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Dom Cramer: The Business of Compassion

Dom Cramer: The Business of Compassion

This article appears in Volume 5 – Issue 4 of SKUNK Magazine.

WEIRD TONES  limp after me down the sidewalk in Toronto, Ontario. Voices come out of doorways spouting different languages, different music and various smells that give downtown the chaotic feeling of some third world cesspool while the sheen of urban living shines above in the cutting-edge architecture.

pic Chad Nance

Toronto is every-city. New York, Rome, London, Beirut along with other urban profiles can be found in this modern metropolis of 2.48 million. I find the street I’m looking for- Yonge St.- Weed Central for the Canadian dope scene and a growing world center for cutting edge genetics. Exactly the kind of place I want to be.

My appointment with “The Mayor of Yongesterdam”, Dominic Cramer, is under weird conditions. Cramer owns and operates two top-notch compassion clubs (TCC) and the Toronto Hemp Company (THC). Then there’s also a vapo lounge, the Kindred Café, a seed store called Sacred Seeds and, to top it off, a pro-jock glass blowing outfit called VCN Glass. These businesses are the throbbing heart of the Toronto pot scene but because of the momentarily focused attentions of local law enforcement, Cramer finds himself unable to set foot into any of them. These are the conditions of his bond… Cramer can go nowhere near the businesses he owns that have anything to do with marijuana. Obeying this strict, and unreasonable, demand by the authorities is why I am meeting him and his major domo, Chad Cooke, on the sidewalk in front of THC.

Dominic Cramer is one of the city’s most dynamic young entrepreneurs. Starting in 1994 with the opening of the original Toronto Hemp Company, Cramer has managed to create a business model that isn’t just economically sturdy, but also allows Cramer a chance to inflict real, positive change in his chosen community. While there are plenty of pot entrepreneurs/activists involved in the up-front business of the weed culture, Cramer seems to operate with a level of class and integrity sorely lacking; a low-key brand of human being who doesn’t seem to feel the need to prostrate himself on the bloody cross of public martyrdom. In fact it is just that sort of low-key game plan that, until recently, had kept Cramer from being hassled by the police.

Just the day before I met Cramer, I had been in downtown Toronto for the Freedom Fest, where everyone was getting down like the States have never seen; openly carrying around still-smoking bongs, pipes and joints. One kid approached me and shared a smoke out of one of the Vortex bongs that the SKUNK staff provided. There were Toronto cops just a few feet away when this guy pulls out a massive sack of weed. A day later I am talking to Cramer and he tells me all about PROJECT BLENDER, the police sting operation that took him down for allegedly employing someone who sold a dope-tainted milkshake to an undercover. How can that sort of open dope ownership and use be going on literally in front of a policeman while a guy like Dom gets busted for a pot shake? For that matter, how can Dom‘s vapo lounge and café NOT be busted when there is open smoking knowingly going on at both places?

Toronto attorney Alan Young has distinguished himself as the major licensed defender of the cause in Canada by representing marijuana activists and growers alike. He represented Canadian activist/pot entrepreneur, Marc Emery, during his recent legal troubles, and now Cramer.

pic Chad Nance

“Because, like the United States, we are under British Legal Heritage,” Young tells me. “That means that there is discretionary prosecution. There are still 70,000 possession charges a year in Canada even though the enforcement of marijuana laws are a low priority.” Apparently the police here are fairly cool about things until you, as Young put it, “Push it in their face.” This might bring us to the real reason Dominic Cramer is being prosecuted… he is drawing attention to himself and the area now known as Yongesterdam. While I was walking down the sidewalk there I saw a beat-up, old school bus go by with a sign in the window that read, “Yongesterdam Tours”. This was the same kind of tacky bullshit that contributed to the ruining of the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco in the 1960’s and it just might be doing a number on our friends in Toronto.

Mark Emery coined the name Yongesterdam, but it is Cramer who really personifies the area. Just like its namesake the days of liberty might be numbered by its public profile. The right wing government in Holland has been putting a serious crimp in the free-for-all that had previously turned Amsterdam into a weed tourist mecca. There is a real danger for Dominic Cramer and the scene to find itself so popular that Canadian authorities are forced to do something… they may have already begun. Can Yongesterdam be saved? Yes, according to Professor Young, “Unless we blow it by being
too forceful.”

Cramer was born outside of Toronto in St. Christopher but spent most of his formative years in the suburban sameness of Scarborough. Smart as a whip, the young Cramer skipped a year in school, went to college, then finally popped out onto the Toronto streets with the desire to start his own business. He read an article online in which Marc Emery bemoaned the fact that there were no serious hemp-based businesses in Toronto. Cramer saw his opening. It was 1994 and THC was the only game in town run out of a 200 square foot walk-up just a couple of blocks south of the current location. He opened the original store with $9,000 he had received because of a bus accident he had been in when he was just nine. Eight months after opening, THC was moved to its current location, which houses 75,000 square feet of hemp retail on three floors. “When I got into this, I wasn’t really into the weed culture. There was no med-pot thing. It was the hemp, not the pipes and weed gear. I wanted to do good for the environment,” Cramer told me over Guinness at a local pub.

“It was once I got involved that I started to get interested in medical marijuana. It was not about making money because there is none to be made. It is about helping people.” By 1997, Cramer was already partnering in a medical marijuana operation. “It was basically patients approaching me that slowly put me into the med thing.” When Cramer and his then partner got their med-pot op cranked up the entire gig was basically a guy on roller blades being pulled around by a snarling, slobbering Rottweiler named Utah that acted as locomotion and personal protection. By 2002, they were in a rough location and a robbery led to a bust, then Cramer’s partner was out of the picture. “When we were robbed the police found a ton of weed. Real battering rams, ’down on your face’, throw your ass in jail kind of stuff.” The same year, he took over sole control of the Toronto Compassion Clubs and Cramer also started up a genetics outlet called Sacred Seeds. The compassion clubs were a focus of Cramer’s energy with the cause of getting sick folks their medicine occupying more and more of his time. “I opened them up [compassion clubs] because nobody does it right. They open them up. They fuck it up. So there is a niche to be filled.”

pic Chad Nance

I asked Professor Young why the police would spend time and attention going after Cramer because of a relatively small amount of pot at the Kindred while hundreds of pounds of it pass through the doors of the two TCC locations on a daily basis. He pointed out that in Canada it would be a public relations nightmare for the authorities. “It is a complete lose/lose because not a lot of juries will convict a kid that is helping sick people.” The wide scope of Cramer’s businesses offer him up as a softer target for local police trying to make a point.

Chad Cooke is a compact, wiry guy with the nervous, type-A vibe usually found in the music promotions business. He runs Cramer’s day-to-day operations and works as a media rep in the spare time he doesn’t have. He maintains a brutal schedule akin to the 90-hour workweek one would expect to find in “straight” jobs. The truth about the weed business is: while it is incredibly fast-paced and high tech, the way these boys do it, most of the 24/7 bullshit that comes along with it is no different from any other small business. I spent two days with Cramer and Cooke and 98% of the business related conversations they had were about cost issues, payroll issues and supply issues, or, the same kind of interpersonal personnel problems one might find in a local T-Shirt shop & record store. Cooke also suffers from Crohn’s Disease. I only mention this because, like 100% of the TCC workforce, he is also a patient. This sort of attention to detail is what sets Cramer’s operations apart from many others. Chad walked me over to the recently opened Maitland location of TCC that exists inside of a classy looking duplex in the primarily LBGT populated neighborhood around Church Street.

Rather than some of the rundown, sleazy conditions I have seen in California buyers clubs, the new location looks open and clean like a privately owned art gallery in an urban neighborhood. As a patient you will have had to call ahead for an appointment. There are no walk-ups- no exceptions. When you first enter TCC you will find yourself in a small vestibule room with a security camera looking down on you. If you are carrying a membership card you hold it up and the receptionist buzzes you in. No one allowed in without one – no exceptions. The lobby is a completely open space with a few art instillations, a row of plastic waiting room style chairs and a table where donations of goods and cash can be left for a local food bank that provides food and other services for homebound HIV patients.

The receptionist will check your ID and your script there. Wait your turn to actually go into the buyers club itself. Once inside there are friendly folks who help figure out exactly what is needed based on the symptoms a particular patient is trying to treat. There are different grades of pot separated by strain. Plenty of edibles are behind the glass with everything from simple brownies to tablets and aerosols. There is no sniggering here. No Cheech and Chong posters on the walls or reggae music on the overhead. As serious and professional as your local pharmacist, these folks are dedicated to the business of helping sick people feel better.

To become a member of one of the TCC clubs you must first have a legal script. Personnel at TCC will then phone the prescribing physician to discuss the purpose of direction of the care for the patient. Medical records are kept on each patient so that they can be transferred to another buyer’s club if the patient relocates in the future. After they are accepted, each new patient must go through orientation, just to make sure that the patient knows what they are doing when they walk in the door. I was privileged to watch Cooke complete an orientation with a new patient. Even though the patient had already been vetted and had a script there was another questionnaire to fill out. Besides the educational benefit of giving each patient this sort of private attention it is also an opportunity for TCC personnel to evaluate the patient so as to better serve their needs. “The members are important to us,” Cooke told me later. “Their needs are our primary concern.”

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Cooke’s tone during the orientation was serious and direct. He gave the patient a handout called “Know Your Marijuana” for them to follow along. After going over strains and basics like the difference between indicas and sativa, Cooke laid down the law. “Above all else you cannot re-sell your medicine. We WILL find out.” Professor Young told me that the only reason Canadian law enforcement will go after a buyer’s club is if they catch people dealing around them or dealing drugs previously purchased in them.

“…the kind of douchebags out there who go around bragging about having compassion club weed. We catch them every time,” Cooke said. He told me about a recent situation where he got a frantic phone call from the parent of a 13-year-old boy. The parent had found a bag of seriously high-grade medicine in their child’s drawer. The dumbass who sold it to the kid left it in its original package that not only included the name and phone number of TCC, it also included the patient number. Their membership was immediately revoked.

Locating the club on Maitland was important to Cramer. “We needed a Yongesterdam, downtown location. This was our area. I offered the landlords twice as much as they wanted for the space. I mean, it’s accessible to the gay community, HIV patients, the hospital and the subway.” Compassion clubs walk a thin line with the surrounding community. “You don’t want to be loud and screaming, but also not seem to be hiding,” Cooke said. TCC makes sure there is no dealing going on near their clubs. They also become involved in community activities and are careful to maintain their property in a way that reflects well on TCC as well as Cramer, himself. “We are here to make sure we show a certain face. The days of flag waving, bong smoking demonstrations- it’s been done. We stay away from that,” Cooke stated.

Things have been going well for Dominic Cramer. His businesses are successful, he’s been seeing the same woman for eleven years, and he has a solid guy like Cooke watching his back. Celebrities like Bill Maher and The Kings of Leon frequent his café when they are in Toronto and the money is pretty good… Then came November 20, 2008. That was the day that a four-month “investigation” by local law enforcement resulted in an employee at Kindred Café allegedly selling a weed-laced milkshake to LEO. “I was at the cottage and had to come back to turn myself in. Three hours away in the middle of nowhere and I had to come back.”

Cramer was released under the conditions and restrictions that stipulated he couldn’t go around marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia. Cramer is sticking to those agreements even though he doesn’t agree with the charges or marijuana laws in the first place. “I can’t afford to have a criminal record to continue to get business licenses.” A bad outcome here could ruin Dominic Cramer’s career. Yongesterdam itself might hang in the balance so every move Cramer and Young make until the resolution of the case is critical. “I think it is in everyone’s interest to resolve this without a lengthy trial,” Professor Young told me. “I pick my battles carefully and this doesn’t provide a political platform.” Cramer is even more blunt about not turning his case into some sort of circus. “There is a possibility that the Crown will plead this out. That is what I am hoping for.”

Dom’s case is still in the early stages of adjudication. The Crown has not decided as of yet whether or not this tries in court as an indictable offence (Canadian equivalent of a felony) or a summary event (misdemeanor), but hearings are ongoing and the defense holds out hope for some sort of settlement. “I can chill for 2009,” Cramer stated. “I have some ideas for the future, though. We’ll see.”

One of Professor Young’s biggest concerns is that Yongesterdam will become so successful as a tourist destination and curiosity that Cramer becomes legal collateral damage in the process. “We have to fly under the radar,” he told me. If every Head in North America bolts to Toronto expecting to find Weedtopia followed by runaways, unscrupulous drug dealers and “Pot Culture” douchebags trying to score a fast buck; what is now a great place to take it easy could become a target for the Canadian drug enforcement. Dominic Cramer would suffer for that. If he does it would not only endanger a great place to take hang out it will also do life-changing damage to very sick people who need an inexpensive, professional place from which to get their medicine. In the final analysis it is the sick who matter to Dominic Cramer and the rest of the good folks of Yongesterdam.


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