Gallery exhibit chronicles Nelson’s cannabis history

The Grow Show opened at Touchstones on Nov. 26. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Nelson’s Touchstones Museum has mounted a new exhibit, The Grow Show, rich in dramatic stories about the region’s cannabis history.

Written and spoken words of growers, activists, artists, politicians, cannabis workers, retired police officers, lawyers and business people are displayed in text panels throughout the gallery, offering a deep historical dive into an often misunderstood part of Nelson’s economy and history.

On exhibit through Feb. 27, the stories are interspersed with photos, paintings, video and news clippings, exploring cannabis culture in the West Kootenay through many different lenses, including agriculture, economy, culture, politics and community perspectives.

An artistic rendering by Aimee Philibert of (L-R) Alan Middlemiss, Paul DeFelice and Dustin Cantwell at The Grow Show, with a photo of the same three men in the early days of Holy Smoke. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Curator Arin Fay says she “tried to avoid blanket statements and black-and-white thinking” by interviewing dozens of people from different parts of the community to get a complete picture.

“There is both enthusiasm and reticence to talk about cannabis culture in the Kootenays,” Fay says. “There was a mixed bag of responses: nostalgia, bitterness, cautionary tales, collateral damage, gold-rush-fever and rose-coloured reminiscence, to name a few.”

Many of the statements on the gallery wall are anonymous, reflecting this deep community-wide ambivalence.

Slocan Valley resident Tom Wayman is quoted on the gallery wall: “Everyone has a secret. But around here we all have the same secret.”

Fay said the reminiscences in the exhibit depict “a lot of joy and pain and hard work.”

The written testimonies describe hiding from helicopters, growing up as the children of growers, and the role of secret work in the cannabis industry as a source of income and child care for countless single mothers in the days before legalization.

Dire warnings produced in the 1950s and 1960s can be seen on the walls of the Touchstones gallery at The Grow Show. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

Many underestimate the role of cannabis in the culture and economy of the West Kootenay over the last 60 years, Fay says.

Everyone in the West Kootenay is connected to the cannabis economy, “whether happily or not, or whether they profit or not. We have been this enclave for so long, and have really been supported by this industry.”

Or, as commentator Clayton McCann put it in a statement on the gallery wall, “Communities had a vested interest in producing it. Once it became profitable, the cash economy meant properties could be purchased, restaurants could be opened – how many small towns like Nelson do you know of that have more than 30 restaurants? – arts could be funded, festivals launched, ski hills supported.”

Photo: Bill Metcalfe

A centrepiece of the exhibit is the story of Nelson’s Holy Smoke Culture Shop, started 25 years ago as a focus of activism that stood at the forefront of legalization efforts.

The exhibit chronicles the owners’ time spent in custody, in court, and with their like-minded community, including a reminiscence from the lawyer who represented them.

To learn more about the The Grow Show exhibition at Nelson’s Touchstones Museum, visit

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