Meet Robert ‘Rosie’ Rowbotham, Canada’s Weed Laureate
Now 67 and retired, Rowbotham was one of the largest suppliers of cannabis in North America.
Robert Rowbotham in 1971 (left) and in 2019 (right). Photos by Alex MacDonald and Chris Donovan.
At one point in the 1970s, if you were smoking a joint anywhere from Vancouver to rural Indiana, there was a good chance Robert “Rosie” Rowbotham was responsible. Rowbotham, whose nickname stems from childhood, was the preeminent hippie capitalist of his day, spreading peace, love and red eyes across the continent. He was one of the largest suppliers of marijuana and hashish in North America and he did it all with a smile plastered on his face.
And for his service, he went through four criminal trials, was given Canada’s longest ever sentence for cannabis in 1985 and, spent more than 20 years in prison for conspiracy to import, distribute and sell cannabis.
Rowbotham was back in the news as Canada legalized weed last October, this time as an outspoken critic not only of the country’s approach to legalization, but of those who are implementing and profiting from it.
Now 67 and retired, Rowbotham, once described as the “Mr. Big” of the soft drug trade in North America, is an anti-establishment senior citizen on the outside looking in. His convictions make it impossible for him to participate in the economy he kick-started 50 years ago.
As we sit around a picnic table in his Toronto backyard, Rowbotham, is munching on a burger and bickering with his lifelong buddy, Billy, about the veracity of anal fisting. It began innocently enough with the two near-70-year-olds debating just how much hash you can stuff up your ass to smuggle into prison. But, when Rosie suggests an amount of hash so vast that Billy can only recoil in horror, Rosie is adamant that humans have amazingly flexible assholes. A discussion about anal fisting between the grandpas ensues.
It isn’t rude or sexual. It is a practical discussion about the carrying capacity of a particular body cavity and one I feel at once captivated and trapped by. I am here to chat with Rosie about his life and that is exactly what I am getting.
The shock registers on my face, I know it. I ask if it in that moment, when you accept you are using your ass as a suitcase, do you ask yourself, how the hell did I get here?
Without hesitation, Rowbotham says, “No, not at all.” Billy, looks at me, and says, “Yes, you do.” I believe them both. Billy’s answer reflects the rule. Rowbotham’s answer is the exception. Rowbotham, charming and unflappable with a gift for selective introspection, has been the exception that proves the rule most of his life.
In the summer of 1968, Rowbotham was 17 and had just completed 30 days in the Belleville, Ontario jail for pot trafficking. He couldn’t get out of town fast enough.
“The cops had dragged me right outta class to jail, I did my 30 days then they sent me right back to class and I hated it. I borrowed ten bucks from my mother and took off for Rochdale,” he told me.
Rowbotham found himself at Rochdale College, an experimental “free” university housed in a Toronto apartment tower at Bloor and Huron streets.
It was a cornucopia of idealism, revolution and hedonism. Rowbotham felt at home.
What began with selling grams from his dorm room morphed into renting six apartments at a time to stash the one thousand pounds of product he was wholesaling per week.
Without a high school diploma and already possessing a criminal record, he wasn’t rife with job prospects upon arriving in Toronto. Rosie did what guidance counsellors the world over encourage young people to do: he turned what he loved into his job.
He was an unbridled success and expanded his business interests to include a vegetarian restaurant, a music promotions business called Fillmore North and developed what today we would call a “lifestyle brand” with his Sweetwater boutique. By his mid-20s, Rowbotham estimates he was clearing close to a quarter of a million dollars a year, but he never flaunted his wealth.
Rowbotham, though certainly enamoured with all his lifestyle afforded him—he partied with everyone from Alice Cooper to Norman Mailer and loved fine dining—was conscientious of the challenges facing his hippie brethren. He funneled his drug profits back into his other businesses and offered employment to an endless stream of young people deemed “unhirable” by the straight workforce.
But more than just profiting off weed and serving as a Robin Hood figure for the hippie community, Rowbotham endorsed and defended the use of cannabis. Charismatic and committed, he was unrepentant as he challenged the courts to address their backwards attitude towards weed.
In the spring of 1977, Rowbotham stood trial, charged with conspiracy to import and distribute one ton of hashish in 1974. Rowbotham was convicted and sentenced to 14 years, which was reduced to nine years through appeals.
Rowbotham believes there were a couple of contributing factors for the stiff sentence. “I did this big spread in Maclean’s that drew a lot of attention, and then, secondly, I got up in court and did my little ditty with the judge,” he explains.
The “little ditty” Rowbotham is referring to is the hour-long impassioned speech he gave to the court regarding his belief that putting him, a peace-loving hippie, into a den of violence for selling a drug that does no harm was wrong. He went on to proclaim that if he were put in prison, he would continue selling cannabis upon his release.
“I was unrepentant and they didn’t like that. It also didn’t help that I ate a quarter ounce of hash that morning in the Brampton jail before addressing the judge. It likely contributed to the length of my statement and my sentence but I believed it and still do,” he said.
His last stint in prison resulted from the 15,500 pounds of Lebanese hash he smuggled out of the Bekaa Valley, using a quarter of a million dollars worth of dates as cover in the spring of 1982. The shipment made it to North America but ultimately, Operation Rosie, a multi-million dollar task force launched by the Toronto Police Drug Squad, thwarted the plan.
The trial, which dragged on for more than a year in 1985, included testimony from more than 100 cops, DEA agents brought up from the US, and Neil Young as a character witness. It resulted in more prison time for Rowbotham and many others, including Young’s brother, Bob.
While in jail, Rowbotham earned multiple degrees and was heavily involved as producer, reporter, and presenter with Prison TV. After his release in March 1997, Rowbotham caught the attention of CBC Radio and he worked there in various capacities into the mid-2000s, before striking out on his own as a freelancer in media and entertainment.
Befitting a man whose charm and diplomacy were keys to his success, Rowbotham is too polite to acknowledge he predicted a government-controlled weedopoly years ago. But he was quoted in a 1977 Maclean’s feature by Barbara Amiel saying, “...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.”
It turned out, they waited for him to get out first and gave him a front row seat for the government’s first attempt at selling cannabis. The first few months of legal weed has left Rowbotham less than impressed.
“The government doesn’t know what they are doing because they are talking to the wrong people. Everybody thought just because it was marijuana that anybody could grow it but it isn’t as simple as all that. It is quality and price and consistency, right? They haven’t managed to achieve any of them nor were they able to deliver their product in a timely fashion on October 17th. The licensing and planning of the retail outlets has been an absolute disaster, too. Total amateur hour.”
According to Rowbotham, the people with knowledge and expertise are being shut out because of misinformation about who controls the black market.
“It is complete fearmongering to suggest the weed game is run by the mob and bikers. Bullshit. Organized crime accounts for, at most, 15 percent of the cannabis market. The other 85 percent is old hippies left over from the ‘60’s, God bless them,” he says
“In the States, they took advice from guys who ran distribution and large-scale operations. It worked. Here in Canada, we aren’t involved in any way, whatsoever. Instead, (Justin) Trudeau went to the people who lost the war on drugs—who know fuck all about it in the first place—to run the business of drugs. So the same people that lost the war are now the ones that get to profit from it? It is such tripe. They are parasites and hypocrites,” he tells me.
His words are tinged with the frustration of a man who spent 20 years inside for something you can now study in college. Yet, his frustration dissipates as quickly as it appears. The puckish twinkle returns to Rowbotham’s eyes. His days as a drug kingpin are far behind him and that suits him fine. ”Life is good. I am with my woman, doing the odd bit of writing, I get my $1,500 dollars a month for being old. I am not living in luxury, but living good everyday.”
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