VANCOUVER — There were the inquisitive stoners, the happy-go-lucky potheads and the young punks yelling “smoke weed everyday.”
As thousands flocked to the Vancouver Art Gallery on April 20 for the 21st year, in celebration of the unofficial stoner’s holiday, it was the usual scene. Bags of blunts right out in the open, people sparking joints everywhere you look and plenty of cookies and other edibles with the green stuff baked right in.
But there was a new voice at the ganja gathering this year: Three Surrey high school students weren’t there to light up. Wearing anti-pot T-shirts and sporting gas masks, twins Duncan and Connor Fesenmaier and Jordan Smith from Princess Margaret Secondary took the trek to Vancouver to protest the use of marijuana and spread their anti-legalization message.
As one man quite accurately dubbed them, they’re the “bud busters.” I hooked up with the guys at King George SkyTrain station. On the train ride, I asked what they thought would happen at the rally. Connor wasn’t sure. “The VPD (Vancouver Police Department) didn’t want us to go,” he said. “They said it wasn’t the smartest thing, that it could start a riot or start a problem.”
As we got off the SkyTrain at Granville, the boys opened up their bag and put on their gas masks. “They’re the good ones,” said Connor. On the street, people recognized the boys from the news, where they spoke out after they say their vice-principal at Princess Margaret Secondary told them to remove the shirts while at school. Some pointed and laughed, others were more aggressive.
“You have to recognize you can’t change the opinion of some people,” Connor said. “You have to let it bounce off like rubber.” The closer we get to the art gallery, the stronger the smell of pot – and the insults – becomes.
“Are you ready for some abuse?” asked a cop as we were steps away from entering the event. And they were.
The boys took all kinds of nasty verbal abuse throughout the day. Many people took to toking up in front of them and blowing smoke in their faces. It didn’t seem to faze them. Polite and diplomatic all the way through, they talked to anyone who would listen.
The hate is something they’ve already experienced online, both through their Facebook page Canadians Against the Legalization of Marijuana and also via email, where they were slammed with insults and even death threats.
“Everyone thinks it’s all passive, free-loving hippies… but they’re angry,” said Connor. Pamela McColl is a director on the advisory council of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada, an anti-marijuana-legalization group. She said she’s proud of what the boys were doing.
“We had hesitation because of safety,” she said of having the boys come out to protest 420. “But they’re young people who want to have a voice – and they should have a voice.” In the mid-afternoon, Connor noticed people were getting angry toward them.
“The police presence definitely keeps them at bay a bit,” he said.“I do feel scared, I do feel scared in the sense of watching my back.”
Connor, the unofficial spokesperson of the trio, said when he was first offered a joint, he said ‘no,’ wanting to arm himself with knowledge before trying it. After doing some research, including through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a U.S. government research institute, he said he knew where he stood.
“They had tons of research and facts and it was all done scientifically,” he said. “It was scary.” All three boys are with SAMC, which believes legalization will usher in Canada’s new version of big tobacco, that use will increase and that public and social costs will well outweigh the tax revenues the government receives.
Shortly before 4:20 p.m., the “Prince of Pot” himself found his way to Connor, where the two took to debating facts on marijuana as a crowd formed around them.
“You’re presuming marijuana impairs people,” Marc Emery said after hearing Connor’s stance. “Getting high… is being self-aware. That’s why people get enhanced sounds of music and enhanced sounds of nature when they’re high.” Connor argued the negatives outweigh the positives.
“But how do you know?” Emery fired back. “You’re believing a government study, right? This is the same government that’s lied to us consistently about every war, about the effects of drugs, about their secrecy, about their surveillance.”
Connor said many argue it’s not addictive and it’s not dangerous, adding, “you don’t need to die for something to be dangerous.”
Emery said Connor sounded like a “pompous, sanctimonious teenager,” while Connor told Emery he sounded like a “self-indulged hippie.” While the parties didn’t agree on much, they shook hands before parting.
Emery said he doesn’t understand the boys’ protest. “What they’re doing is laying a judgment trip on people, telling them what they’re doing with their own body is bad. I don’t know if anybody has a right to really go around doing that,” he said.
“Marijuana is extremely unique in that it’s useful for dozens and dozens of applications, medical, fibre, euphoria, soaps, lotions, it’s just incredible. There’s really nothing else like it on the planet. So for them to choose marijuana to come here and protest against shows that they’re just not well informed.”
Emery said he’s never seen pot protestors at the event before.
“You’re allowed to not smoke pot every day of the year. There’s only one day for us and it’s this day. We’re here just to ask for the dignity of being treated like first-class citizens and not second-class citizens.
“He’s here judging us and I think he’s wrong.”
Connor said he’s glad he got to debate marijuana with Emery. “I was kind of hoping I would. I think it went well, but of course he had his entourage with him.”
And after all was said and done, the boys were all glad they went, with plans to return next year. “We’re definitely a strong force,” said Connor. “We know our science, we know we’re right and we just have to put that out there.”