixth floor’s “stash rooms’’ netted them only some drugs and a few smashed doors. They were unable to connect dealers to the dope. “The security system at Rochdale was too effective.” explained Inspectors. H. Gintherof the drug squad. “They knew everyone in the building and by the time we got inside the word

would be out.” It seemed that the police force charged with ensuring the security of our nation against the combined intelligence forces of the world were stymied by the problem of infiltrating a midtown Toronto highrise run by a few hundred highschool dropouts. Shattering as this may be to millions of Canadians who depend upon our scarlet uniforms for more than a good parade, it must have been even more galling to the Mounties themselves. They began keeping very close tabs on Rowbotham. “I must have been stopped and searched 50 or 60 times,” he claims. In December. 1973, a ton of hashish from Lebanon was discovered at Toronto Inter-

national airport. The Mounties watched it being picked up and taken to a house in Mississauga. Ontario. The occupants of the house worked for Rowbotham in his marijuana business and they pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import the hashish. Rowbotham was arrested as a coconspirator. One of the convicted men named him as the brains behind the hash shipment, although the informer’s testimony came under heavy questioning since he had admitted he’d do anything to get an early parole. During the period between Rowbotham's arrest and trial much time was taken up by a lengthy preliminary hearing—so lengthy indeed that during part of it Rowbotham was arrested on additional counts of trafficking in Barrie and Vancouver. With the new charges, Rowbotham. who had been free on $15.000 bail since the original conspiracy charge, was put in jail. A series of technical manoeuvres by the Crown and Rowbotham's own lawyer did little to speed him out of jail. His incarceration without bail awaiting trial lasted a total of 308 days.

The trial was marked by endless legal bickering and alarming displays of RCMP muddling. (In court an RCMP officer carefully explained the extraordinary security precautions taken with the dark brown hash from Lebanon. Then he walked to the crates to present the court with evidence of Rowbotham’s haul only to find that one of the sealed bags contained a quite different green substance. “How did that get there?" asked the defense. “I don’t know.” replied the RCMP officer, trying to kick the offending bag under a bench.) Rowbotham's defense was that he was guilty of importing marijuana but not hashish.

In one sense his guilt or innocence of the hash charge was beside the point. More to the point was the question of why so much time, energy and money were being expended in that Brampton courtroom to fight the good fight against soft drugs when the battle had been resolved several years ago. Curiously enough, the only person who seemed to understand the significance of Robert Rowbotham was the American author Norman Mailer.

"He had a certain devil-may-care charm.” reported Mailer, "that reminded me a little of Errol Flynn in Captain Blood." When Rowbotham was charged and Mailer heard of the penalties he faced—a minimum sentence of seven years—the leonine author was outraged. Bv then Stratton had his own troubles—he would soon be arrested on the charges of importing two metric tons of hash—w hich precluded him from testifying at Rowbotham's trial, but Mailerwaschampingat the bit. He had decided to write the preface for Stratton's book which would now focus solely on Rowbotham. Mailer had notonlv seen "the wit and rogue” in Rowbotham's eves, he had identified w ith him.

"I've always had a terrible time." explained Mailer, "at separating the seeds in grass. 1 watched with fascination how Rowbotham did it. He didn't do it a hell of a lot better than 1 did. 1 realized at that point the stuff was just hard to separate."

On a more serious level Mailer became increasingly baffled with the intensity ol the battles against Rowbotham. He could not understand why the Canadian authorities were so exercised about soft drugs. "It's such a minor offense.” he said. "Thev're using a cannon to extinguish the only macho I know w ho would call himself 'Flower.' ” Mailer's appearance in the Brampton courtroom was a study in theatre of the absurd. Much taken with having a figure of his literary stature in the witness stand, both Judge Borins and Crown Counsel Duffy permitted Mailer to give evidence that seemed to have little bearing on the case. For close to 4' : hours, the gravelly , sexy voice of Norman Mailer carefully instructed a respectful court on the meaning of karma and the balance ot justice in the cosmos. When it was all over the court had effectively been asked—in somewhat mystic and literary phrases— just why they were bothering to try this case at all. And then Norman Mailer got on a plane and went home.

In the spring of 1977 the Attorney-General of Ontario. Roy McMurtrv. went on a trip to Belleville. While there he had an informal talk with some students about the need for revision of the cannabis law s, and next dav in Toronto he set off a real stir when he brought up the idea that cannabis be controlled and distributed by government boards. After the fuss had died down and positions had been explained and redefined. McMurtrv sent out a press release explaining his position. Wrote the Attorney-General of Ontario: "It has been apparent to me in studying this problem over a number of years that the courts have reflected public sentiment by decriminalizing the sanction concerning the use of marijuana notw ithstanding the fact that such use remains an offense under the criminal law of Canada. The statistics demonstrate that this has in fact occurred. During the month of February. 1977. there were 282 charges involving the use of marijuana disposed of within the Metropolitan area (Toronto) and Brampton. Of these 168 resulted in absolute or conditional discharges. 79 resulted in payment of nominal fines. Eleven were disposed of by imposition of suspended sentences and five only resulted in jail terms.”

It had always seemed to Robert Rowbotham that his prosecution was being sought because "after I go inside, the government can set up their own distribution boards and tax marijuana like liquor and make a lot of money out of it. But first they have to clean up the independent dealers.” Robert Wilson Rowbotham has probably cost the Canadian taxpay er more than a million dollars. His prosecution was our expense: his defense is covered by legal aid. His family is on welfare and his imprisonment will probably cost another S25.000 a year. His income over the past half dozen years has barely been taxed because of its illicit nature. In an emotional, rambling speech to the court before he was sentenced. Rowbotham explained his idea of the "marijuana culture.” It was a muddled restatement of all the trendy ideas of the Sixties filled with phrases about enlightenment. nonviolence, whole earth foods, love and the noncompetitive society. And when the court had finished listening to a digest of all the ideas the FeDain commission, the media, the academics and other fashionable intellectuals had scattered over the land, the man w ho was not quite literate or bright enough to understand why it is wrong to practise what some of the top people in his country preach was sentenced to 14 years. ::