Hemp clothing, rolling papers, bongs of all shapes and sizes, and books on how to grow marijuana – it’s all at the Friendly Stranger on Queen Street West, and surprisingly, it’s all perfectly legal.
Unlike the laws relating to the drug itself, paraphernalia laws regarding marijuana are vague.
“It’s a very gray line,” said Robin Ellins, 37, owner of the Friendly Stranger.
“We’ve been walking the gray line for 6 years and we never stray from it.”
After working with the non-profit organization, Canadian Hemp Association, which promotes acceptance and awareness of hemp and related products, Ellins felt that there was a need to educate people on a daily basis.
“We wanted to come up with a way to deliver our message live,” he said.
“We wanted to get our message out.”
The store was named after a 1930’s marijuana propaganda poster that warned of a “friendly stranger” offering the “killer drug.”
Under section 462.2 of the criminal code it is illegal to make or sell paraphernalia for marijua-na use. Those caught doing so could face up to seven years in jail or a $100,000 fine.
Since it’s illegal to sell items for drug use, Ellins simply adver-tises them for different purposes. The store sells only herbal blends for smoking and does not promote its product for marijuana use.
‘They can put anything they want in (a bong or pipe) but the intent is for herbs,” said Ellins.
“What you do with it at home is up to you. I can’t tell you what to put in there.”
Del. Const. Dan Powell of the drug squad, said that if there’s a considerable possibility that an item can be used for other purposes, then there is nothing to stop it from being sold.
“They don’t advertise (bongs) for smoking pot,” he said.
Powell said that hemp can be used for tobacco.
“It’s the same with roach clips. Some people have them hanging off their coats, so long as there’s reasonable doubt.”
Det. Rick Chase, also from the drug squad, said that police keep a sharp eye on how shops selling paraphernalia operate.
“Sometimes we send an undercover guy in to check it out,” he said.
“If one of our guys trips up a salesperson then there’ll be charges laid.”
So far, that hasn’t happened in the case of the Friendly Stranger.
“They’re pretty sharp people,” said Chase.
“As long as they stay within the legal perimeters it’s okay.”
The road has been less smooth when it comes to books and literature.
Ellins opened the store with some friends in July 1994, in a small, upstairs location near the intersection of Queen and John Streets. An officer from the morality squad paid him a visit the following month.
“His biggest beef was the books,” said Ellins. “Under the criminal code (at the time) you could not promote the use of drugs.”
The officer threatened to return with a search warrant to clean out the store and shut it down. In response Ellins first had a meeting, accompanied by a lawyer, with the officer. “We explained our situation, our activist origin and our position on pot,” said Ellins.
For good measure he sent a press release to all the major Toronto news outlets and let them know what happened. When the media asked for the number of the officers involved, Ellins gladly passed on his business card.
“(The officer) called one day and said ‘what have you done? My phone is ringing off the hook!'” recalls Ellins. “He was pretty pissed off.”
All the while, the law on marijuana literature was being challenged in a court case and was struck down in October 1994, something that Ellins believes contributed to the officer backing down.
Under the current law “it is unlawful to prohibit what you want to say,” explains Ellins.
“Reading how to build a bong for pot use is not illegal. Actually building a bong for pot use, on the other hand, is.”
Since setting up shop in 1994 Ellins has not received any complaints from area businesses; in fact his neighbours are friendly.
He has, however, received three complaints from parents of teens who have visited the store.
“Those people we invite down. We have no problem resolving it,” said Ellins.
Police, on the other hand, have received “hundreds” of complaints from parents Det. Chase said. “That’s when we have to go in (to the store). We have to respond to the complaint.” About five months ago the Friendly Stranger moved across the street to a much bigger, more open location with paraphernalia in the window for all to see.
Ellins said that there’s no other store in Toronto like his in terms of presentation.
“No one’s dealt with it before like we do. The place is sophisticated and classy because marijuana is. It’s not in a gutter as previously claimed.”
Ellins has seen many changes in the way paraphernalia and the drug itself are looked upon by society.
Marijuana, he says, is a minor, harmless drug and that users “are not gun-carrying offenders.”
Among the police of the drug squad, opinion is also shifting.
“But now it’s commonplace. It’s not one of the biggest drugs out there,” said Powell.
He says most police officers worry less about it now than in previous years.
” I consider it no different than alcohol,” he said. “You don’t get addicted to marijuana to the point of crime.”
— The Courier