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National Post
Toronto
Page T06
2005/05/07

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"I'm always amazed at the people who come in. From high-school kids doing projects to little old ladies who want to talk about hemp cultivation in their home countries, and the people who need it for medicinal reasons."

WITH A BONG IN HIS HEART



Head-shop owner has built a retail empire

BY IAN HARVEY

Dominic Cramer is running late. But when you preside over a growing retail empire rooted in marijuana, being time-challenged comes with the turf. Make no mistake, though, Cramer is no ordinary pothead.

The self-described entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist makes a living from the retail business of marijuana-related products, with four outlets and a fifth, an organic fair-trade coffee shop, opening in June in downtown Toronto. He's also a tireless crusader for the cannabis cause, Ontario director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), active with Canadians For Safe Access and co-founder of the Toronto Compassion Centre, which supplies marijuana for medicinal purposes to those with a doctor's prescription.

It's more than just a business: It's a vocation. (And it's why Cramer will be among the 10,000 people expected at Queen's Park today as part of the Global Marijuana March across 155 cities in 31 countries in a demonstration of support for marijuana legalization. It's the sixth year for the rally, which attracts crowds of 25,000 and more in such places as New York and London.)

"I was 21, right out of University of Toronto with a computer science and economics degree, and I was bored stiff," says Cramer, who grew up in Scarborough, one of a family of six who emigrated from the Caribbean 27 years ago. "I just wanted to do something for the environ- ment. I was intent on making a difference while making a living."

In 1994, using a $6,000 insurance settlement from a school-bus accident when he was nine, he opened a 200-square-foot store on a second-floor walk-up on Yonge Street. He specialized in hemp. "It was really just a little store to promote the industrial benefits of hemp," he says. "It was understood you couldn't make a living out of selling just hemp, so the other stuff, the bongs and pipes, were there as well because that side had to subsidize the hemp side."

Cramer stands about six feet tall, with his black hair cropped short and a trimmed full beard. The only nod to his apparent "counterculture" lifestyle is the tribal tattoo that grows around his right forearm. But even that, like pot itself, seems pretty mainstream these days.

If Cramer is stressed by the pace and headaches of running several businesses, articulating a cause and keeping himself together, he doesn't show it. He admits his career choice is a little odd, though retail came naturally. He worked at the family busi- ness, Midoco, an arts and office-supplies store on Bloor Street West and on Queen Street East in the Beaches. Still, he says, his parents and three siblings were less than enthusiastic about his shop's "crazy theme."

"It wasn't like today with designer clothes;' he laughs. "We had very little. Then it was all tie-dye and hippie frocks. It was pretty rudimentary."

Two and a half years ago, Cramer opened THC, on Yonge Street, one of the larger head shops in the city. On any given day, things are rocking: Music blasts out from the sound system, and the place is crammed with posters, hemp shirts and hemp caps, pipes, bongs, rolling papers, hemp granola and power bars and floor-to-ceiling shelves ripe with books on how to grow your own. The register rings up a steady flow of cash from customers as varied as skater kids in baggy shorts, preppy 30-something couples wheeling strollers and middle-aged men in suits.



(Picture caption: Dominic Cramer, with one of the elaborate pipes sold at his shops.)

Still, despite pot's encroachment into the mainstream, there's a danger involved in selling these materials. Though the courts have struck down a ban on magazines such as High Times and Cannabis Culture, it's technically illegal to sell pipes and other drug paraphernalia.

"It's a real risk;" says Alan Young, an Osgoode Hall law professor and long-time proponent of legalizing marijuana. "The law is still on the books, though large urban police forces don't bother."

But Cramer isn't perturbed by the threat of a $100,000 fine or six-month jail term. For him, it's about the cause.

"I'm always amazed at the people who come in," he says. "From high-school kids doing projects to little old ladies who want to talk about hemp cultivation in their home countries, and of course the people who need it for medicinal reasons:"

The latter drove him to help co-found the Toronto Compassion Club, where 1,500 or so members who use pot for medicinal purposes pick up their supply at wholesale prices. More important, they can get the strain - much like a wine varietal - they find helps them best.

"In the beginning, about 1997, Dom was very much involved, though in the background," Young says. "Really, then it consisted of Warren Hitzig on a skateboard delivering marijuana to sick people around the city."

For former corrections officer Alison Myrden, 41, of Burlington, Cramer has been a rock of support. "I smoke up to 20 grams of marijuana a day for the chronic pain associated with my progressive multiple sclerosis," she says. "It has helped me cut back on the morphine and pills. Dom has always been there, helping me:"

Cramer and his co-founders hung in with the TCC through ripoffs and police charges in 2002, court cases and withdrawal of the charges last year. "If he was in it just for the money he could have bailed out long ago and left us high and dry," Myrden says.

Over the years, Cramer has stepped from the shadows to the forefront, Young says, perhaps driven by his frustration at the slow pace of change. "He's not a wealthy man but he has some resources and ingenuity and is a credit to the movement, which has been often tarnished by having, can we say diplomatically, the wrong people in place in the past."

National Post



Unedited version from Ian:

Not your Average Pot Head
By Ian Harvey

Dominic Cramer is running late.

It’s no surprise to the staff at The Hemp Company, aka THC a head shop on Yonge St. They just smile and nod knowingly. When you preside over a growing empire rooted in marijuana, being time challenged just comes with the turf. Make no mistake, however, Cramer is no ordinary pot head.

He describes himself as an entrepreneur, activist, philanthropist and he’s making a living from the multi-million legal business of marijuana, catering to those who want bongs, pipes, papers, t-shirts and all things cannabis related.

In doings so, he’s put his mark indelibly on the streetscape of downtown Toronto with four business locations and a fifth, an organic-fair trade coffee shop, opening in June; He’s also a tireless crusader for the cannabis cause, Ontario director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and, co-founder of the Toronto Compassion Centre, which supplies marijuana to those who use it for medicinal purposes with a doctor’s prescription and other organizations like Canadians For Safe Access.

It’s more than just business. It’s a vocation. And it’s why he’ll be in the midst of things when 10,000 gather at Queen’s Park (Saturday May 7) as part of the Global Marijuana March across 155 cities in 31 countries in a demonstration of support for marijuana legalization. It’s the sixth years for the rally, which attracts crowds of 25,000 and more in places like New York and London, England.

Pot Is Mainstream

When we do meet at his still under-renovation coffee shop further south on Breadlebane, Cramer arrives at a half trot, arms piled high with boxes slipping from his grasp. His girlfriend Amanda takes up the vanguard position, their two dogs, Echo the boxer and Totoka the diminunitive Boston terrier in straining at their leashes.

“Hey, sorry,” he smiles with laid back charm. “Just got hung up in the west end.” He’s about six feet his black hair straight and cropped short, a millimeter or two long of a buzz cut and his full beard is similarly trimmed. Casually dressed, the only nod to his apparent “counter culture” lifestyle, the tribal tattoo which grows around his right forearm. But even that, like pot, itself, seems so mainstream these days.

We slip into the fully renovated and pristine premises and Cramer begins animatedly pointing out the main floor service area, the second floor meeting rooms and finally, the breezy rooftop patio. It’s a change of pace and a step away from the retail business he’s spent 11 years building, but it’s still a vocation and environmental homage: Organically grown coffee bought at fair market prices from producers paying fair working wages.

“It’s a zoo today,” he sighs, slumping into a chair, pausing long enough to catch his breath and settle the dogs down before his cell phone rings and, rolling his eyes, he answers. If he’s stressed by the pace, the headaches of running several businesses, articulating a cause and keeping himself together, Cramer doesn’t show it. His conversation is measured and sprinkled with drawn out interjections such as “absolutely” and “exactly.”

And he’s the first to admit his career choice – given his background – is a little odd.

Just Out of School

“I was 21, right out of University of Toronto with a computer science and economics degree and I was bored stiff,” he recalls growing up in the middle of white-bread, middle class suburbia in mid-Scarborough, Brimley and Huntingwood area, one of four kids who’d emigrated from the Caribbean 27 years ago. “I’d been in an accelerated high school program but never really achieved in the corporate sense, you know doctor, lawyer. I just wanted to do something for the environment, I was intent on making a difference while making a living.”

He used a small $6,000 insurance settlement following a school bus accident as a nine-year-old child to open a tiny 200 square foot store on the second floor walk up on Yonge St in 1994 specializing in hemp. “It was really just a little store to promote the industrial benefits of hemp,” he said. “It was understood you couldn’t make a living out of selling just hemp, so the other stuff, the bongs and pipes, were there as well because that side had to subsidize the hemp side.”

Retail came naturally to Cramer, having worked at the family business, Midoco an arts and office supplies, seasonal and games and toys store on Bloor St. West and on Queen Street East in the Beach. Still, he said, his parents and three siblings were less than enthusiastic at first, hoping for a more traditional route to success and not “my own crazy theme.”

“It wasn’t like today with designer clothes,” he laughs. “We had very little. Then it was all tie dye and hippy frocks, it was pretty rudimentary.”

Two and half years ago he opened THC on Yonge, one of the larger head shops. The old space now houses, the Herb Collective Garden Supply store, selling high intensity lights, soil-less mixes, and other accessories to equip those who want to grow plants in small urban environments. It’s also home to his Glass Art Studio – mostly making intricate bongs – and Hemp Museum, his continuing nod to the cause.

“They really don’t make money though,” he sighs, in a typical retailer lament. Across the street at THC, however, things are rocking: Music blasts out amid posters, $94 hemp shirts and $25 hemp caps, pipes of all shapes and sizes, $250 bongs, rolling papers, a veritable Library of Congress ripe with how-to-grow pot books, hemp granola and power bars. Keeping time with the tunes, the cash register rings up a steady flow of business from an eclectic assortment of customers. From skater kids in baggy shorts to a preppy 30’s something couple with a stroller, a man who apparently arrived by bike, helmet still in place, the customers are anything but stereotypical hippies or dope addled losers.

It’s no surprise because pot – and the attendant, pervasive cannabis culture – is not an alternative lifestyle. It’s mainstream. And that probably explains the modest risk. While the courts have struck down section 462’s ban on magazines such as High Times, or Cannabis Culture, it’s technically illegal to sell pipes and other drug paraphernalia.

“It’s a real risk,” said Osgoode Hall law professor Alan Young, a long time activist. “The law is stull on the books despite challenges though the good news is that large urban police forces don’t bother. It’s different though in rural areas. They still enforce it.”

About the Cause

Cramer however, isn’t perturbed by the threat of a $100,000 fine or six month jail term. For him, it’s about the cause.

“I’m always amazed at the people who come in,” he said. “From high school kids doing projects to little old ladies who want to talk about hemp cultivation in their home countries and of course the people who need it for medicinal reasons.”

The latter drove him to help co-found the Toronto Compassion Club where some 1,500 members who use pot for medicinal purposes drop by to pick up their supply at wholesale prices. More importantly they can get the strain – like a wine varietal – which they find helps them best.

“In the beginning, about 1997 and Dom was very much involved, though in the background. Really then it consisted of Warren Hitzig on a skateboard delivering marijuana to sick people around the city, said Young.

For former corrections officer, Alison Myrden, 41, Burlington, Cramer has been rock of support. “I smoke up to 20 grams of marijuana a day for the chronic pain associated with my progressive Multiple Sclerosis,” she said. “It has helped me cut back on the morphine and pills. Dom has always been there for me, helping me.”

It wasn’t easy. Cramer and co-founders hung in with TCC through rip offs and police charges in 2002, court cases and finally withdrawal of charges last year. “If he was in it just for the money he could have bailed out long ago and left us high and dry,” said Myrden.

Young, counsel to the Cramer and others from the TCC, said the case was going nowhere but the accused were “punished by the process.

“No jury will convict young people for helping sick people. But it took two years to resolve and they had all kinds of bail restrictions.”

Myrden is legally prescribed pot and was one of the first 100 members of the TCC. “I used to have to literally beg people for pot,” she said. “There was nothing here in Toronto and I used to beg the Vancouver Compassion Club to send me marijuana when I had none. For people like me the TCC is so important. Without people like Dom it wouldn’t happen.”

Over the years, Cramer stepped from the shadows to the forefront, says Young perhaps driven by his frustration at the slow pace of change.

Cramer, says Young, is an energetic entrepreneur and a strong voice for the lobby.

“He’s not a wealthy man but he has some resources and ingenuity and is a credit to the movement which has been often tarnished by having, can we say diplomatically, the wrong people in place in the past,” said Young.

An edited version of this story was published in the National Post May 7 2005.



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