Robert “Rosie” Rowbotham – 1950 – 2022

A lanky hippie with hair halfway down his back and smoking a joint the size of a Toblerone bar, Robert (Rosie) Rowbotham sat bemused. He was listening to a bunch of American writers, fancy-pants and glitterati, discussing their favourite books at a party hosted by American novelist Norman Mailer in the summer of 1972 just outside of Phillips, Maine.

It was late in the evening at Mr. Mailer’s hobby farm, Mr. Rowbotham would say as he told the story of how he was brought in from Canada to supply the party with dope. After hearing the square-john normies drone on about books Mr. Rowbotham had never heard of – let alone read – he finally interjected. He took a huge haul from his joint, blew the smoke out and proclaimed he had only ever read one book: The Last of the Mohicans.

This created quite the stir, the group was incredulous, questioning how it was even possible to have read only one book. Rosie surveyed the room, noticed Mr. Mailer listening and laid it out in the simplest of terms. He said, “Let me break it down for you, there are three types of people in the world: the ones that read, the ones that write, and the ones that you read and write about. I am one of those – the ones you read and write about.” He took another haul off his joint as Mr. Mailer crossed the room to chat.

Mr. Rowbotham, a hippie, cannabis crusader, prisoner justice advocate, journalist, broadcaster, rapscallion and rogue died on Dec. 1 at age 72. He battled, griped and smoked till the very end, with a mischievous flicker in his eyes and the art of the deal never far from his mind. As he said recently, “If there is a fight to be had, let’s get to it.”

He first made national headlines at 23. The hippie pot-dealer was trying to turn on an entire continent when he was arrested for conspiring to import one tonne of hashish in 1974. The court case, which stretched on for seven months and cost over a million dollars, was covered daily in the national papers. The media and the public became enamoured with Mr. Rowbotham’s charisma and celebrity witnesses such as Mr. Mailer, who testified that imprisoning Rosie would be “bad for the cosmos.” A 1977 Maclean’s magazine article dubbed him “Johnny Reeferseed.”

After serving over 20 years in prison for non-violent offences, Mr. Rowbotham re-entered polite society in 1997 with his GED, a diploma from Seneca College, a degree from Queen’s University and a full portfolio of his journalism and broadcast work with Contact TV and Prison Life Magazine, where he held the title Canadian managing director. Before his parole officer could blink and while still living at a halfway house, he began work for CBC Radio One. Not bad for a hippie dropout from Belleville, Ont.

Robert Wilson Rowbotham was born in Belleville, on Oct. 31, 1950 to Alfred and Grace Rowbotham. Raised in a loving home with his two older brothers, Larry and David, and his younger sister, Judy, Rosie dropped out of high school after Grade 10, drawn to the then-hippie neighbourhood of Yorkville in Toronto. He found his way to Rochdale College, a beacon of youth counterculture, at the corner of Bloor and Huron Streets.

The entrepreneurial spirit fostered in the pool halls of Belleville came in handy for the under-employed young hippie. He began selling weed, hash, acid and mescaline out of Rochdale.

Relying on his easy smile and his peace and love philosophy, Rosie – known as “The Kid” to local old-timers – was enjoying selling his dope and living the “be here now” mantra of the time when opportunity came calling.

While on his daily music-buying trip to A&A Records with his buddy Robert Anderer, known as Bob the Goof, Mr. Rowbotham was approached by a well-dressed man who asked, “Are you Rosie from Rochdale?” After a brief exchange, Mr. Rowbotham and Mr. Anderer drove off in a car with a tonne of hash in the trunk, smuggled it into Rochdale and set about selling it all in a month.

No longer a retailer, Rosie was a wholesaler; managing multiple stash rooms, a cadre of dealers under him and a network that spanned not only the continent but the globe. He expanded into music promotions; with Fillmore North; clothing, with Sweetwater Trading Company; food, with a vegetarian restaurant at the bottom of Rochdale College. All these enterprises were operated by his hippie brethren. If asked about the money he would sneer, “It wasn’t about the money; I was a warrior in the war against drugs.”

He did enjoy the money, however; what wasn’t reinvested in more drug deals and his multiple hippie business ventures was spent on the simple pleasures of a 20-something hippie with wads of cash: partying, eating, travelling and buying records, endless records.

Mr. Rowbotham had moved from Rochdale to a farm outside of Beeton, Ont., by the time the cops kicked down his door in 1974, with his children and wife sleeping beside him. The next quarter-century of his life was defined by Canada’s prison system. Mr. Rowbotham served his time in some of the country’s toughest institutions.

A man always capable of adapting to his environment, Mr. Rowbotham soon adjusted to prison life. Housed with violent offenders and hardened criminals, he did not buckle, rat or run. He was most proud of having served his time in “general population,” understanding and respecting the plight of the incarcerated and coming out stronger than he went in; but it came with a cost.

He witnessed unbridled acts of violence, experienced loneliness and depression, loss and heartache that was harrowing in its depth and breadth. But, within all of that darkness, Mr. Rowbotham did what he always had done: He made the best of it.

His initial sentence of 14 years was reduced to nine on appeal and by 1980, he was a free man; just not for long. As he had promised the court during his address prior to sentencing at his first trial, he would not be rehabilitated and would reoffend.

While driving home from the prison, his next huge deal was already unfolding. A whopping eight tonnes of hashish was steaming across the seas from the Middle East to the Port of New York. This deal was the focus of an intense sting operation the Toronto Police dubbed “Project Rose.” Two years later it landed Mr. Rowbotham back behind bars, where he would stay until 1997.

It was during this stint that Mr. Rowbotham became heavily involved in writing and editing for Prison Life magazine and hosting Contact TV, a program on a local Kingston cable station that discussed various prison issues. Ever the crusader, Mr. Rowbotham would become a leading voice advocating for prisoner rights for years to come.

“His name will live on in terms of the justice system because of the Rowbotham Application,“ said Prof. Gregory Marquis from the University of New Brunswick’s Department of History and Politics. “When you mention the name Rowbotham to most lawyers they may not know his [full] name but they will know the Rowbotham case.” A byproduct of Mr. Rowbotham’s own legal troubles, this kind of application is filed in court to request government funding when someone charged with a serious crime has been denied legal aid.

Standing up for the under-represented was innate for Mr. Rowbotham. Tom Lafferty, his childhood best friend remembers, “He always championed the underdog and stood up for what he believed was right – no matter the personal cost. He was my confidant, he cared for me, he was my protector. I was a skinny, little 110-pound kid and Rosie was always there for me. His advocacy work within the prison system and his storytelling with the CBC are in keeping with the Bob I always knew.”

Journalists at the CBC initially became aware of him because of his journalism behind bars. Upon his release, he was interviewed by Michael Enright on his radio program This Morning. Mr. Rowbotham was articulate, insightful, plain-spoken and funny in the interview. He charmed Mr. Enright and the listening audience, leading This Morning executive producer Ira Basen to hire him as a contributing editor for the program. The CBC work Mr. Rowbotham was most proud of included an open letter to disgraced hockey agent Alan Eagleson as he prepared to enter the prison system, and interviews with Chinese political dissident Harry Wu and the wrongfully convicted Guy Paul Morin.

“The thing that Rosie brought to the table as a CBC journalist was that he was different from pretty much everyone else who worked there,” Mr. Basen said. “He didn’t think or talk like your typical CBC journalist, and that was really his journalistic superpower, because anyone who had been marginalized or screwed over by the system in any way could recognize themself in him.”

Mr. Rowbotham left the CBC in 2001 to pursue a variety of creative projects ranging from acting, producing documentaries, public speaking and horticulture. He never stopped writing; his last essay was published by The Guardian in 2018.

A man of no apologies, Mr. Rowbotham had one regret: the impact his choices had on his family and most especially his children. He admitted to his many failures as a father and a partner, resulting in a divorce, fractured relationships and, more recently, the end of a common-law partnership. But he was equally emphatic about his commitment to his role as an advocate of marijuana use.

In his later years, Mr. Rowbotham enjoyed the Blue Jays, CNN, smoking joints, holding court and feeding squirrels, raccoons, skunks and opossums in North York from his back porch. His youngest daughter, Mia Rose, born in 2017, brought him great joy. Prior to moving into the palliative care wing of Sunnybrook Hospital, he spent his most cherished moments with her at his side.

His last months at Sunnybrook were filled with the kind of hi-jinks one would expect of a man of Mr. Rowbotham’s pedigree. He entertained guests from all the chapters of his life, charmed the nurses and ate like a king. He smoked joints and complained about American politics and the Leafs. He never gave up, never stopped fighting and lived his last breath to the fullest.

Mr. Rowbotham leaves his daughters, Jasmine, Tanya and Mia Rose; his son, Jade; his sister, Judy and her husband, David; his brother, Larry and his wife, Pat.

Article from The Globe and Mail

Rosie Rowbotham fought cannabis prohibition in Toronto’s hippie hangouts of the 1960s, and in court cases that paved the road to legalization. Now facing terminal cancer, he says the industry is tainted by greed and likely to fail – but ‘my karma is clean’

Puffing a joint on his deathbed, Rosie Rowbotham is feeling fine. His shirt’s off, Muffin the cat is by his side, and he’s talking about the happiest days of his life. “Rochdale,” he says, and he smiles, all skin and bones, bottom teeth missing, a wisp of smoke now enveloping his tousled, long white hair. Rochdale, a now-defunct experimental college along Bloor Street in Toronto, is where Mr. Rowbotham set up shop in the late 1960s to become not just the biggest hash dealer in the country, but one of the most successful cannabis salesmen in the world.

“If you bought hash in the seventies, I don’t care if you were in California, Boston or Chicago, you got it from me,” says the man born Robert Wilson Rowbotham in Belleville, Ont., on Oct. 31, 1950, and who, in 1985, would begin serving the longest sentence for trafficking weed of any Canadian in history.

At his 1974 trial, Norman Mailer testified on his behalf, and when Mr. Rowbotham stood up in court and told the judge he’d continue dealing pot because there was nothing wrong with a hippie selling flowers, he’d eaten a quarter ounce of hash that morning in a Brampton jail.

“I felt good turning everybody on to a spiritual thing with the smoke. I wasn’t a criminal. I was a pothead, I was a hash man,” he says.

But the police took his grandstanding seriously, and after he was released in 1982, the Drug Squad tapped his phone and he was busted again, this time in 1985 with about 7,000 kilograms of Lebanese hash. Mr. Rowbotham told the cops he’d keep dealing weed and he did. He says, “I was General Patton in the War on Drugs.”

The war has taken its toll on Mr. Rowbotham and, after serving his 20 years, many of them at the Millhaven Institution in Kingston – a maximum-security prison for violent offenders – he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which is currently stage four. He’s uncertain he’ll see his 72nd birthday.

At his tidy house off Bathurst Street where cannabis plants grow nine-feet-tall in the backyard, Mr. Rowbotham, who is awaiting a third round of radiation treatment, smokes now not for euphoria, but to feel momentarily transported from physical and spiritual pain.

“One thing about dying is you come to make a certain peace with yourself,” says Mr. Rowbotham, who has never inhaled a breath of legal Canadian weed. “I knew legalization was coming, but it doesn’t feel earned by the people in the business today. I gave up everything for the cause, for the movement – my freedom, my family – and what did it get me? I don’t even have enough money to pay for my grave.”

Legalization of cannabis was officially enacted in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018, and the country is on the eve of the fourth anniversary of becoming the first G7 country to legalize weed. Mr. Rowbotham, however, like many early activists and dealers (and sometimes it’s hard telling the two groups apart), says he feels disdain for the business he once ruled.

“The legal-cannabis industry in this country is going to collapse on itself because the karma is wrong – it’s all greed,” he says. “The industry cheats and thieves and hides pot in the walls. It’s dirty. I broke the law, but my karma is clean.”

Mr. Rowbotham says he had a Rockwellian home life growing up and that his parents, Alfred and Grace, a veteran and a homemaker respectively, were generous and attentive with their four kids.

Mr. Rowbotham has two older brothers and a younger sister and remembers his parents as happily married. His dad bought land on the same street as his grandfather and uncle for a buck on the GI Bill, and built a house there.

“I wasn’t running away from something, I was running to something,” he says, and found what he was looking for the first time he got high. “I was 15 at a local girl’s place, she was babysitting and her parents were out and she had ganja and we started smoking. It felt so hip.”

Mr. Rowbotham immersed himself in the nascent culture, digging Led Zeppelin and LSD, and began making trips to 1966 Yorkville, a counterculture neighbourhood in Toronto, to score cannabis which he would bring 200 kilometres back to Belleville and smoke with the girls. “I wanted to be a hippie. I had no intention of being anything else.”

He was busted at age 17 with an ounce of hash and served 30 days. “Reefer was so vilified that I wasn’t even old enough to serve, but here I am, a brown-shirt youth offender digging holes at Burritts Rapids jail – might as well have been selling fentanyl in today’s relative terms,” he says of the bust that had the inverse effect of straightening him out. Instead, he dropped out of tenth grade and moved to Yorkville, where he busked, washed floors and delivered the Toronto Star, until dealing hash and weed.

The vocation, he says, came naturally. “The small-town kids that came to Toronto ended up being the hustlers because we were hungry,” he says, then mentions the fortuitous moment that changed his life – a friend from Belleville had gotten a job as the renovation manager at Rochdale, and offered Mr. Rowbotham room 617 for $60 per month. “Males and females using the same showers – I walked into the perfect place for me,” he says. “If I was a pariah back in Belleville, now university kids were buying pounds of pot off me.”

Mr. Rowbotham says Rochdale was the ideal place to deal cannabis because security kept the drug dealers out, and left the pot dealing to him.

“My motto was: no speed freaks, no rip-offs, no guns and no bikers,” he says. “Everyone felt safe, and on a Friday night in 1969 I could do between $5 and $10,000. I’d have 60, 70 people lined up out my door and had to hustle real fast or the retailers would get together and buy wholesale, which was my bag.” Mr. Rowbotham cycled all of his earnings into buying more product.

“The story of my existence is spinning – a hundred grand here, fifty thousand there, let’s go.”

Moving as much as ten kilos per week, Mr. Rowbotham thought he was king of the world because he could splurge at Harvey’s, but his life as a hash man was about to explode. In front of Sam the Record Man, smoking a cigarette in the summer of 1970, Mr. Rowbotham was approached by two Lebanese businessmen. “Are you Rosie Rowbotham, the guy who sells hash at Rochdale?” one man asked him, and the 20-year-old demurred.

“If you’re looking for a confession, you got the wrong guy,” replied Mr. Rowbotham but, after a short conversation, the young dealer’s interest was piqued. The men made the kid an offer: In the trunk of a car parked beside Varsity Stadium at University of Toronto, there was a ton of hash. The keys were in the car’s ashtray. “Don’t worry about getting a hold of us,” the men told Mr. Rowbotham. “We’ll get a hold of you.”

Mr. Rowbotham remembers picking up the car with no licence and unloading 16 crates of hash into the freight elevator at Rochdale. He describes the eeriness of dragging the black tar down the hall. “It was the afternoon, 3 p.m., quiet, quiet, quiet – everyone still asleep,” says Mr. Rowbotham, who still marvels at how his life changed. “A year ago, I had bought 10-cent macaroni-and-cheese dinners to live on and panhandled 15 cents for the subway and now I had a ton of hash, and these new partners. I was also on the hook for a million bucks.”

Setting up six stash rooms at Rochdale, Mr. Rowbotham charged $590 per kilogram and maintained a reputation for quality, chill and fairness. “The people who used to sell to me were now buying 50 pounds of hash and I started supplying Montreal, Ottawa; plus, the Americans were coming up from Ann Arbor and buying dope left, right and centre. I had people from California buying 500 pounds.”

The initial load was gone in a month and Mr. Rowbotham expanded into mescaline and acid, but drew the line at cocaine. “When people started freebasing, I knew it wasn’t for me – bad karma,” he says, and maintains that he adhered to a strict moral code: Cannabis was not meant to be constricted by laws. “What I was doing was righteous,” he says. “Even my battles with cops.”

An important part of Mr. Rowbotham’s Rochdale existence was fighting the authorities, sometimes in the streets.

“We were always having riots – you can’t imagine the disdain we had for the pigs,” he says, “but the word ‘busted’ wasn’t part of my vocabulary because the pigs couldn’t get into Rochdale, though every once in a while they’d kick down the doors.”

Once, in the early 1970s, Mr. Rowbotham says he and his friends commandeered a TTC bus along Bloor Street after the police manhandled a pregnant woman and used rubber bullets on the hippies to disperse the crowd. “A hundred cops came and we’d play Sympathy for the Devil and I remember the Friday night in Toronto, the first cruiser got there and we smashed a brick through his window and this was cannabis – it was a way of life.”

Mr. Rowbotham had thousands of kilos of hash in six stash rooms above the riot, but physically confronted the police.

“The cannabis movement meant something to me. And if you fought for a cause,” he says, “you fought until the end.”

Mr. Rowbotham was arrested in 1974, then 1982, and then 1985, in a sting called Operation Rosie. By then, after a long spread written in 1977 by Barbara Amiel in Maclean’s, his activism had become renowned and he could count among his celebrity friends Alice Cooper and Neil Young.

Norman Mailer was fond of Mr. Rowbotham, who told the American author that he didn’t read books. “Some people read, some people write – and some people have books written about them,” Mr. Rowbotham said, and shared a pound of marijuana with the author who would later appear as a character witness at his trial.

Alan Young defended Mr. Rowbotham in 1984 and again at his appeal in 1989, and the two men shared a love of cannabis and cannabis culture. Mr. Young, who would go on to work with Health Canada on drafting the laws that would help legalize cannabis, which began in 2001 with the Marijuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), says the severity of Mr. Rowbotham’s sentence for cannabis trafficking made him reappraise Canadian justice.

“This was my client, my friend, who was being sentenced to more time than serious violent criminals for selling pot and the whole legal system was revealing itself as a farce,” says Mr. Young, whose experiences with Mr. Rowbotham would forge his legal career, trying cases for drug literature (1993), medical cannabis exemptions (1999) and compassion clubs (2000-2016), which set the template for the cannabis dispensaries we have today.

Says Mr. Young, “Rosie was a catalyst for all of this change.”

The MMAR laws were the first radical change in Canadian cannabis regulation. They allowed for medical consumption of cannabis produced legally by either designated growers – people legally entitled to grow cannabis for patients with a medical licence – or else Prairie Plant Systems, the first Canadian licensed producer, which was based in Flin Flon, Man., and grew their pot in an underground Hudson Bay mine.

From a halfway house into which he was released in 1998 and then during the ensuing years that he spent on parole, Mr. Rowbotham watched the cannabis culture morph into a regulated industry. “Eventually I was a casualty, but I never sold out and it was an honour as a warrior to serve 20 years,” Mr. Rowbotham says.

While Mr. Rowbotham found work at the CBC as a contributing editor, the country would extend its licensed producer system in 2013, ending the Prairie Plant Systems monopoly and allowing multiple companies to produce legal Canadian medical marijuana. This led to the rise of licensed producers such as Aurora and Canopy Growth, none of which could legally grant security clearance to a felon with a cannabis conviction, and none of which made inroads to Mr. Rowbotham. “Who are these people who come and sell pot and say, ‘Oh, I’m doing it for the government.’ Who are you? What have you done?” says Mr. Rowbotham, who, like Mr. Young, says that he always knew full recreational legalization was coming and that Justin Trudeau’s legalization campaign promise in 2015 was a fait accompli.

“The government got rid of me so it could set up its own pot companies, but karma is everything, and if you create an industry built on greed, there’s nothing it can do but collapse.”

Mr. Rowbotham knows it’s too late for him to get into legal weed and he feels conflicted – sometimes resigned, sometimes raging – but he still believes a hippie should be able to sell flowers. He blames the chemo for altering his lucidity, but the cannabis seems to replace the anger with nostalgia and something like grace. “Everything that’s happened to me sometimes feels like it was written,” he says, and dreams of passing onto the legal industry the lessons he learned in his youth, even as time is running out for him.

Since cannabis legalization, Canopy Growth had a peak valuation of more than $20-billion, but it lost $2.1-billion in the first quarter of its 2023 fiscal year. Mr. Rowbotham insinuates that he never went in the red because the Lebanese businessmen knew where he lived. Perhaps there could have been more accountability in the legal industry with real stakes around the bottom line. Meanwhile, over 425 tonnes of unsold cannabis were destroyed last year in this country. On his own, Mr. Rowbotham says, he could flip a ton of hash in three weeks – let alone mescaline and LSD. Selling pot, he continues, comes down not only to supply and demand, but also, he says, trust between buyer and seller.

“You got what I told you you’d get, the weight was there and the quality was there,” he says, describing his dealings in contrast to that of the government. “There was no fear of being ripped off and you could sit down, smoke a joint and relax.”

As we approach the fourth anniversary of cannabis legalization, the industry has generated more than $43-billion to the country’s economy, according to a 2022 Deliotte Canada report. But Mr. Rowbotham is skeptical of the industry, saying he doesn’t understand why some white-collared Canadian cannabis executives avoid prison while dealers from the 1970s who served their sentence are seen as convicts and crooks. “The guy who was honest gets crucified, but these government guys, they’ll do anything. Call me a fool, but I don’t want to have my name associated with them.”

Earlier this month, U.S. President Joe Biden called for a federal review of the American cannabis laws and announced pardons for all federal offences for marijuana possession. He also encouraged state regulators to do the same thing. It’s a start, Rosie Rowbotham says. But he sees the future of Canadian pot businesses in an initiative started in Oakland.

“Look at California, they did it right – let the dealers run the thing,” says Mr. Rowbotham, mentioning Oakland’s progressive social-equity initiative, which gives priority to run cannabis businesses to residents who have had non-violent cannabis arrests. While the California initiative was meant to empower minorities who are disproportionately arrested for cannabis crimes, Mr. Rowbotham believes the Cannabis Act, which legalized cannabis and is currently being reviewed, should learn from the cannabis culture that the legal system supplanted.

“Selling marijuana doesn’t have to be about thievery and greed,” Mr. Rowbotham says with a knowing smile as he takes a last pull from his joint. “It’s too late to hire people like me in Canada. I’m stage four, I’m dying – but us kids in bell-bottoms knew something that these rich guys in government can’t figure out: It’s not always about money.”

Story from – The Globe and Mail