Toronto Life, June 2009 (Nominated for a National Magazine Award)
Wait a second. Isn’t pot illegal? Well, yes, but that hasn’t stopped Dominic Cramer, also known as the Mayor of Yongesterdam, from building a respectable retail empire of pot cafés, vapour lounges and boutique head shops where people smoke up en masse. The cops, who usually turn a blind eye, raided one of his stores in the spring. Now Cramer is the reluctant leader of the fight for the right to get high
The first time I visited one of Dominic Cramer’s stores was during high school in the mid-’90s. Like many teenagers too young to go to bars but too self-conscious to just invite friends to sit in a park at night and talk without some pretense, my friends and I smoked pot. Not excessively, but enthusiastically, and always with much discussion of exactly how high we were, who among us was the highest, and whether or not the average citizens walking past us on the street knew how insanely high we all were.
Cramer’s Toronto Hemp Company was a murky second-floor business on Yonge Street just south of Bloor that sold shapeless hemp frocks, pipes and tie-dyed T-shirts. When it opened in 1994, it was one of only two stores in the city serving a clientele that leaned heavily toward faded hippies and teenagers like us, who loitered near the imported rolling papers looking alternately listless and paranoid. Pot wasn’t just another substance—it was a lifestyle and subculture with its own specific codes, touchstones and fashions that seemed to fit in just fine among the strip clubs and street-level dealers on Yonge. It all felt vaguely illicit. A loud siren would have emptied the place.
The second time I visited a Dominic Cramer business was more than a decade later. A friend of mine, an engineer for an international mining company, was repeatedly skipping out on evening plans, and I wanted to know why. It turned out that after work on Fridays, he and his colleagues were going to a café where they would drink fair-trade organic coffee, eat goat cheese panini and get so outrageously stoned that by 9 o’clock he would be back at home, with the lights dimmed in his bedroom, listening to New Order’s “Age of Consent” on repeat. It sounded like something I should check out.
When I went to Cramer’s Kindred Café with a friend a few weeks later, business was good. People were drinking coffee downstairs, and there was a short lineup to pay the $5 daily membership fee, which allowed customers to use the smokers’ patio or rent one of the café’s private rooms. On the roof, a friendly, bleary-eyed couple in their mid-20s invited us to sit next to them under the canopy. Peering over the fence, we could just make out the blue dome of Toronto Police headquarters to the south.
We ordered grainy $13 chocolate milkshakes. Milk was probably the first ingredient. It was a close race for second between chocolate and something way more potent. A few hours later, we were back on the street, stoned in that alarmingly high-level way where, like some alien imposter who’s done extensive research into human behaviour but has never been to earth, you’re straining all of your mental faculties just to approximate the kinds of words and gestures you think a normal human being might use. As we sleepwalked toward a cab, my friend’s only words were, “I can’t believe this is legal.”
And it isn’t, of course. Despite decades of court decisions, legislative attempts, various government committees and reports that have encouraged decriminalization, marijuana remains a banned substance. Over the past 15 years or so, however, pro-pot lawyers, entrepreneurs and thousands of casual tokers in Toronto have been so successful at bringing marijuana out of the shady head shop and into the mainstream that today, sipping a pot milkshake on a patio that overlooks a police station can seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.
Cramer is the respectable face of weed in Toronto. As the owner of a five-store marijuana-themed retail empire and the head of a not-for-profit organization that distributes medical marijuana, Cramer is the unofficial mayor of “Yongesterdam,” the nickname for the weed-friendly strip between Bloor and College. He describes himself as an activist, but his methods aren’t confrontational or of the hippie peace-and-love variety that we associate with the stereotypical potheads who have pushed for legalization. This isn’t the ’60s, and the 36-year-old businessman has no desire to be part of a counterculture trying to rock the establishment or freak out the norms.
Instead, Cramer wants to integrate his group of upscale cannabis businesses into a commercially successful neighbourhood. He believes that his customers are the norm. While city bureaucrats from the Yonge Street Regeneration Project have been “revitalizing” the strip to the south—expropriating arcades, installing big box stores, creating one of the country’s largest collections of billboards at Dundas Square—he has been slowly transforming the street in his own way, shop by shop.
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Cramer has also developed that most prized of corporate qualities: brand synergy. (Imagine, during Prohibition, a particularly forward-looking whiskey bootlegger branching out into ice cube trays and swizzle sticks.) He employs about 40 people—mostly young, passionate pot smokers whose habit of referring to themselves as “hemployees” is cute but creepy, the same way that Starbucks workers calling themselves “partners” reeks of corporate messaging. Listening to them casually talk about their work—their recommendations for a first-time bong owner, their frustration at having to teach first-time growers the basics about the spectra of light—it’s easy to forget that everything they do is dedicated to a banned substance.
At Yonge and Breadalbane, the southern end of Yongesterdam, the Kindred Café attracts medical marijuana users as well as people like my friend the engineer, young professionals who would rather smoke a joint after work than drink a martini. A couple of blocks north, at Dundonald, Cramer’s Toronto Art Glass is a stark white boutique that sells $200 bongs and glass sculptures made in the small studio at the back of the shop. Just next door is his Sacred Seed, a musty storefront that sells satchels of imported Dutch marijuana seeds. When I dropped in, the employee on duty, a self-described “canna-phile” with a long goatee, described the products for sale in the language of a wine connoisseur. Plants like Skunk No. 1 and AK‑47 were the most popular strains with customers, he explained a little sniffily, but they weren’t in the same league as the Arjan’s Ultra Haze No. 2 he had tried recently: “The flavour was like a spicy mango incense, and it had an absolute cut-through sativa high that just announced itself to me.”
To the east, in a Victorian building near Church and Wellesley, the Toronto Compassion Centre provides unregulated medical marijuana to 2,500 members. Cramer opened the centre in 1997 with Warren Hitzig, an enthusiastic 19-year-old who skateboarded through the city with a pager, delivering weed to the club’s 100-odd clients. Cramer estimates that about 40 per cent of his current members are living with HIV/AIDS, and the rest have conditions ranging from cancer to anxiety. Health Canada runs its own medical marijuana program, but Cramer’s customers prefer his merchandise (they complain that the government pot, grown in a mine shaft in Manitoba, is too weak). The Centre’s supply comes from a variety of growers and, depending on availability, sells for less than $10 a gram.
Running a pot shop, even one that caters to sick people, comes with obvious risks. In 2001, five masked thieves broke into the centre, brutally beat members and staff, and made off with a small quantity of pot. When the police arrived, they discovered what to them looked like a major drug trafficking operation. A few months later, they raided the place and arrested the staff, though charges were eventually dropped.
Further north on Yonge, the newly expanded 7,500-square-foot Toronto Hemp Company looks more like an Urban Outfitters than a head shop. THC is the money-maker behind Cramer’s other ventures. The airy three-floor emporium now sells everything from hemp bath mats and eco-friendly shopping bags to pineapple-flavoured rolling papers. On a good day, it can move up to $10,000 worth of merchandise. In the basement, a well-stocked garden centre carries bat guano and other organic fertilizers, grow lamps, carbon filters for odour control and anything else you might need to set up your own indoor pot garden.
The most recent addition to Cramer’s empire is Vapor Central, which opened in 2007. When I visited on a cold night in January, the hazy second-floor lounge was packed for Weedy Wednesdays, the popular weekly comedy night, and the air was thick with smoke from dozens of pipes, joints and bongs. Besides the smell and the slight dizziness you feel after 10 minutes in the room, the thing that immediately strikes you about this particular comedy night is the quiet. Unlike at a bar, where people tend to get a notch louder with each drink, the crowd here was subdued. There were scattered giggles and a few wheezy laughs, of course, but for the most part, audience members just sat there, smiling contentedly and nodding their heads, as if listening to a discussion they very much agreed with.
The customers in the room skewed a little toward the young and male, but overall it wasn’t a bad representation of the city’s diversity. At the Bong Bar, a professional-looking 30-something sat alone, puffing a small glass pipe while frequently checking her cellphone until her boyfriend arrived in a suit and tie. Onstage, a woman did a bit about her Jamaican father’s risqué ideas for stand-up material. She was followed by a self-loathing Italian-Canadian whose aggressive jokes didn’t quite mesh with the audience’s mood. At the front of the room, six retirees from New Jersey were the target of a lot of ribbing from the comics, who teased the American tourists about their country’s lack of universal health care and offered to sell them Cuban cigars. The group was gathered around a Volcano vaporizer, a sleek brushed-metal machine that releases smoke-free marijuana vapour into a plastic bag. Users then inhale the vapour through a mouthpiece. After the show, Joe, a 61-year-old former car salesman, told me that this was their third visit to Toronto. “We were in Jamaica last year, but Toronto has some great places to smoke in a relaxed environment,” he said, offering up a freshly inflated bag that smells of earth and pine needles.
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Most Torontonians remember July and August of 2003 as the summer of SARS, but for pot enthusiasts across the GTA, it was the summer of legalization. Just two years earlier, Canada had become the first country to allow the use of medical marijuana, and in May 2003, the Jean Chrétien Liberals introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams. Though most legalization activists dismissed the bill as seriously flawed (it increased penalties for growers), for many it felt like the culmination of years of political agitating, media outreach and legal challenges—a crack in the firmament after 80 years of marijuana prohibition.
Before the bill was introduced in Parliament, an Ontario court effectively knocked the laws against possession off the books due to a legal loophole. Access to medical marijuana was a constitutional right, the argument went, and the government’s existing medical marijuana program did not adequately protect that right. The court ruled that if the federal government couldn’t provide a supply of the drug, it couldn’t prosecute anyone—medical users or casual tokers—for possession. Torontonians responded enthusiastically. When the Rolling Stones took the stage at SARS-stock, the assembled crowd greeted the band with raucous cheers and a huge cloud of smoke.
A few months later, the Ontario Court of Appeal closed that loophole, and the Liberals’ decriminalization bill eventually died along with Paul Martin’s minority government. In 2006, the Conservatives conclusively ended the legal ambiguity surrounding marijuana. Toronto police arrested almost 2,500 people for possession that year. Health Minister Tony Clement, sounding like the villainous college dean in a poorly scripted stoner comedy, told Canadians it was time to put out their joints: “The party’s over.” It’s currently illegal to sell, import, export or possess even a gram of pot without a medical exemption. It’s also illegal to sell or possess a single seed, and it remains illegal to knowingly sell any “instruments for illicit drug use” (the pipes and bongs for sale across the city are supposedly for tobacco).
But while the feds have returned to a 1980s War on Drugs mentality, public opinion has swung in the opposite direction. According to a 2008 Angus Reid poll, more than half of adults across Canada support the legalization of marijuana. A UN report found that Canada has the highest proportion of pot smokers in the industrialized world. As baby boomers continue to get high into their 50s and 60s, the demographics have changed as well, making it harder to simply dismiss thousands of Canadians as a bunch of high-school kids going through a phase.
In a year in which a photo of Michael Phelps using a bong caused an uproar, the most strident arguments against the drug have begun to feel bizarrely circular: Phelps is setting a bad example for children because he’s showing them that you can smoke up occasionally and still be the greatest Olympic champion in history—which, as it turns out, is true. Today, the majority of Canadians seem to have come to the same conclusion as a special Senate committee studying pot did in 2002: “Scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that cannabis is substantially less harmful than alcohol and should be treated not as a criminal issue but as a social and public health issue.”
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It’s in this yawning gap between the letter of the law and what the public is willing to tolerate that Cramer and the rest of the entrepreneurs in the city’s retail pot industry operate. “We walk a fine line,” he tells me. “We work in a grey area.”
Cramer is a big, affable guy with closely cropped hair and a face full of stubble. Talking about his work, he matter-of-factly recites an encyclopedia’s worth of marijuana trivia in a Seth Rogen baritone. It’s telling that almost everyone I interviewed in Toronto’s marijuana activist community (a surprisingly fractious and back-biting group, considering their drug of choice) described Cramer as a “pretty likable guy.”
When he explains the rapid expansion of his empire, he can make it sound like an act of public service. As one of the few successful businessmen in an industry that isn’t known for them, he says he feels a responsibility to keep opening new businesses, to keep pushing the envelope. “If I don’t do it, some other schmuck is going to do it and fuck it up, so repeatedly I find myself in the position where I have to do something,” he tells me. “I had no choice but to open a Compassion Club. No choice but to open a classy café. I had to open a seed shop. I had to do a vapour lounge.” I stop him there. You had to open a vapour lounge? “Actually, I just wanted something to fill the space,” he says, smiling. “I was paying good rent.”
Cramer lives in a small bungalow north of the Danforth that he bought with the help of his parents a few years ago. He shares the house with his fiancée, Amanda Dalton, whom he met through the business (she was a THC customer), and their three dogs and two cats. Cramer smokes pot frequently—he enjoys it, and also emphasizes the drug’s medicinal properties—but his living room is completely devoid of paraphernalia. When I was there, the large bay windows looking out onto the street were missing their blinds. Renovations had been dragging on for months, Cramer explained, but things would be back to normal soon. In the meantime, his life was on full view to anyone who happened to walk past.
A life in illegal drugs wasn’t the most natural career choice for Cramer. His father, Mike, the son of a British-born doctor stationed in Fiji, grew up in St. Kitts, in the Caribbean, where he met Cramer’s mother, Cecile (Dominic says his bloodlines are a tangle of Portuguese, Spanish, Jewish, African and Polish genes). The couple studied at Concordia University in Montreal but returned to St. Kitts soon after, where Dominic was born in 1973. When Dominic was four, the Cramers decided there were more opportunities in Canada and came north, settling in Scarborough. Soon after, they opened Midoco, an art supply store that today has two branches—one in the Annex and one in the Beach.
As a student, Cramer was bright, if not particularly dedicated. He attended the gifted program at Woburn Collegiate, and in the summer he and his brother and two sisters usually could be found working at the family store, where he learned the nitty-gritty of running a small business.
In 1994, he graduated from U of T with a degree in economics and computer sciences that he had no idea what to do with. One day, his roommate was surfing a newsgroup site and saw a posting by Marc Emery, the B.C. “Prince of Pot.” The posting asked a simple question: Why doesn’t the biggest city in Canada have a decent hemp store? A few months later, Cramer emptied his bank account and opened the Toronto Hemp Company with a few thousand dollars’ worth of inventory.
Like most businessmen who have found some success on the fringes, Cramer seems to crave mainstream respectability. The Kindred Café, he explains, is “classy.” He outfitted the café with leather furniture and organic coffee because he’s seeking customers a cut above the average teenage pothead. He was livid after the National Post ran a snarky piece saying that the case for legalization might be stronger “if only Mr. Cramer ran a lovely Yorkville-based high-end restaurant.” The usually even-keeled Cramer, in a posting on the Cannabis Culture on-line forum, blasted the “asshole” who wrote the article. “Kindred IS a ‘high-end’ restaurant in (well, just outside) the Yorkville district,” he wrote. “The misinformation coming from all sides is mind-boggling.”
Success in business tends to bring its own sense of legitimacy. “When my store started small, my parents were worried about things, about my having an ‘unconventional lifestyle,’ ” Cramer says. As his enterprises have grown and multiplied, and as he’s managed to keep a clean criminal record, he says his family has become a little more comfortable with his chosen career. After 15 years, even the most precarious situation begins to feel stable.
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That stability was badly shaken last November, when Toronto police raided the Kindred Café. They said they had started the investigation in response to “community complaints.” An undercover officer had allegedly bought milkshakes, ginger snaps and hot chocolate laced with THC from the café. A warrant was issued for Cramer’s arrest.
Cramer was at his cabin near North Bay when he heard the news. He frantically tried to follow what was happening by phone as more than a dozen cops cleaned out the café, loading couches, TVs, a freezer and X-Boxes into a five-ton moving truck. Eventually, he was able to watch it all unfold on the news. The police arrested two employees, and four days later Cramer turned himself in and was charged with trafficking. (At the time of publication, he was still waiting for a trial date.)
Pot businesses like Cramer’s rely on an unspoken agreement with police. If they chose to, each day the cops could arrest dozens of customers at Vapor Central for marijuana possession; they could bust staff at the Toronto Compassion Club for trafficking; they could go after THC for selling “instruments for illegal drug use.” The terms of the pact are arbitrary and inconsistent, but usually the police turn a blind eye to the city’s cafés and lounges if customers don’t cause trouble. They will tolerate the facilities that sell pot to sick people—arresting a group of AIDS patients isn’t the best PR move—and they will put up with the head shops. What they won’t tolerate is people thumbing their noses at the law. Cramer kept pushing the boundaries. Selling pot milkshakes on a patio that overlooks police headquarters seemed to be crossing the line.
If and when Cramer goes to trial, he’ll be represented by Alan Young, an Osgoode law professor and the city’s most famous pot lawyer. Over the past 15 years, Young has launched some of the biggest legal challenges to Canada’s marijuana laws. In 1998, he and the AIDS patient Jim Wakeford sued the government for Wakeford’s right to grow and smoke his own grass. Young used the testimony of a wide variety of experts, including American scientist Stephen Jay Gould, and in 1999 Wakeford became the country’s second legal medical marijuana user. When talk shows are looking for someone to represent the argument for legalization, Young inevitably gets the call. He’s funny, articulate, and loves to get stoned.
Young first became interested in the marijuana issue fresh out of law school, when he represented one defendant in a group charged with importing a large quantity of hash. “They were really funny, nice guys. And the more I hung with them, the more I realized they were my people,” Young says. His client got 14 years. “I decided then to devote myself to challenging the government’s authority to prohibit and regulate consensual activities,” Young says.
Twenty-five years later, at age 52, he’s no more deferential to authority. When I met him at York University, he was late for a dinner date, so we decided to talk as he drove me downtown. In the parking lot, he struggled with the lock of a white sedan for a few minutes, cursing heavily, before he realized his car was across the lot. When we found it, he grabbed a York University parking ticket off the windshield with disgust. “It isn’t a municipal ticket, so fuck them,” he said, stuffing it into the glove compartment. “I’ve got about $3,000 worth of these things.”
In 1998, Young helped Cramer and Warren Hitzig get the medical marijuana service off the ground. He organized a press conference with the organization and seven other similar groups and publicly announced their existence, simultaneously requesting authorization to sell drugs to the sick and informing authorities that, even though it was illegal, they would be doing it anyway. Young and Cramer have had more or less the same strategy ever since. Be transparent and open—but don’t show off.
When I saw Cramer in February, three months after the arrests, he was in good spirits. His bail conditions prohibited him from being near marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia—a serious restriction for a workaholic with a weed business—so Cramer was spending time cross-country skiing with Dalton.
Optimism is a useful character trait for any entrepreneur, and it’s vital for Cramer. “Dom’s an extraordinarily positive guy,” Hitzig told me. “He knows how to spin situations so that he and the people involved with him come out in a good position rather than a bad one.” Cramer’s hoping he can do that with the Kindred raid. When I visited, he had just finished buying new furniture for the reopened café, to replace what the police confiscated. He and his employees were treating the raid as an opportunity to upgrade. The café has new leather couches now, and Playstations have replaced X-Boxes in the private rooms.
Cramer has brought marijuana further out into the open than anyone else in the city, and the arrest isn’t likely to stop him. His businesses owe something to the smut shops and scuzzy army surplus stores of the old Yonge Street, it’s true, but when he thinks about his empire’s future, he looks to the Bloor Street strip just to the north of him, where the Gap and Pottery Barn compete for space on one of the most expensive retail blocks in the country. People like high-end kitchenware, sure, but don’t they like getting high just as much? If Yonge Street is gentrifying, Cramer wants to make sure that his cannabis culture empire gentrifies right along with it.
Sitting at home with his dogs and cats, waiting for a trial date, Cramer was already cooking up new business plans. “If I had my dream, I’d open a bigger, crazier Kindred Café,” he told me. “Way more rooms, maybe a bed and breakfast.”
While he explained his ideas—gesturing excitedly, talking about the potential in the market—I noticed that he hadn’t got around to putting up blinds. He was still living his life out in plain view, and it didn’t seem to bother him.