B.C. lottery winner using money to help legalize marijuana, aid hometown residents

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

They say the key to surviving the effects of a big lottery win is not to let the sudden windfall change the basic way you live your life.

Bob Erb, who scooped half of a $50-million Lotto Max jackpot earlier this month, appears to have figured that out. He's using the money to change other people's lives and to push for a cause dear to his heart — legalization of marijuana.

Erb, 60, made headlines when he went to Vancouver to collect his winnings from Nov. 2 draw. After the obligatory photos holding a giant cheque, he stepped outside BC Lottery Corp. headquarters and sparked up a fatty in front of TV cameras.

[ Related: B.C. pot activist wins $25-million jackpot ]

Erb, who ran unsuccessfully as a Marijuana Party candidate in the 2001 provincial election, said he would use some of his new wealth to aid the campaign to legalize pot in British Columbia.

He told the Vancouver Sun he will spend about a million dollars towards legalization efforts and politically will back the federal NDP because it has supported legalization. He wants to fly academics and pot activists up to his hometown of Terrace, in northwestern B.C., in January for a conference on legalization.

There's some irony in Erb's commitment. His 24-year-old son, Robert, died of a drug overdose in 2008, two years after being charged with producing and trafficking marijuana in Alberta. His estranged wife died in 1998 after years of cocaine addiction that saw Erb take custody of their children, the Sun says.

Erb's newfound wealth has had the biggest impact on his friends and neighbours in Terrace, a resource-dependent city hit hard by the decline of the forest industry in the last decade. Its population shrank by 1,000 to just over 11,000 between 2001 and 2006 and has only recently begun to rebound.

Erb, his daughter Audrey and her three small children still live inside their modest duplex, the yard littered with rusted folk art and kid's toys, the Sun reports.

Erb, who still works as a bricklayer and pouring concrete, was always known for his generosity to friends and acquaintances, the Sun says. But since his lottery win he's become the town benefactor.

"I've done it all my life," Erb says. "I'm just able to give more (now), but I've always spread my meagre offerings."

For example, when Erb heard that that someone had set off a fire extinguisher at the local gymnastics club, ruining its foam landing pads, he cut them a $5,000 cheque.

"I don't do this (type of philanthropy normally), but their need was great and my kids all were in sports," he told the Sun.

Erb has handed out cheques and gifted high-end cars and trucks to people on the promise they would give their current vehicles to others.

The Sun says he has hand-delivered "Merry Christmas" cheques of up to $10,000 to at least 14 small businesses, the amount based on the number of employees they have.

Residents say he has given $10,000 cheques to help pay down mortgages and debts and finance kids' braces.

His next-door neighbours, Janette and Michael Searle, got one such cheque a few weeks ago. Erb came over and asked him to fill it out as he was making his morning tea.

"I couldn't even focus, I had trouble writing my name and figuring out where to put the name and number," Searle told the Sun. "By the time the water was done boiling, he was on his way out. I shook his hand and said 'thank you' and he said, 'Merry Christmas.'"

The money will go towards finishing a bathroom in the basement, where the Searles hope to open a daycare centre.

"I think it's given a lot of hope to a lot of people and it's really inspiring," Searle said.

Horace Lincoln, a clerk at the Safeway supermarket, was stunned when former co-worker Audrey Erb handed him $2,000 for being a "hard worker."

[ Related: Missouri manager shocked his store sold winning Powerball lottery ticket ]

Former Quebecer Tony Bourgoin, who operates a pizza joint and convenience store a few blocks from Erb's house, got $500. He says he's been using the money to help customers who are short on their grocery bill, "helping people out like he (Erb) would have wanted us to."

Erb plans to set up a charitable foundation to dole out $2 million to non-profit groups in Terrace, adding he has no plans to spread the money any further than the city limits.

He's also socked away $15 million of his winnings in investments so the money will be there for the future.