MONTREAL -- It's sort of amusing that Toronto's dailies have been running scary stories about the Hells Angel's advance on T.O., when we here in la belle province have been living among them forever.
Journalistic rumour warns that the notorious bikers control every vice biz they touch, but take it from Montreal's independent pot entrepreneurs -- the Angels don't own everything.
Quebec gold It may be more difficult to manoeuvre when a bike gang's sharing your turf, but an army of local farmers, gardeners and crafty distributors, boosted by a considerable degree of law enforcement tolerance, are filling the market with a flood of Angels-free Quebec gold.
And these operators are growing increasingly respectable and businesslike about wooing and maintaining their customer base.
Take Monsieur Blanc (whose name has been changed for obvious reasons). A former business student, he works from noon to midnight five days a week, out of a rented Toyota. The tools of his trade are three cellphones -- one for export, another for import and one for his partner. After a month, he disassembles each phone and tosses the pieces into the river.
"Part of the overhead," he laughs.
We talk on the condition that if a phone rings, I'll step out of the car. As we speak, he's engineering a 160-kilo transaction between one enterprise owned by Jamaicans and another of mixed Puerto Rican-Colombians. After eight calls in 90 minutes, the strain is showing.
Monsieur Blanc's original plan of becoming a math teacher came to an abrupt end when he was arrested for possession during his second year at the University of Montreal. He made a career switch and has now spent 15 highly successful years in the marijuana trade.
"I like the freedom marijuana gives me," he says. "Some days I work more than a regular job, but I control my own agenda. It's a hard job, with beaucoup stress, but somebody has to do it and somebody's going to do it. Why not me?
"I do my job honestly, and I'm a big part of the economy. I create jobs," he says, pointing out that he began exporting to Ontario last year and brought over $1 million back to Quebec, which he says goes to farmers, workers and local retailers.
It's impossible to say how many work in the industry, but Monsieur Blanc tells me of one village near Montreal where he estimates that over 60 per cent of the population earn their livelihood directly or indirectly from marijuana.
Better standard "These people buy skidoos, boats renovate their homes and start businesses," he says. "They eat better, and have a better standard of living, all because of marijuana."
The region southeast of Montreal, known in both police and pot circles as the Golden Triangle, boasts a warm microclimate ideal for growing marijuana. Most pot grown here, which sells at $1,800 a pound locally, winds up going for $3,500 on the streets of New York, where it's dubbed "Quebec Gold."
Dana Larsen, editor of Vancouver's Cannabis Culture magazine, says pot growers should do more aggressive marketing. He has vague recollections of trying Quebec pot during last year's Cannabis Cup festivities in Amsterdam. "It was pretty damn good," he says, "certainly comparable to any of the stuff we're growing out here in BC."
It may not carry a connoisseur's label, but Quebec pot is being marketed by savvy entrepreneurs.
Monsieur Rouge (whose name has also been changed) is a cannabis capitalist of a different stripe and scale, catering to private parties, vernissages and visiting rock stars by appointment only.
With his hip-length ponytail and granny glasses, he could be a throwback to the glory days of Expo 67, when an ounce of Mexican stems and seeds went for $20 in the McGill ghetto.
"I'm just a mid-level businessman doing business with like-minded friends," he asserts. "And my vocation in life is to provide my friends with quality product at reasonable prices, although prices seem to be less of an issue these days.
"Accessibility is more important," he says. "No one wants to go all over town to get pot, so I deliver."
His business card includes a pager number. You call, leave your number and within five minutes someone calls back. You then give your address, state how much product you want, and a short time later Monsieur Rouge is at your door.
"Pot answers to the same laws as any other market," he explains, "and business right now is very good. It's going for around $3,000 a pound, but in a few weeks it'll climb to $3,500. For the consumer, though, prices should remain fairly consistent at around $10 a gram."
He credits a crackdown along the U.S.-Quebec border.
"The way the U.S. has been flipping out, it's getting too dangerous to ship weed south, so a lot of the really good shit is staying here."
Since this is as competitive a business as any, to retain old clients and attract new, Monsieur Rouge occasionally resorts to weekend specials of five grams for $40, with an extra pre-rolled joint thrown in.
And while the sales operators strive to please, local police seem to keep a low profile. Smoking up safely in Montreal is mainly a question of discretion.
"We still arrest people here for marijuana," says police spokesperson Sylvie Latour. But she adds, "Of course, officers always have discretionary powers and may choose to advise violators of the law rather than arrest them."
Last February, police raided Montreal's Compassion Club, which provides medical pot to the sick and dying. Two individuals were arrested for trafficking, but even people on the force were not thrilled with the bust. "It's not something I would want to put on my resume," says the senior officer in charge.
The club operated directly across from a major police station, leaving police little choice. It has since resumed operations, and while investigations continue, inspector Andre Lapointe of the morality squad concedes it's a losing battle.
"I'm not going to be putting 50 men on their case."
In terms of biker involvement -- even police have trouble figuring out the full extent that it occurs.
"Most of the big hydroponic productions are now controlled by biker gangs," says sergeant Richard Bourdon of the Surete du Quebec's anti-biker Wolverine Squad.
Outlaw clubs "Mostly, it's in the hands of the Hells," he says, "but it's impossible to say what percentage of their activities are marijuana-related. We do know that marijuana has become their most important source of revenue, much more than cocaine, hashish and heroin ever were."
There are indeed six full-coloured Hell's Angels chapters and seven affiliate outlaw motorcycle clubs in Quebec, scattered from Chicoutimi to the Eastern Townships.
When the Angels began selling drugs in rival Rock Machine territory in 1993, the Machine responded with the first shots in a war that continues to this day, and has so far resulted in more than 150 homicides, as many murder attempts and 200 bombing and arson incidents.
But independent pot dealers are quick to dismiss police and media reports linking everyone in the marijuana trade to the gangs.
"This idea of tagging every Quebec marijuana worker a biker is nothing short of pharmaceutical McCarthyism," says Rouge.
Most marijuana here, says Blanc, "is grown by 50 or 60 independent groups. Between groups, someone knows or is related to someone in the other group -- everybody is somebody's middleman."
"As for the bikers," he says, "if they want to control heroin and coke, fine, let them. But no matter what anyone says, nobody -- not the government, not the bikers, nor the police -- controls marijuana here in Quebec."