Prison Break

It was said that if you smoked a hash joint in San Francisco in 1973 that the source of your stash was Rochdale College in downtown Toronto. Running the show was Rosie Rowbotham, a small-town kid from Belleville, Ontario who fell in love with LSD at 14, dropped out of school in grade ten and heard his calling to the psychedelic chords of Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. Rowbotham started small dealing hashish and acid—he never sold heroine or coke—and he always gave customers an honest score.
“No guns, no muscles, and if it was supposed to be 28 grams, it was,” says Rowbotham, who realized early on that, during the Sexual Revolution and the rise of women’s lib, he liked selling weed and the lifestyle that it afforded him. “I was a small town kid—almost virginal—I’m not a dealer … but if you stay in the game long enough, you learn how to play.”
One day, Rowbotham was selling weed on Yonge Street outside of a record shop when he was approached by a stranger. His reputation proceeded him and he was invited to help Lebanese importers move serious weight. He was requested to pickup a car with a tonne of hash in the trunk. “I’m thinking, that’s a million, two million dollars of drugs, he’s going to give me on consignment? Somebody pinch me,” explains Rowbotham of the score that would change his life, both for better and worse. “I wasn’t that kind of game player yet but, believe me, the next year I was.”
Stay in the game long enough, you learn how to play.
Rowbotham is relaying this story to KIND from his home in northern Toronto where he’s smoking joints between chemotherapy rounds. Suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer, Rosie, as he’s universally known, says, “I’m hurting all over. The fucking cancer is deteriorating my bones.” It’s Rosie, as much as anyone, responsible for Canada’s cannabis legalization today for when the police finally caught up with the hippie, he was moving more than 10,000 pounds of hash and had connections from Mexico to the Middle East and supplied dealers from Chicago to L.A. Defending Rosie in 1985 was Alan Young, who couldn’t believe that a non-violent offender would be sentenced for more time than murderers defended by his firm.
“This was my friend and a fucking moral outrage—of course I smoked weed, we all did, and the hypocrisy, the absurdity, was mind-blowing,” says Young, who would go on to defend the major Canadian cannabis activists throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000s. In addition, Young would not only work with Health Canada designing their original medical marijuana regulations in 2001, but also help the first licensed producers get their paperwork, and grow ops, to code. Young said, “I think the entire industry owes Rosie his due.”
Rosie Rowbotham served twenty years in prison for conspiracy to import, distribute and sell weed and he never regretted his lifestyle choices. He never ratted out his network and he always believed pot should be free. “It’s cannabis, not heroine or cocaine, and you mean to tell me this stuff is legal while you blow your brains out with booze?” asks Rosie with dismay, waving his spliff. “The whole legal system disgusts me, and the government still hasn’t made it’s reparations, which is no surprise.”
In the United States, the situation is equally grim. Rosie Rowbotham ended up serving 20 years for his cannabis offence, the longest Canadian sentence ever for a non-violent cannabis crime, and his American counterpart is Rich DeLisi, who served 32 years for selling weed. DeLisi, who would smuggle in boatloads of pot from Jamaica and was introduced to the legal system by Berner, says cannabis appealed to him from his very first joint.
“I knew that I would see the day of legalization, but I thought it would be 25 years ago,” says DeLisi. Released from prison in December 2020 with the help of The Last Prisoner Project, he now runs DeLisioso, a licensed cannabis producer distributed by the American retail chain Trulieve, and advocates for the other non-violent pot offenders still locked behind bars.
“Pot is so available to everybody that it just stuns me that we have over 40,000 people in the state jails for nonviolent marijuana charges when there are people—right now—still in there next to the most dangerous people in the world.”
I’m thinking, that’s a million, two million dollars of drugs, he’s going to give me on consignment? Somebody pinch me.
Rosie has drawings by his grandchildren on the wall of his home and he’s working on a podcast with Greg Thomas so his story doesn’t get lost in the new world of corporate weed. At his home, Rosie spent an afternoon talking about the time Norman Mailer appeared in Canadian court as his character witness and how, eventually, he went from small-town hippie to big-time pusher, learning the sort of survival skills that helped him defend his turf. “I let everyone know I’m not an easy target and I can hold my head up high,” he says, mentioning several times in his stoned reverie that he knows his days left on earth might not be long.
Smoking a joint as the sun went down, Rosie, who, at 22, was known as The Kid while he moved six loads of Lebanese hash a year, packing two tonnes of hash per load, sat back on his easy chair and laughed often; sometimes losing his train of thought, but always taking it back to ensure that one point was made: legalization of cannabis is a global phenomenal, but the activists, hippies and dreamers knew that pot should be free all along.
“I’m proud of the fact that I was there from the beginning and sometimes shake my head, as if I didn’t write the script of my life, but just played out some karmic unforeseen story that was written for me,” says Rosie, exhaling a hit. “I’m proud that I opened the doors for this to happen and look at me—after everything, I know how to love.”