Doreen Brown On The Intense Cannabis Study That Inspired The Marijuana Conspiracy

In the early 1970s, Doreen Brown participated in a study about how cannabis affects women.
Doreen Brown On The Canadian Cannabis Experiment That Inspired The Marijuana Conspiracy
Still from The Marijuana Conspiracy; distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films

In 1972, Doreen Brown signed up for an experiment. For 98 days, Brown and 19 other women were a part of an rigorous study about the effects of cannabis on women. They were kept secluded from the outside world and smoking daily. The Canadian government was considering legalizing cannabis at the time, but some powerful suits hoped to squash the argument for legalization with a study that, hopefully, would prove their incorrect assumptions about cannabis correct. 

Doreen Brown would smoke joints daily and have her brain, heart, kidney, liver, blood, and urine tested and analyzed. During that time, Brown and the others could never leave the hospital or call family and friends. After everything the women went through, the results of the experiment were never disclosed. Years ago, however, Brown shared her story, which led to an investigative piece by the Toronto Star

Now, the true story has been adapted into a movie, called The Marijuana Conspiracy. Its release date, of course, was 4/20. Recently, Brown told us all about her experience in the study, as well as life in Toronto in the ‘70s. 

Doreen Brown on Smoking Pot For 98 Days Straight

Is this a time in your life you lookback on often?

Doreen Brown: I have recently because I have done a few interviews, but yeah, it was 49 years ago. I obviously do think about it quite often, and I have over the years as well.

How do you look at it now compared to at the time?

Doreen Brown: I think I look at it the same way. In retrospect, of course, you realize a lot more obviously, but yeah, it can have an impact. The fact that we never got the results, to this day, that irks me. I don’t lose sleep over it, but it wasn’t right.

What was the experience like of trying to seek the results? Was it just a complete stonewall? 

Doreen Brown: Yeah, we were promised the results, which we never got. Over the years, we were trying to find out how I can get these results. We were stonewalled. There was no way I could get these results. I made a lot of calls. I did want to publicize this at some point, but in my life, I worked for some conservative organizations. I worked for professors across Ontario. I didn’t want a lot of these people to know that I was in this experiment.

I think a lot about that because about six years ago, seven years ago, I wrote an article late at night. It’s a two-page article— [I] sent it out to some people, Toronto Star being one of them. Within about eight or 10 hours, the Toronto Star [called] me, and they were interested in doing an article. The reporter came out the next day, and hence the Toronto Star article. They were very interested in trying to find out about the experiment and the results.

And then [director] Craig Pryce, who did the movie, read that article, and put it away, thinking that at some point he wanted to do an independent film about this experiment. It was, I guess, a few years ago. He called me and the reporter from The Star and Craig came to where I lived and we talked about it to death. Anyway, that’s how it started. 

Has it been cathartic to finally talk about that experience openly?

Doreen Brown: Yeah, it has been. Obviously over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that off and on, and the basic thing about it for me was not getting these results as promised, going through 98 days in captivity, if you want to call it that. And yeah, we didn’t see anyone. We knew we couldn’t have any phone calls. We were living in a hospital for that amount of time. We should have got something out of it, but we never found out the results at all.

Is the assumption that the results were positive and that’s why they did not release them?

Doreen Brown: Yeah. I do believe that the purpose of the experiment was to see how productivity is affected by smoking marijuana. I think that was the basis of that study. We were given blood tests and urine tests and psychological prep. At the time, it was about [Prime Minister] Pierre Trudeau. They were looking at legalizing it, which is really funny now. It’s Justin Trudeau legalizing marijuana. And they had the Le Dain commission at that time. They were looking to legalize marijuana as well. I really believe that the silly trials were pro-legalizing marijuana, and I think that’s why they were ditched, burnt. 

Was Pierre considered to be hip like Justin Trudeau?

Doreen Brown: I’d say he was pretty hip. I thought he was a pretty hip guy. I mean, I liked him. I think at that time, he was pretty hip.

How was the war on drugs in Canada during the ‘70s? Were they really cracking down on marijuana?

Doreen Brown: Yeah, they were for sure. Drugs were pretty rampant then, we had hippies and everything. I lived in Yorkville for a while. That was the real hippie community. If you walked down the main street, like Yonge Street, downtown Toronto, you could buy drugs anywhere at any time. I don’t know if it’s as bad as the States. For some people, I know were, and probably still, incarcerated for smoking marijuana. It’s crazy. But Canada, I know they’re not that bad. But yeah, that time, for sure.

How about today? Is the war on drugs in Canada that big?

Doreen Brown: I don’t know if it’s the main focus now, but obviously they’re legalized. We can buy it through the government. Pot stores now are showing up everywhere. I live just outside of Toronto now and I mean, there are more new pot stores that are just open here. So it’s way out in the open here. I know they’re talking about rescinding someone’s records specially for a simple transgression. 

What were the initial first few days like in the experiment? When did it start to take a turn?

Doreen Brown: Again, it was an adventure. It was an escape. For me, it was an escape from a lot of things. It was fun in the beginning. There were 20 women, and after, I think, three or four days, I got on the smoking side. There were some women… I don’t know how they decided to change or switch the groups, but ten women went to the controlled side. They could buy marijuana whenever they wanted to. I think it was $0.50 a joint.

And then, I was on the smoking side that had to smoke every night in the lounge. And we could also buy it as well, anytime we wanted to. And in the beginning, it was fun. It was a sterile hospital corridor when we got there, and we had to weave belts for money. They taught us how to weave belts. We got $2.50 for each belt we weaved. They had to meet quality control as well.

Of course, you couldn’t go out anywhere. We put in orders for albums and all kinds of things. We put mattresses on the floor. We turned it into a hippie den. A woman on our side was an artist. She ordered all this chalk and she did some wall murals. So in the beginning, it was good. One of the women on my side was a bartender. We ordered all kinds of alcohol, so it was fun. 

They brought two joints every night, new on like a restaurant tray, but they put a bill on. So every night we smoked it. You can’t pass it around. We had to smoke it in small rolls, and we could do what we wanted to, which really isn’t much in the hospital corridor. We had a few drinks. I think it was every half hour, they recorded and the staff told them what we were doing, even if we were in the washer. They always wrote down what we were doing. 

It’s such a strange scenario to be in, but did it ever feel normal?

Doreen Brown: Everything seemed normal. Now, again, this is 49 years later. But maybe after a couple of weeks, three weeks, it just seemed normal. A few people went in to make money, so they were always weaving belts. My intention was not to make money. It didn’t even occur to me. I just made a belt or two there a day, but whatever. When you took the shower, you played an album or put the TV on, you paid for that, as well.

What were you listening to back then? 

Doreen Brown: Well, one, gotta love The Who, so every time I hear a song from them, it takes me right back there. But The Stones, The Who, and The Beatles… The Who stands out in my mind. And my roommate there loved The Who, so that was played at all times. 

Did you ever get sick of it? 

Doreen Brown: After a while, it was too much. We were always ordering more albums than that. We put some different stuff on, but that one stands out to me the most. But again, it was fun in the beginning.

It was surreal, especially when you think of it now. I mean, I remember telling my father. I called him and said, “Dad, I’m not going to stay here for three months.” And he said, “What? What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m going to a marijuana experiment.” He thought I was nuts. So I said, “In 98 days, I’ll see ya.” It was crazy.

So, when exactly did the fun stop?

Doreen Brown: I would say the last month. Again, the THC substance was controlled, but it was always up. The last month, it was really heavy. It was no fun anymore. It really wasn’t. I dreaded going to the lounge. I thought, ugh, just get me through this. I think a lot of people felt insane. It was like drudgery. It was a moral offset. It was all, yeah, we’ve got to do this.

You couldn’t get out of smoking marijuana because you had to get a doctor’s note. You had to. And near the end, we were asking them to take it away because it was just too much. It was three months continual, every day at the same time, so it was really a bit too much.

The movie touches on this a little bit, but how rampant was paranoia? 

Doreen Brown: Yeah, I think it was. I know myself. Yeah, after a while, you’re sitting there smoking heavily, really heavy. I know I was paranoid a few times. Fighting paranoia started when I left the experiment. It was getting out of there.

Do you think that was a symptom from the withdrawal?

Doreen Brown: Possibly, but I don’t know. I really thought it was the fact that we were secluded. You really didn’t have to think of working. You didn’t have to think of a lot of everyday life. The three months, a year suspended in time, almost. So when I got out of there, I thought, oh, that’s the reality. I remember thinking that I wanted to get out of there, but then, it was scary. It was scary for me being with a lot of people, even going on the subway. It was scary. 

Did you stay in touch with many of the other women or did everyone go their separate ways?

Doreen Brown: People went their separate ways. I do have a good friend. She was on the non-smoking side. I became friends with her. And for me, that was it. The first week or two, a couple of women on my side, we kind of clung to each other. And then after that, never saw them again. I don’t even know what happened to them.

What else was positive about the experience? There must’ve been a lot of laughs, right?

Doreen Brown: Oh yeah, we did. It was fun. Positive for sure. Meeting different people and being in a unique experience, that was positive. I’m sure other people would say that, for them, what was positive, some people made a lot of money, as well. That was positive for them. I didn’t really make anything. You didn’t get money for being in the whole thing, but that’s what I came out with. But for me, the positive thing was getting a break from life for three months. That’s really why I went in. I wasn’t too happy at the time. When the escape was done, I still had the same problems I had before I went in.

Right. That whole idea of you can’t escape yourself even if you escape a place.

Doreen Brown: No. Take yourself with you where you go, right?

You worked in a jazz club, right?

Doreen Brown: Yeah, I always sang. My mother died when I was 14, so I stopped singing. I passed a lot of events. That’s part of the reason I did go into this experiment, because I was very depressed but probably didn’t know it. But anyway, when I did come out of it, maybe a year or two later, I did get into therapy for a couple of years and my life changed.

I went to university, got a degree, and I started singing again, singing jazz in a little jazz trio, and that was fun, and played in a few places and kind of got my life together. So I think that experiment, when I came out, I wasn’t… I thought, well, I didn’t really accomplish anything I wanted to in terms of my own psyche. So it propelled me, I guess, to get help and to change my life, basically.

That’s great. In the Toronto jazz scene, was there a lot of cannabis around?

Doreen Brown: There was a lot of pot. Obviously, different drugs [were] around as well. I lived in downtown Toronto. A lot of artists. I think people like that generally do gravitate towards… They’re more liberal, normally, and more experimental. The people I hung out with and where I lived downtown, yeah, it was prevalent. It really was. 

Was there a big underground art scene at that time?

Doreen Brown: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, musicians, artists, a lot of people came to Toronto to perform. Yorkville was bridling with fun. I would see Joni Mitchell there and all kinds of people perform there. A lot of people performed in Toronto and in Yorkville. It was huge, big names, people that are big now. So Toronto was a really good hub in Canada for the arts.

How was the Joni Mitchell concert?

Doreen Brown: It was just a lot of fun. It was before she was even famous. A lot of people went there. Bob Dylan, too. There’s one riverboat. I think it might’ve been seated, I don’t know, maybe 25 people or something. A lot of people would come and play there. It was awesome, really. It was great.

So, after the experiment, did you quit smoking for good?

Doreen Brown: Well, it’s been 49 years and I would say I’ve probably smoked the equivalent of maybe one or two joints, probably, in that amount of time. I’m not kidding. I smoke here or there because a lot of my friends smoke. But honestly, in that amount of time, I would say the equivalent of one, maybe two joints. Isn’t that funny? Yeah, I was sick of it. 

I tried a couple of edibles. Even that, I don’t know. It never appealed to me again. I don’t care because most people I know, they smoke, so I really couldn’t care less. I think it’s great. It’s legalized. I always thought it should be, but personally, maybe when I’m 80 I might again.

The Marijuana Conspiracy is now available On Demand and digital platforms.

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