Can you smell that? It’s a hazy new age of marijuana acceptance, wafting over Canada — but sadly, two of this country’s trailblazing pot pioneers aren’t around to experience it.
For decades, Hamilton’s the late Michael Baldasaro and Walter Tucker famously fought for cannabis legalization, appearing in court and often facing ridicule for their often unorthodox methods.
At the centre of it all were their roles as Ministers in the co-created Church of the Universe, which called smoking pot a sacrament and a religious right.
Now, after their deaths, Canada is heading towards the end of nearly a century of prohibition on recreational marijuana use.
Friends and fellow advocates say the two consummate hippies would not be thrilled with the government oversight packaged with the pending legalization — but say they would no doubt bask in the glow of the wider social acceptance of marijuana they had been dreaming about for decades.
‘They were eccentrics who were very good people, who really believed in what they were doing.’
– Marc Emery, marijuana advocate
These two didn’t tip the scales for positive public pot perception on their own — but their decades of stoner advocacy still resonates, friends say.
“For so many years they were treated like freaks, and now [weed] is widely accepted,” said Rev. Juliet Boyd, a minister in the Church of the Universe.
“Once you plant a seed, it’s going to flower. This is marijuana’s time.”
There’s no doubting how much these two men loved getting stoned. Baldasaro and Tucker, always with trademark bushy beards and knit caps, were fixtures in Hamilton for many years.
Politics and pot
They created their Church of the Universe at the tail end of the counter-culture 1960s, calling pot, God’s “tree of life,” and a holy sacrament.
Cannabis was at the forefront of Baldasaro’s many mayoral bids, and his attempts to run for office both provincially (for the Marijuana party) and federally (a failed bid for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives).
Serious about their cause, they also brought a sense of humour to much of what that did. It wasn’t always enough to avoid consequences.
The two ended up in and out of jail several times for marijuana-related offences over the years, and clashed with authorities and quarrying company Steetley Industries over a section of land called Clearwater Abbey, a quarry on 11th Concession west of Highway 6, which was considered the church’s “spiritual home.”
A ‘summer sacrament,’ a puff of pot, and the nude olympics
Just consider this section of the church’s history, from its website:
“The year is 1982. June at Church of the Universe’s spiritual Jerusalem. Reverend Tucker and other church members are resting naked on blankets and upon the warm rocks that cup the water of the abbey like a baptismal fount. A blessing of sacrament hangs in the summer air. Then, without warning, a metal beast is let loose among the faithful. Car engines and carbon monoxide assault the peace. Church members are forced to flee as cars drive right up onto their blankets. It is time for Steetly Industries’ annual staff picnic.”
Oh, they once held a nude Olympics at the site, too. And they tell of once appearing in court dressed only in prison blankets.
In short — Tucker and Baldasaro were out there. Way out there.
Eccentric though they may have been, the pair were an integral part of cannabis advocacy in Canada, today’s advocates say. Yet for all their work, they won’t get to see legalization finally come to pass.
Baldasaro died after a short battle with cancer in 2016 at the age of 67, while Tucker died of heart failure in 2012 at 79-years-old.
Both men inspired people in the early days of the fight for legalization, says Marc Emery, the man known as Canada’s “Prince of Pot.”
“They were the only people doing that work in the 80s, and they did everything in the pre-internet era,” he said. “There haven’t been many people who were serious about doing it, and they did it for decades — I think they inspired people in those early days.”
‘They were the ones who took the slings and arrows for how it is right now.’
– Rev. Juliet Boyd, Church of the Universe
“Absolutely, they were seen as freaks. They were eccentrics who were very good people, who really believed in what they were doing.”
Paving the way for today’s attitudes
Rev. Juliet Boyd is a minister in the Church of the Universe, who met Baldasaro and Tucker back in 1999. She says the work they did was integral to the wider acceptance of pot now seen in Canada.
“They were the ones who took the slings and arrows for how it is right now,” she said, referencing their time in jail for possession and trafficking charges. “They paved the stones for what we’re seeing right now.”
But for how pleased they would be about the lessening of “demon weed” rhetoric among Canadians, the pair would still likely have immense problems with how the federal and provincial governments are handling legalization, with tight controls and taxation,” she said.
“Its Draconian — a cash grab,” Boyd said. “It’s so frustrating. It’s not for the common people.”
Emery agreed, saying Baldasaro and Tucker would call it a shame that money talked the loudest when it came to legalization.
“I think they’d be disappointed in that — that Babylon is still calling the shots.”
Baldasaro and Tucker were easy for the public to take jabs at. They looked like Hamilton’s answer to Cheech and Chong — but in many ways, they achieved cult status as two of Hamilton’s most notable personalities, in a city full of them.
“I had a lot of time for Michael and Walter Tucker,” said Mayor Fred Eisenberger, who is now an investor in a medicinal marijuana company. “They were very interesting gentlemen. Most of my campaigns had Michael as part of it, and he was a smart guy who was passionate about his community.
“Some people considered him to be a bit of a fool, but he was nothing of the sort. He was a smart guy. I miss him.”