The time I was arrested and searched over a joint

Published on December 2, 2022 by Special to the oz.

Photo: Velvet Kavanagh
Copies of Boomtown, including one with a column advocating for cannabis.

We often talk about the stigma society has about cannabis. But what about the internalized stigma of decades of having to hide what we do? 

Velvet Kavanagh recounts an experience 30 years ago, and how that shaped what she does today.


On a warm spring evening, the kind that is so enjoyable in Kelowna, BC, friends were gathered in the back parking lot of Okanagan College.

It was the early 1990s. We were taking an outdoor break from a student art show some friends were in.

Tanya and I moved away from the group, over to a car hood illuminated by a light so I could have a spot to roll a joint.

As I finished, and held the joint up to show her what a great job I did, someone’s hands grabbed my wrists. I can’t recall what was said, but it was clear we were in trouble. The two plainclothes officers hustled us into their unmarked car and whisked us away to the cop shop downtown. It was quick and quiet: our friends later said they had no idea what happened or where we went.

One week earlier, Tanya had published a pro-marijuana piece in her monthly Okanagan arts paper, Boomtown. Was this related? Or just a co-incidence? Our friends had also been smoking a joint but were not busted like we were…

Once at the police station, we were finger-printed and strip-searched. Tanya convinced the woman not to make her
remove her 21-hole Doc Martens. It would take too long, she protested. She recalls now too that her picture was on the wall of the station, alongside people who were HIV positive—even though she was not. Concerned about a body cavity search, she pointed that out to the woman.

OK, the woman said: clothes only, the boots can stay on.

We got a lawyer: I scraped up $800 and Tanya handed over some jewelry.

Bolstered by multiple character references, we received an absolute discharge. The main thing I remember is us giggling with nervous laughter during the proceedings. It seemed a bit surreal, being in court for a joint.

Years later, I’m writing this piece about weed in a different Okanagan publication. To be honest, it makes me a bit nervous. What if they are watching me? What’s that saying… just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you… Or maybe that last vape hit was one too many.

I left Kelowna not long after that. A year spent in Vancouver, and then I headed for the cannabis-rich Kootenays in the Southern Interior of BC. Cannabis isn’t what took me there—it was the small mountain-town life I was after. I opened a business, and I didn’t want people thinking that I was part of ‘that industry.’ It’s not that I was against it: I often partook of cannabis in social settings. I was afraid of what could happen… I’d already had a taste of that once.

I closed that business a few years before legalization, and I could see how removing prohibition was going to be challenging for many who had spent decades in the illicit cannabis industry. Going from running a completely unregulated business to operating in what feels like one of the most regulated industries in our country is a big hill to climb. And now, 30 years after my arrest, I have fully immersed myself in the legal weed industry with a business that helps cannabis cultivators navigate this new sector.

We have come so far, breaking ground with legalization. Yet, over three years in, we see it is not as easy as flipping a switch, no matter how much we want it to be like that.

Smokers, growers, and workers have spent years hiding who we are and what we do. Many of us were raised on the ‘this is your brain on drugs’ propaganda that told us something was wrong with us, that we were bad people making bad choices. Decades spent hiding it from families and friends, fearful of losing livelihoods, homes, children, and freedom. Many did lose those, and are still dealing with the repercussions.

Today though, we can share this part of who we are. We are learning to change how we think about ourselves and what we do. To come out of the closet, so to speak… the grow room, the alley, or wherever else we have hidden. To provide equitable opportunities for those who were harmed by prohibition. To openly celebrate and be proud of what we do and of what we have accomplished: cannabis legalization.

About the author

Velvet Kavanagh helps craft cannabis companies build their legacies with her business Phenologic. Connect with her on LinkedIn or at phenologic.ca.