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Holy Smoke Culture Shop is more than a small retail store in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. Three partners and dedicated activists Dustin Cantwell, Paul DeFelice, and Alan Middlemiss opened Holy Smoke October 15, 1996 intending for it to be more of a political action than a retail venture. Holy Smoke is a sanctuary and rally point for members of the cannabis using community and has been designated by the Church of the Universe as the Holy Smoke Mission of God.


Closing out a chapter on Nelson's COUNTER CULTURE
Written by Timothy Schafer, NELSON DAILY NEWS   
Tuesday, 14 October 2008


After a tumultuous year that could see two of the Holy Smoke Culture Shop's founders behind bars, the Hendryx street hub for the battle to legalize and legitimize marijuana is set to close at the end of the year. Before today's
sentencing in a Nelson court, Paul DeFelice and Alan Middlemiss talk about a decade of taking on the establishment and the passion that still burns...
A large crowd had gathered outside of the Nelson Court House.

It was a peaceful, amicable affair, warmed further by the glinting rays of the ridge-hugging fall sun, accentuated by red-hued leaves on courthouse vines and yellow frosting on neighbouring trees.

Nearly everyone had arrived to show support for the four men from the Holy Smoke Culture Shop, implicated last spring in a marijuana trafficking case. But it was less a protest and more a community gathering, people exchanging pleasantries and goodwill, feeling the vibe and enjoying each other's company.

Many of those same people had gathered for the last nine years at the shop on Hendryx Street, an arm of the city's counter culture. As the gavel prepares to drop on the sentencing for the four men, the shop sits poised to close its doors, 12 years after it opened.

Two of the three Holy Smoke partners - Paul DeFelice and Alan Middlemiss - are facing jail time as they prepare to hear their destination for the next six to 12 months delivered by Judge Don Sperry today.  It's a palpable conclusion to a  onsciousness-raising retail outlet that had an auspicious beginning Oct.15, 1996, but is now slated to close Dec. 31 as
the landlord prepares to sell the property.

Along with Dustin Cantwell, DeFelice and Middlemiss started the shop to give physical reprieve - a refuge from the feelings of repression counter culture folk were assailed by in the city - and create a front for the dissemination of information on everything from stopping clear cut logging practices to sustainable agriculture and the versatility of cannabis use.

Although the store started 12 years ago, the roots of Holy Smoke sink deeper back than that, back to when DeFelice first moved to Nelson in 1981.

At the time he was following the snow West as a powder hound from Sudbury, Ontario. He had been working as an architectural engineering tech in Calgary when repeated visits to Nelson prompted him to move and immerse himself in the heritage city's snow culture.

When he arrived he quickly made a name for himself at Whitewater, skiing for three years around the world in Warren Miller productions. Like many transplanted Kootenayites, he did whatever it took to stay at the time - hanging drywall, waiting tables - until he established himself.

His architectural background soon rose to the surface and he was instrumental in the revitalization of the heritage visage of Baker Street, being employed by several local firms - doing 200 such jobs since 1983.

By 1989 a life-changing episode drew DeFelice out of his self-imposed reclusiveness and focus on skiing, compelling him to become an activist for the environment, for humanity and for cannabis.

He had just been busted for growing pot, had his home broken into and his ire inflamed with the banning of the advocacy magazine for cannabis, High Times. His social conscience was being engaged.

"I thought, 'All I've been doing is skiing. I'm missing something here,' "he said about the revelation. "I had a new direction in life, I becamepro-Earth, pro-environment."

He realized the city was filled with interesting people - draft dodgers, artists, musicians, environmentalists, social justice leaders, hippies, free thinkers - and he got involved being an environmental activist.

In 1989 the city was also going through a life-changing episode, as bylaws were being created to stem the flood and curb the freedom of the counter culture folk who made the city renown.  Bylaws banning buskers, frisbees, bongos and dogs on Baker Street emerged.

Although cannabis had been a minor part of his life at that point, DeFelice's new awareness changed his view on the plant. He attended Grateful Dead concerts in Hamilton in 1990 and 1993, helping spread the word of the ancient bond humanity has with the herb.

It was at his first concert in 1990 that he realized there was a spirit of the 1960s still alive and going strong, that people were still finding a way to live alternative lifestyles.

It was in 1993 that he met Oshawa native Middlemiss in a hotel room packed with 24 people sharing a room for the concert. DeFelice had been passing out activist literature on cannabis and Middlemiss was impressed.

"I'd never heard of any use for cannabis other than smoking it. It was all new to me," he said.

When they met Cantwell at a screening of a Noam Chomsky film in Kaslo later, the three went on to do some legendary environmental work, becoming three of the nine founding members of the West Kootenay EcoSociety, taking part in
three blockades - one giving rise to the creation of the West Arm Provincial Park - and became politically active, DeFelice running for the federal Green Party in 1995.

In 1996 the Holy Smoke Culture Shop began as a notion and a need to secure a steady supply of quality rolling papers in the city. Nestled in a 180-square-foot room in the Front Street Emporium, the shop began dispensing rolling papers and literature, also acting as a Narc-Anon outlet for the office across the hall.

"We knew right away we were on to something and we needed a bigger space," recalled DeFelice.

After eight months business was too much for the room and the shop moved to Ward Street below the Express newspaper office. On Holy Smoke's first anniversary the Nelson city police busted the shop partners for trafficking.

The charges didn't stick as the police bungled the case and the judge dismissed it.

The main reason they never called the police about the dealers in the park next to their store on Hendryx - dealing pot to discourage them - was because they did not trust the police to treat them fairly.

Soon after the bust the city passed a bylaw requiring any shop selling hookahs, bongs or water pipes to pay a business licence of $1,000, up from the $50 of the day. Holy Smoke challenged the bylaw in court and the city backed down, settling out of court and striking (down) the bylaw.

The shop was struggling somewhat at that point but by 2000 it began to catch on as a place to hang out after the creation of a coffee shop-style setting.  After they allowed smoking on the premises, however, a complaint from the
upstairs tenant had the shop agreeing to be "evicted".

Holy Smoke then moved to a Hendryx Street location in 2000, in a space much more expensive and expansive than what they needed, but they struggled along, said DeFelice. Expenses were exceeding income and it was becoming clear that the business end of Holy Smoke wasn't working.

But the activist end of the shop was. Holy Smoke was one of the first head shops in Canada, said Middlemiss, and soon stores began to open in other communities, inspired in part by Holy Smoke. Other people began to challenge what was being touted as illegal, he said.

"We wanted to be part of that envelope that challenged laws and attitudes of the time," he said. "It has surprised us that we lasted 12 years on what was a political statement because none of us had any intention of selling retail."

The shop was the sum of the three men's activism and their activism forcannabis, said Middlemiss, it was never meant to be anchored to a physical location, or to retail.

"We wanted to make a rally point for people of our culture," he said.

The shop will officially close its doors on Dec. 31, but the smoke won't be clearing on the burning issues DeFelice, Middlemiss, and Cantwell have been raising in Nelson for nearly 20 years.

Closing the doors of Holy Smoke isn't admission of a defeat in any way, said DeFelice, because the landlord had intended to sell the building for some time. It was never about the shop, he said, it was only one spoke in the wheel of the message of awareness rolling out to people.

Both Middlemiss and DeFelice said they have every intention of appealing the court's decision and taking the case to the highest level of court they possibly can.

"The mission we had was to repeal cannabis prohibition," Middlemiss said "If we have to do advocacy from jail, we'll do that because we're in it to the point where there's no turning back."

The days of Holy Smoke retail enterprising may be over but the ideas and the messages emanating from the shop will continue, said Middlemiss, that cannabis is a gift from God, the Creator, from nature, it is food, fuel, fibre and medicine and could solve many problems.

Awareness work will continue on the Holysmoke.ca website and a non-profit cannabis activist centre or a mobile unit might be up and running while the appeal is being dealt with.

The reality today is Middlemiss and DeFelice are facing prison time, up to one year for selling marijuana from the shop. Although the justice system has caught and tried the men to the letter of the law, meting out an appropriate sentence, the issue of where cannabis stands in society remains unresolved.

In the end, what could have been a landmark case arguing for decriminalization - sending Holy Smoke out on a high note - turned out to be yet another cannabis trafficking case, playing out like countless others have across the country for years.

"The activist part of me keeps trying to remind myself that this (case) attracts attention to the cause, it gives us the platform for the message," said DeFelice.

"As crazy as it sounds pot can save the planet. Instead we've made it into another problem."


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 04 May 2010 )
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