“All the cool people were smoking pot.”

Don Briere lives and grows weed in Vancouver’s lower mainland and he’s synonymous with the country’s cannabis journey—from legacy to legal, from the underground to the mainstream. A longtime grower, importer and exporter, wholesaler and salesman, and one of the first Canadians to ever dare open a bricks-and-mortar cannabis shop—an effort that earned him three years behind bars—Briere is now a member of Canada’s legal industry, with his store Weeds selling Health Canada-licensed product in Ontario and BC. But before Briere went legal, he was on the frontlines of Canada’s pot revolution in the British Columbia battlegrounds to legalize weed. Briere recounts his adventures in the cannabis trade.
Don Briere: I was a grower for 11 years in Vancouver’s lower mainland before I got pinched. We were growing two tonnes of BC bud a year before we got raided by 45 cops and I did three years.
  • Ben Kaplan: Wait, you’re getting way ahead of me. Where did your pot voyage begin?

    DB: I was born June 3, 1951 in New Westminster, British Columbia and I’ve been consuming cannabis products for 54 years.

  • BK: So that means—

    DB: I was 14-years-old when I started. When we were little kids, we’d see all of our friend’s older brothers drinking alcohol, getting into fights, crashing their cars and not having girlfriends and figured out pretty quickly: all the cool people were smoking pot.

  • BK: You were around back when Reefer Madness was part of the culture.

    DB: They said that if you smoke pot you go insane but we knew it was all a lie and a bunch of bullshit. The laws were based on lies—so we ignored them.

  • BK: How did you go from smoking weed to growing?

    DB: In the lower mainland of Vancouver, we had our grows, and we also had some out of town. Different locations, but all of our grows were indoors.

The further north you went from Mexico, the more your weed was worth: from $50-per-pound to $100-per-pound and, across the Canadian border, $160-per-pound; there was a lot of weed.
  • BK: But where would you buy weed in 1967?

    DB: You know all the people who smoke weed, and you’re buying from them. It’s just someone you get to know and I became curious. 1967? It would have been $20-an-ounce, basically Mexican weed with a lot of sticks and seeds.

  • BK: Twenty dollars an ounce. I think even at Value Buds and places like that you can’t get an ounce for less than a hundred.

    DB: Back then I was making the super duper wage of $2.95-an-hour, so twenty dollars was just a few hours work.

  • BK: A few hours of work for a full ounce of weed.

    DB: That’s how I started selling weed in Vancouver in 1968. I would work enough to buy my ounce, then have weed to sell and smoke for free. I was 17.

  • BK: What did Vancouver look like in 1968?

    DB: I used a record player cover and I’d dump the Mexican weed out on it, and dump all the seeds and sticks. I wanted to make sure my customers got a decent price, I made sure they got a deal.

  • BK: But can you describe the scene? Take us back in time.

    DB: People went to concerts and did all kinds of stuff. The weed was around because people brought it up from Mexico. The people I knew would cross the border from Mexico through California and run it up to Washington State. The further north you went, the more your weed was worth: so it went from $50-per-pound to $100-per-pound and then, once they crossed the Canadian border, $160-per-pound, and so anyways, there was a lot of weed.

  • BK: Wow. How much?

    DB: When I went to my guy, he’d have fifty to 100 pounds. I’d buy half a pound, but back then there was no shortage of weed in BC. Ontario was more harsh. Hash, in British Columbia, wasn’t as abundant.

  • BK: Could you openly smoke weed in Vancouver in 1969?

    DB: You’d be very discreet. You’d smoke in your home or in the park, but you were careful. If you got popped, they’d arrest you and charge you with something.

  • BK: Were you worried about the Feds?

    DB: The DEA only had two offices outside of the United States and one of them was in Vancouver. We used to go there and protest the war.

The DEA only had two offices outside of the United States and one of them was in Vancouver. We used to go there and protest the war.
  • BK: One of those protests led to the Gastown Riot in 1971, when the hippies fought against capitalism, consumerism, and the war on drugs.

    DB: There was a lot of shit going on. Back then, we had a thing: don’t stand out alone in a crowd, because if the police try and arrest you for smoking a joint, you could lose them in a crowd and the cameras wouldn’t pick you up. The police used to come out to get you with their sticks on high.

  • BK: You’ve been an activist for nearly all of your life.

    DB: I was in prison for over seven years because of my activism, the cops were just out of control.

  • BK: What happened in Gastown on that August night?

    DB: A bloody riot! The cops like I said went out of control. They had horses right inside a store and there were people shopping with their families, kids—but the police took it too far.

  • BK: Were you there?

    DB: None of the growers were there. I was dealing ounces at the time.

  • BK: Can you talk about how the legalization movement started?

    DB: There were a number of us around here consuming and growing, baking, infusing watermelons. There was one woman who used to sell down at the beach, her watermelons and infused ginger snap cookies, and she was arrested and handcuffed, but she beat the charge! That’s how legalization transpired, one case at a time.

The police used to come out to get you with their sticks on high.
  • BK: Buying an infused watermelon on the beach in 1971 sounds like heaven.

    DB: Once you immerse yourself in the culture, you meet more like-minded people and you share ideas, and also strategies to do good things. We knew the cannabis laws were wrong. We knew the straight goods. We knew this stuff was not dangerous. How many lawyers were making millions of dollars just to prove something all along we knew was wrong?

  • BK: So you said Fuck the Police.

    DB: Police officers in the drug squad were making huge amounts of money. It was well known in Vancouver that if you wanted to make money for overtime, join the squad. Big money. Higher payday. They used to give the drug squad danger pay to enforce prohibition.

  • BK: Was it dangerous, doing your line of work?

    DB: A buddy of mine got caught up with two undercover cops and these guys were going to do one last deal. They went with a couple hundred thousand dollars of government money, walked over with a briefcase, and the guy pulled out a gun and killed him—the drug war killed all kinds of people.

  • BK: It really makes you appreciate all the sacrifices that were made by the pioneers for the rest of us to get to enjoy cannabis legalization.

    DB: Back in the day, BC was in a recession. Plumbers, carpenters, people were making crappy wages, like $15-an-hour. People were looking for other means of employment and I mean, the first grow I put together I could do myself, but as I got bigger, I needed plumbers, electricians, carpenters—and I paid good wages. We had grows in Vancouver, Burnaby, all over the lower mainland BC.

  • BK: Can you tell me about your operation?

    DB: We had hash, and Bullrdr, Northern Lights, hundreds of strains. Like a liquor store where you can buy CC or Crown Royal, you could come to me for Black Tuna or Comatose. It was a smoker’s delight.

  • BK: And I suppose, today, it still is. Only now the Northern Lights are all legal.

    DB: It’s funny, when I first opened my store, Da Kine, in 2004, I was caught and arrested and served nine months in a maximum isolation compound. Later I went on trial and was sentenced to 25 years of prison, and served seven.

  • BK: Wow, all for weed?

    DB: Hell, year. We had so much it became international news. The police had the place under surveillance and were counting up to 300 people coming and going from my 900-square-foot building. If Walmart did sales like that they’d be dancing in the street.

  • BK: What did a gram cost?

    DB: Ten bucks.

  • BK: Am I right, that when Da Kine opened, you could smoke in the store?

    DB: We were doing dabs all the time. Someone used to go around with them on a silver platter, that’s where butter first got formulated.

  • BK: It’s so cool that you’ve run the gamut, from Mexican pounds to seven years in the slammer to owning legal pot shops. What a life.

    DB: It’s funny to look back on. Weeds is now fully operational and, you know, I opened my first Weeds in 2013 and thirty-six months later, we had thirty-six stores across six provinces. We operated for six years full-on before we got raided in Project Claudia.

The DEA only had two offices outside of the United States and one of them was in Vancouver. We used to go there and protest the war.
  • BK: You were part of that?

    DB: Hell, yeah. In 2016, they raided forty-four stores and five of the stores were mine.

  • BK: And today?

    DB: We have thirty-six stores and two are licensed. It’s been a long road, but we continue in this industry because we fight for what we believe.

  • BK: Which is?

    DB: When I started way back buying Mexican, I’d clean out seeds and sticks and now with my stores in legal cannabis, it’s the same thing: I won’t sell anything in my store that I wouldn’t give to my family or friends.

Photos courtesy of Kate Bird from her books Vancouver in the Seventies: Photos from A Decade That Changed the City, a British Columbia best seller published in 2016, and City On Edge: A Rebellious Century of Vancouver Protests, Riots and Strikes, published in 2017. Companion exhibitions for both books were mounted at The Museum of Vancouver.