Rosie Rowbotham: Canada's longest serving marijuana prisoner
[All uncredited photos: Rowbothan archives]
From the high-life at Rochdale College to PrisonLife Television, Rosie continues to fight for peace, love, and marijuana.
A time of change and growth
In 1967, Canada was booming with tremendous economic prosperity and cultural growth. The British Invasion dominated the rock music charts and shocked the conservative western world by singing about free love and flower power.
The Vietnam War was making Canada a haven for draft dodgers, while pot smoking and LSD tripping had become fashionable. Parents were faced with long-haired sons and braless daughters. Parties, jam sessions, free concerts, free love, and anti-war demonstrations were the talk of the youth, while Canada's charismatic Prime Minister even admitted to trying marijuana "in a foreign country!"
A skinny kid from Belleville
Amidst all this change and growth, a curly-haired, skinny kid from Belleville was hitch-hiking back and forth from his hometown to "the big smoke ? Toronto."
Toronto's Yorkdale was alive and thriving with beatniks and hippies. With his infectious sense of humor and boundless energy, the kid had friends and compadres throughout the province of Ontario. There was always a party, always a new date, always an adventure to be pursued. Life was pretty free and easy as a small-town high school student and small-time marijuana merchant.
Life couldn't have been better for the kid, until Good Friday ? March 1967, when he heard for the first time:
"Hands in the air, you're under arrest!"
The first bust
Robert W Rowbotham, better known as Rosie, was charged and convicted of trafficking marijuana at seventeen years of age, and sentenced to thirty days in provincial jail.
Little did he know that this would mark the start of an interaction with the legal system that would dominate his adult life for the next thirty years.
Jail and itchy feet
"That first week in the Belleville bucket and then three weeks in Birch Rapids were the worst 'bit' in my life, bar none," remembers Rosie. "I was alone and completely out of place in jail. After the jail experience I couldn't get my head back into school, or Belleville. My feet were itchy."
The free arts school
A free art school had recently opened in downtown Toronto and would soon have an international reputation. Rochdale College was "a Mecca of free-thought and expression" where the only criteria to enroll were open and unjudgemental thinking.
Many artists and musicians attended the campus, and Rosie fit into this environment perfectly, enjoying the combination of exciting parties, liberal debate and thinking, and meeting exotic young people from all over the world.
"It certainly wasn't a traditionally dry educational facility," remembers Rosie, "it was a mosaic of culture, art, music, expression and inspiration. We wanted to make a difference in the world, and we did!
"There was this incredible mix of young people from all walks of life, from all over the world. There wasn't the violence and tension of the nineties. Kids today think we were joking when they hear we were saying things like peace, love and groovy. But we lived it, believed in it!"
The Free Drug Supermarket
David Sharpe, in his book Rochdale: The Runaway College, describes the Rochdale phenomenon: "In the late-Sixties, young idealists and rebels, eight hundred at a time, were given full control of an eighteen-story high-rise in the heart of English Canada's largest city.
"Rochdale College was an untested, bold idea on Bloor Street at the edge of the University of Toronto campus, a ten-minute walk from the Ontario Legislature. Rochdale College, a twin tower of raw concrete and straight lines that, in its second year of operation in 1970, was the largest co-operative student residence in North America, the largest of the more than 300 free universities in North America, and soon to be known across the country as the largest drug supermarket in North America."
A naive public service
"The drug dealing was far from an elaborate scheme," recalls Rosie, "but more of an extension of the times. There were young people from all over the world talking, debating, protesting, and basically growing up around Rochdale. The American draft dodgers had few options when it came to making money, and they seemed to have contacts all over the continent.
"I was the local boy who knew how to get things done, not to mention I never missed a good party. In contrast to the sleazy speed-dealers of the time, people could come to Rochdale and get a good, fair deal, with no chance of rip-offs or violence. We weren't out to hurt anyone. In a way, we viewed it as providing a youthfully naive public service with an element of adventure. We were just hippies having fun."
A unique agreement
In 1972, a rare yet significant event occurred in Rochdale and most of Eastern Canada, known to cannabis culture as "a drought." Searching for a marijuana supply, Rosie traveled to Vancouver at the urging of a "cronie" from Rochdale. Much to their pleasure, one of BC's earliest motorcycle clubs had a good connection for Mexican marijuana, as well as the contacts to have it transported across the US border.
At this time, "bikers" and "hippies" were generally adversaries and would rarely interact. Rosie, with his charm and charisma, was able to bridge these social boundaries. A unique agreement was negotiated between the leather-clad "greasy bikers" and Rosie's "tie-dyed hippies."
The first marijuana fortune
The first few loads were suitcases of pot carried from Canada's west coast to Toronto, by hippies on buses and trains. As demand increased, a convoy of vans began criss-crossing the country, fully loaded with Mexican "mini-bricks," feeding Eastern Canadian ravenous thirst for reefer.
The international dynamic of Rochdale, meant that orders soon began to come in from all across Canada and the United States. Through the distribution of this Mexican marijuana, Rosie made his first marijuana fortune, as well as solidifying very profitable contacts throughout much of North America.
In a very short period of time, Rosie and his Rochdale "crew of hippies" had progressed in the international marijuana business, from nickel-bags, to pounds, to tons.
A friend rolls in
At this point in the tale, a young American journalist named Richard Stratton came to the internationally-renowned Rochdale, to write a story for Rolling Stone Magazine. Stratton sought the help of the popular Rosie, and after the Rolling Stone article they made over a dozen submissions to High Times Magazine, and became the best of friends.
"Rosie was charismatic and intelligent," says Stratton. "He had a belief in the marijuana subculture. It was a philosophy that he was actually living. He made moral choices and he was a moral outlaw. He was not a criminal."
Before long he and his new-found literary partner were also capitalizing on some "alternative marketing projects." Richard had some big contacts throughout the US, and Rosie knew world-wide suppliers. They had product, market, and no shortage of volunteers to look after the transportation. In no time they needed electronic money counters!
Hippie Drug Barons
The outspoken pair seemed to have a profound affect on all they encountered, and they attracted the attention of many notable social, musical, and literary leaders of the time. They were walking in quite noble steps for a couple of "Hippie Drug Barons."
Members of the Black Panther Party visited Toronto and looked up the hippie leaders for local support for their controversial movement. Pulitzer prize winning author Norman Mailer, poet Allan Ginsberg, and rock stars such as Alice Cooper, Steve Miller, and members of the band "Free" could be seen partying at Rochdale, after concerts that were organized by the entrepreneurial Rosie and his Rochdale following.
After one such show, Rosie received a lifetime ban from a popular Japanese restaurant for pouring five grams of hash oil onto the grill while dining with Alice Cooper. Word was out, far and wide, "there is a non-stop party on Bloor Street in Toronto! Everybody's there!"
On January 8, 1974, at 5:30am, (the exact time the Kahoutek Comet was closest to earth), Rosie's door crashed in and the party was over. He was charged with conspiracy to import a ton of hashish at Pearson International Airport. Rosie spent the next year held in custody pending trial, and he has never been out of jail or off parole since.
14 years for Errol Flynn
The super-popular Toronto CHUM rock station saluted Rosie in support on a regular basis as the case against him mounted. Controversially, Rosie maintained he would never change his views on marijuana, regardless of being faced with prison.
Norman Mailer, the day after presenting an Oscar at the Academy Awards, appeared as a character witness at his trial. "It is bad for karma and bad for the cosmos to put Robert in jail," testified Mailer. "He should not be condemned as a common criminal? I look at him more like a modern day rapscallion rogue, like Errol Flynn as Captain Blood."
Much the shock of all, Rosie was sentenced to fourteen years in prison for conspiracy to import, and "The Hippie Godfather" found himself in a completely foreign environment as a federal prisoner. Yet by using his natural diplomacy, he adapted and he maintained.
After being processed in the gothic Kingston Penitentiary, Rosie was transferred to one of Canada's toughest prisons, the new Millhaven Maximum Security Institution. Although allegedly one of Canada's largest marijuana dealers, Rosie had never been charged with a violent offence, yet he was housed with Canada's most violent convicts.
After a year, he was transferred to the Medium Security Collin's Bay Institution. The second day he was there, a riot broke out leaving two guards killed and one wounded. A far cry from the "peace, love and groovy" atmosphere of Rochdale.
Steve Reid, noted author of "Jack-Rabbit Parole," his fictionalized account of being a part of the infamous "Stop Watch Gang", remembers the initial arrival of Rosie:
"Into the yard arrives a young, skinny combination of Albert Einstein and a Fabulous Furry Freak Brother. Before long he had most of us laughing with his great sense of humor and charm. He reminds me of a character from a Tom Wolfe or a Ken Kesey novel. He's a fun-loving trickster who always brings out the kid in everyone he meets. He very much personifies the Sixties, yet had no problem integrating into the stoic prison environment."
Freedom and an education
In 1980, after four years in federal custody, Rosie was released on an appeal filed by the famous Toronto lawyer and media personality Edward Greenspan.
Although the time in prison could never be recovered, Rosie had taken the opportunity to not only complete his High School Diploma, but also earn a Diploma in Business Administration from Seneca College. He graduated at the top of his class.
Rosie had gained an education and his freedom, but the outside life he had left was in a shambles. His relationship with his wife and three children was over. Rochdale had long since closed and many of the old-time "hippies" were now aspiring "yuppies."
He was on his own, until he ran into his old friend, Richard Stratton.
Back in business
While Rosie had been inside, his old pal Richard Stratton had continued to be busy. His operation had prospered and now spanned most of the world. He lived a life of fast cars, women, and Learjets. He clearly remembered the old friend who had helped get him started, and before long they had teamed up again as "partners in crime."
Through a Middle Eastern contact they arranged an eight ton load of hashish from war-torn Lebanon and the Christian Falangist Army. Not an easy feat with a bloody civil war being waged, and every major military power in the world closely monitoring the situation.
The Israeli Army contracted the Christian Falangist's to undertake missions not politically correct for Israel. No questions were asked as to their source of funding for arms.
An old rusty trawler, loaded with eight tons of hashish and five hundred pounds of hash oil, chugged its way through the US Seventh Fleet, enroute to New York. The CIA had made arrangements for the military to turn "a blind eye," and also had the co-operation of the Drug Enforcement Agency in the United States.
After moneys were transferred to pay for the cargo, arrests were made. So the Lebanese mercenary army got their money, and the police a high-profile drug seizure.
Much to the surprise of the agents who raided the dockside warehouses, only one and a half tons of the original eight tons of hashish remained. The authorities were livid, and when demands for the balance of the illegal cargo were ignored, they vowed revenge in the courts.
20 years with Neil Young
Rosie again found himself fighting the state over cannabis products. He consistently maintained that archaic prohibition laws were the problem, not him or a harmless plant. Many Rowbotham supporters filled the courtroom and gathered outside the building to offer their support. Famous Canadian rock star Neil Young appeared as a character witness prior to sentencing.
"These men didn't cross any moral lines," stated Young. "They didn't sell hard drugs and didn't hurt anyone. I smoke grass daily and I pay more taxes in a year than this whole courtroom combined."
The judge did not find this high profile admission amusing and was openly critical of the rock star's opinion of pot smoking. Federal prosecutors requested a life sentence as well as a $500,000 fine.
Rosie got twenty years. Richard had gotten twenty-five in the US.
Learning the hard way
Faced with an extreme sentence, Rosie again became immersed with education. Between 1986 and 1989 he completed a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology with honors, from Queens University. Although incarcerated, he maintained his commitment to civil liberties and social reforms and often challenged laws and set precedents in Canada's Federal Courts.
His own personal appeals and retrials are overwhelming in number and complexity. Any law student will be able to recite numerous Supreme Court Decisions named "Regina vs. Rowbotham." The Hippie Godfather again made his mark, this time in the law books!
After an eight-year war with the system, Rosie's friend Richard Stratton won his appeal and was released from federal prison. While imprisoned he wrote a book called "Smack Goddess," and upon regaining his freedom returned to his career as a writer, which had gone on quite a tangent since the Rochdale Rolling Stone article.
Richard married Kim Wozencraft, a former Texas Police Officer and celebrated author. After refusing to falsify testimony and admitting to using drugs herself in order to infiltrate the drug world, all with full knowledge of her superiors, Kim herself was sentenced to one year in prison. Her highly acclaimed autobiographical book "Rush" was made into a major motion picture.
Voice of the Convicted
Inspired by experiencing prison first hand, Richard and Kim launched a publication called "PrisonLife Magazine." They approached the idea with commitment and professionalism and produced a glossy, hard-hitting, and out-spoken publication dubbed "The Voice of the Convicted."
In order to offer an international flair, Richard and Rosie re-united, in a legal business. From within federal prison, Rosie became Canadian Managing Editor of "PrisonLife Magazine."
"This magazine will tell people what really goes on behind bars. And it will prove that prisoners have a lot to say."
? Robert Rowbotham, Toronto Star, April 1995
"Prisoners have the right to hope, they have a right to opportunities that will enable them to change the behavior that led them to crime, and they have a right to re-enter society after they've done their time. Prisoners have a right to become welcome members of society instead of brutalized and brutal outcasts."
? Rich ard Stratton, Newsweek, Oct. 1994
Rosie takes the reins
Shortly after Rosie took on PrisonLife Magazine, in the mid-summer of 1995, a unique advertisement appeared in the local Kingston, Ontario "Whig-Standard" newspaper: "Talented, self-confident, out-going, and incarcerated."
A five year-old TV show produced by Kingston Cablenet called "CONtact," needed a new host. Rosie was no stranger to either the media, those involuntarily "housed" within the system, or prison officials.
Rosie took the reins of the program, later to be renamed "PrisonLife Television". There was no looking back.
PrisonLife Television was structured as a weekly talk-show, focussed on dispelling myths about the criminal justice system. The crew and host of the show consisted primarily of prisoners on passes from area federal institutions. Prisoners, wardens, politicans, lawyers, and journalists were some of the varied guests.
Of note were interviews with Guy Paul Morin, who was falsely incarcerated for murder; Ole Instrup, the head of the Correctional Service of Canada; Willie Gibbs, National Parole Board Chairman; Art Hanger, Canadian Reform Party President; Tony Bryant, Paul Bernardo's lawyer; and Kirk Makin, author and Globe and Mail journalist.
Another distinguished guest was Rosie's longtime friend and former Millhaven and Collins Bay "neighbor" Rick Sauve. Rosie and Rick had attended Queen's University classes together, and now Rick works with teenage youth as a counselor.
Sauve's controversial story has been discussed in Nick Lowe's "Conspiracy of Brothers," and Steve Earle's popular song "Justice in Ontario." A former Satan's Choice biker, he is the first Ontario federal prisoner to receive full benefits from a judicial fifteen year review.
Sex offenders in prison
A particularly informative episode of PrisonLife Television covered the controversial subject of "Sex offenders in Prison." Dr William Marshall was the guest, an expert in the development of successful treatment programs for adult sex offenders.
Rosie sadly confided tragedy in his own life during the program: the abuse of two of his children, as well as the murder of his brother David, all during his incarceration.
"To be separated from your children is a painful reality for prisoners. To be locked behind a fence, unable to reach out, when my children were so severely suffering, most certainly were the worst moments of almost twenty years of incarceration. My goal was to educate and be educated by interviewing Dr Marshall."
Growing media attention
Media attention for both Rosie and Prison Life continues to grow, and attracts journalists from throughout North America. The "who's who" of press, radio and television have conducted interviews and documentaries surrounding Rosie's projects, including MacLean's Magazine, The Globe and Mail, and The New York Times. For the first time, consideration is being given to the prisoner's perspective on many issues.
Over time, as crime and punishment stories break in the mainstream media, Rosie's comments and perspective have begun to be requested more and more often. The added bonus is that with Rosie, there is always an added laugh or two along the way!
Free at last!
On October 6, 1997, the Kingston "Whig-Standard" newspaper ran a front page article with the headline, "Rowbotham Finally Free!"
After close to nineteen years of incarceration for trafficking in cannabis, Rosie walked out of Frontenac Institution in Kingston, Ontario, to continue his sentence on parole, at a halfway house in Toronto. Not completely free, but on his way.
Many would want to take some time and just relax and gradually re-integrate into the world. Needless to say, much has changed but not Rosie.
"I've had nineteen years to relax. It's time to get on with life," Rosie comments with determination.
The CBC's first ex-con
On day two of his new-found freedom he was a guest of Michael Enright on CBC's nationally broadcast show "This Morning". He made such an impression with the producers that they offered him a job. For the first time in Canadian history, CBC National Radio has a ex-con broadcaster focusing on prisoner issues.
His first three interviews were with his friend Guy Paul Morin, Chinese dissident Harry Wu, and an expose on money-laundering with Professor of Economics Michel Chossudovsky. The programs were an overwhelming success and received praise from both mainstream listeners and CBC Radio Executives, and hearty encouragement for the future.
Meetings with successful Canadian film and television executives John Brunton and John L'Ecuyer have Rosie close to securing a deal for "PrisonLife Television," on the commercial airwaves. Negotiations are pending with HBO documentary producers for potential film projects. Rosie is forging a new career in the media based on his many life experiences.
A wink and a smile
"As always, I'm committed to my values and encouraging social change. This time not as a rebel, or a modern-day drug pirate, but as a member of the media. This country of ours is a great place to live, but we've always got to work to make it better. I've got lots to say and I'm not shy," concludes Rosie, with a wink and a smile.
Rosie is a partner with Thomas Mann in a firm called "PrisonLife Media" mandated to dispel myths by "Communicating Unique Issues and Perspectives on the Justice System."
PrisonLife Media, Thomas Mann ? Robert (Rosie) Rowbotham: Box 55022, Ottawa, Ontario, K1P 1A1; tel (819) 827-2035; fax (819) 827-5929; email: firstname.lastname@example.org