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Radio personality Rosie Rowbotham in studio in Toronto, July 12, 1999. Photo by Tibor Kolley / The Globe and Mail

Rosie Rowbotham, pictured here in 1999, was a cannabis crusader, prisoner justice advocate, broadcaster, and rogue. He died on Dec. 1 at age 72.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

A lanky hippie with hair halfway down his back and smoking a joint the size of a Toblerone bar, Robert (Rosie) Rowbotham sat bemused. He was listening to a bunch of American writers, fancy-pants and glitterati, discussing their favourite books at a party hosted by American novelist Norman Mailer in the summer of 1972 just outside of Phillips, Maine.

It was late in the evening at Mr. Mailer’s hobby farm, Mr. Rowbotham would say as he told the story of how he was brought in from Canada to supply the party with dope. After hearing the square-john normies drone on about books Mr. Rowbotham had never heard of – let alone read – he finally interjected. He took a huge haul from his joint, blew the smoke out and proclaimed he had only ever read one book: The Last of the Mohicans.

This created quite the stir, the group was incredulous, questioning how it was even possible to have read only one book. Rosie surveyed the room, noticed Mr. Mailer listening and laid it out in the simplest of terms. He said, “Let me break it down for you, there are three types of people in the world: the ones that read, the ones that write, and the ones that you read and write about. I am one of those – the ones you read and write about.” He took another haul off his joint as Mr. Mailer crossed the room to chat.

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Rosie Rowbotham, c. 2001. Credit: CBC

Mr. Rowbotham never stopped writing; his last essay was published by The Guardian in 2018.CBC

Mr. Rowbotham, a hippie, cannabis crusader, prisoner justice advocate, journalist, broadcaster, rapscallion and rogue died on Dec. 1 at age 72. He battled, griped and smoked till the very end, with a mischievous flicker in his eyes and the art of the deal never far from his mind. As he said recently, “If there is a fight to be had, let’s get to it.”

He first made national headlines at 23. The hippie pot-dealer was trying to turn on an entire continent when he was arrested for conspiring to import one tonne of hashish in 1974. The court case, which stretched on for seven months and cost over a million dollars, was covered daily in the national papers. The media and the public became enamoured with Mr. Rowbotham’s charisma and celebrity witnesses such as Mr. Mailer, who testified that imprisoning Rosie would be “bad for the cosmos.” A 1977 Maclean’s magazine article dubbed him “Johnny Reeferseed.”

After serving over 20 years in prison for non-violent offences, Mr. Rowbotham re-entered polite society in 1997 with his GED, a diploma from Seneca College, a degree from Queen’s University and a full portfolio of his journalism and broadcast work with Contact TV and Prison Life Magazine, where he held the title Canadian managing director. Before his parole officer could blink and while still living at a halfway house, he began work for CBC Radio One. Not bad for a hippie dropout from Belleville, Ont.

Robert Wilson Rowbotham was born in Belleville, on Oct. 31, 1950 to Alfred and Grace Rowbotham. Raised in a loving home with his two older brothers, Larry and David, and his younger sister, Judy, Rosie dropped out of high school after Grade 10, drawn to the then-hippie neighbourhood of Yorkville in Toronto. He found his way to Rochdale College, a beacon of youth counterculture, at the corner of Bloor and Huron Streets.

The entrepreneurial spirit fostered in the pool halls of Belleville came in handy for the under-employed young hippie. He began selling weed, hash, acid and mescaline out of Rochdale.

Relying on his easy smile and his peace and love philosophy, Rosie – known as “The Kid” to local old-timers – was enjoying selling his dope and living the “be here now” mantra of the time when opportunity came calling.

While on his daily music-buying trip to A&A Records with his buddy Robert Anderer, known as Bob the Goof, Mr. Rowbotham was approached by a well-dressed man who asked, “Are you Rosie from Rochdale?” After a brief exchange, Mr. Rowbotham and Mr. Anderer drove off in a car with a tonne of hash in the trunk, smuggled it into Rochdale and set about selling it all in a month.

No longer a retailer, Rosie was a wholesaler; managing multiple stash rooms, a cadre of dealers under him and a network that spanned not only the continent but the globe. He expanded into music promotions; with Fillmore North; clothing, with Sweetwater Trading Company; food, with a vegetarian restaurant at the bottom of Rochdale College. All these enterprises were operated by his hippie brethren. If asked about the money he would sneer, “It wasn’t about the money; I was a warrior in the war against drugs.”

He did enjoy the money, however; what wasn’t reinvested in more drug deals and his multiple hippie business ventures was spent on the simple pleasures of a 20-something hippie with wads of cash: partying, eating, travelling and buying records, endless records.

Mr. Rowbotham had moved from Rochdale to a farm outside of Beeton, Ont., by the time the cops kicked down his door in 1974, with his children and wife sleeping beside him. The next quarter-century of his life was defined by Canada’s prison system. Mr. Rowbotham served his time in some of the country’s toughest institutions.

A man always capable of adapting to his environment, Mr. Rowbotham soon adjusted to prison life. Housed with violent offenders and hardened criminals, he did not buckle, rat or run. He was most proud of having served his time in “general population,” understanding and respecting the plight of the incarcerated and coming out stronger than he went in; but it came with a cost.

He witnessed unbridled acts of violence, experienced loneliness and depression, loss and heartache that was harrowing in its depth and breadth. But, within all of that darkness, Mr. Rowbotham did what he always had done: He made the best of it.

His initial sentence of 14 years was reduced to nine on appeal and by 1980, he was a free man; just not for long. As he had promised the court during his address prior to sentencing at his first trial, he would not be rehabilitated and would reoffend.

While driving home from the prison, his next huge deal was already unfolding. A whopping eight tonnes of hashish was steaming across the seas from the Middle East to the Port of New York. This deal was the focus of an intense sting operation the Toronto Police dubbed “Project Rose.” Two years later it landed Mr. Rowbotham back behind bars, where he would stay until 1997.

It was during this stint that Mr. Rowbotham became heavily involved in writing and editing for Prison Life magazine and hosting Contact TV, a program on a local Kingston cable station that discussed various prison issues. Ever the crusader, Mr. Rowbotham would become a leading voice advocating for prisoner rights for years to come.

“His name will live on in terms of the justice system because of the Rowbotham Application,“ said Prof. Gregory Marquis from the University of New Brunswick’s Department of History and Politics. “When you mention the name Rowbotham to most lawyers they may not know his [full] name but they will know the Rowbotham case.” A byproduct of Mr. Rowbotham’s own legal troubles, this kind of application is filed in court to request government funding when someone charged with a serious crime has been denied legal aid.

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Rosie Rowbotham recovering from chemotherapy at his home in Toronto, in Oct. 2022.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Standing up for the under-represented was innate for Mr. Rowbotham. Tom Lafferty, his childhood best friend remembers, “He always championed the underdog and stood up for what he believed was right – no matter the personal cost. He was my confidant, he cared for me, he was my protector. I was a skinny, little 110-pound kid and Rosie was always there for me. His advocacy work within the prison system and his storytelling with the CBC are in keeping with the Bob I always knew.”

Journalists at the CBC initially became aware of him because of his journalism behind bars. Upon his release, he was interviewed by Michael Enright on his radio program This Morning. Mr. Rowbotham was articulate, insightful, plain-spoken and funny in the interview. He charmed Mr. Enright and the listening audience, leading This Morning executive producer Ira Basen to hire him as a contributing editor for the program. The CBC work Mr. Rowbotham was most proud of included an open letter to disgraced hockey agent Alan Eagleson as he prepared to enter the prison system, and interviews with Chinese political dissident Harry Wu and the wrongfully convicted Guy Paul Morin.

“The thing that Rosie brought to the table as a CBC journalist was that he was different from pretty much everyone else who worked there,” Mr. Basen said. “He didn’t think or talk like your typical CBC journalist, and that was really his journalistic superpower, because anyone who had been marginalized or screwed over by the system in any way could recognize themself in him.”

Mr. Rowbotham left the CBC in 2001 to pursue a variety of creative projects ranging from acting, producing documentaries, public speaking and horticulture. He never stopped writing; his last essay was published by The Guardian in 2018.

A man of no apologies, Mr. Rowbotham had one regret: the impact his choices had on his family and most especially his children. He admitted to his many failures as a father and a partner, resulting in a divorce, fractured relationships and, more recently, the end of a common-law partnership. But he was equally emphatic about his commitment to his role as an advocate of marijuana use.

In his later years, Mr. Rowbotham enjoyed the Blue Jays, CNN, smoking joints, holding court and feeding squirrels, raccoons, skunks and opossums in North York from his back porch. His youngest daughter, Mia Rose, born in 2017, brought him great joy. Prior to moving into the palliative care wing of Sunnybrook Hospital, he spent his most cherished moments with her at his side.

His last months at Sunnybrook were filled with the kind of hi-jinks one would expect of a man of Mr. Rowbotham’s pedigree. He entertained guests from all the chapters of his life, charmed the nurses and ate like a king. He smoked joints and complained about American politics and the Leafs. He never gave up, never stopped fighting and lived his last breath to the fullest.

Mr. Rowbotham leaves his daughters, Jasmine, Tanya and Mia Rose; his son, Jade; his sister, Judy and her husband, David; his brother, Larry and his wife, Pat.

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