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The View from Vancouver: Inside Canada’s Legalization Challenge

On October 17, regulated cannabis sales will begin in the Great White North. But some industry veterans there are questioning whether Canada is doing it the right way.

Vansterdam—that sobriquet for Canada’s most liberal city is well-earned. When marijuana legalization was just a glimmer in the eyes of cannabis activists, there was Vansterdam, a sly reference to Holland’s Amsterdam, which launched the retail movement with their coffeeshops filled with smokeable flower and brilliant hash in the 1980s. That trend eventually found a home in Vancouver. Today, dotted across the city’s landscape, are stores where you can toke onsite and/or purchase various take-home products, from buds to concentrates.

I’m in the Cannabis Culture shop at 1674 Davie St., located on a quiet block away from commercial traffic, about a half mile from Stanley Park. It’s not high noon yet. I’m en route to the park for a hike (it’s six miles around the park’s sea wall). I settle down at a seat at the dab bar, where six coiled rigs are spaced apart.

The menu on the board behind the bar is colorful, with illustrations for each strain, from Blue Mango to Skywalker OG. I ask for the former and the THC Distillate, which I’ve never tried. Whereas I cough when inhaling the Blue Mango, the distillate (strictly THC) goes down real smooth. In addition, I purchase an Orange Tangie pre-roll. The bill is C$20 ($15 US). Pleasantly stoned, I head to the park and commence my hike.

The dab menu at Cannabis Culture store on Vancouver’s Davie St.

I returned to the Cannabis Culture shops—the one on Davie and the original at 307 W. Hastings St.—several more times during my visit to Vancouver just days after the Parliament officially legalized marijuana with passage of C-45, i.e. the Cannabis Act, on June 19. Ever since Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister on October 19, 2015, and sworn in on November 4, it had been generally assumed that he would follow through with his campaign promise to tax and regulate recreational cannabis. “Will Canada Legalize It?” we asked in Issue 12 in 2016 with Trudeau on the cover. It took more than two years to accomplish, but the answer is yes: Legal sales are slated to begin on October 17 across the country, making Canada the second country after Uruguay and the first member of the G7 to do so.

But in Vancouver, where dispensaries have operated without licenses in a non-legal gray area for years, this may all soon change. Though rather tolerant when it comes to pot, British Columbia, like the other nine provinces, have to follow a set of new rules issued by the federal government. However, each province can customize the rules to suit their specific needs and concerns. That’s why there’s some hope that the city’s ubiquitous dab bars and smoke shops will somehow survive.

A Quick Look at the Cannabis Act

The main summary of the Cannabis Act reads: “The objectives of the Act are to prevent young persons from accessing cannabis, to protect public health and public safety by establishing strict product safety and product quality requirements and to deter criminal activity by imposing serious criminal penalties for those operating outside the legal framework. The Act is also intended to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system in relation to cannabis.”

C-45 permits “the possession, production, distribution, sale, importation and exportation of cannabis,” and authorizes “persons to possess, sell or distribute cannabis if they are authorized to sell cannabis under a provincial Act that contains certain legislative measures,” while setting “penalties for sale or distribution to young persons, and the unlawful possession, production, importation and exportation of cannabis (i.e. the black market).”

It also “prohibits any promotion, packaging and labelling of cannabis that could be appealing to young persons or encourage its consumption,” repeals cannabis as “item 1 of Schedule II” and, perhaps most importantly, allows “an individual to possess no more than four cannabis plants that are not budding or flowering.”

The system of production counts heavily on the country’s 113 licensed producers, who control the medical-marijuana market. But the mail-order model used for medical purposes will be expanded to include shops like those already in Vancouver, Toronto and other cities around the country. In some cases, the retail outlets will be government-run while others will be privately owned and operated. The details, from BC to Quebec, were still being “hashed out” during the writing of this article.

Good Timing for ICBC

Vancouver’s Village Bloomery owner Andrea Dobbs (photo by Matt Emrich)

The International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) has its roots in Oregon, where several medical-marijuana conferences in Portland and Eugene preceded it. After expanding to San Francisco in 2015, the event quickly spread to Vancouver, Berlin and Kauai. It’s a boutique convo where presenters have time to schmooze with attendees, and there isn’t an overload of panel discussions. ICBC generally kicks off the night before with a VIP cocktail party at the host hotel. In this case, it’s the massive Sheraton Wall Centre on Vancouver’s Burrard St.

On June 24, after a keynote by rocker Henry Rollins, ICBC gets down to business with its opening and most important panel, “Transitioning to Legal Use: Canada Moves Forwards,” moderated by attorney Kirk Tousaw.

“The greatest thing about legalization is we now have the issue in the open,” says fellow lawyer Robert Laurie, who has his own practice, Ad Lucem Law, and was recently given a seat on nearby Nanaimo’s Cannabis Task Force. “Families won’t be torn apart like they were before. It’s an amazing opportunity to shed the cynicism and engage with government.”

ANDREA DOBBS: «The next year is going to be bumpy. It will be challenging on a lot of different levels.”

But it’s not all positive for Laurie, who adds, “The only way that laws will change is through civil disobedience, and I think we’re going to see more of it. But unlike the last few years, we now have federal, provincial and municipal laws all working in concert. However, the penalties, risks and ramifications are going to continue to be a problem in this new legalization environment.”

“It’s a period of uncertainty,” NICHE CEO Barinder Rasode joins in. “Customers are used to a certain standard of product. We’re really behind on innovations and research in technology. We need to advocate for a better industry. We can’t forget how we got here and have to continue in a spirit of collaboration.”

At ICBC Vancouver, from left: Rosy Mondin, John Conroy and Hillary Black (photo by Matt Emrich)

Andrea Dobbs, who runs the Vancouver smoke shop and dispensary Village Bloomery, notes that “during this transition, it puts my client base at risk. The legality is all so unclear. There are harsher criminal penalties than ever for doing what’s against the law than ever. There are a lot of questions. The next year is going to be bumpy. It will be challenging on a lot of different levels.”

Rasode concurs: “Government should rethink the central distribution and warehousing. It’s very short-sighted.”

Another major concern is the current government ban on anything but flower and oil. All other concentrates, as well as edibles and topicals, will not be available for sale. Seizing the silver lining, Dobbs suggests, “This is an opportunity for consumers to become quite familiar with the flower. I want people to learn how to make their own topicals, oils and edibles.”

HILLARY BLACK: «We’re selling legalization here. It’s our responsibility to get it right.»

During the next panel, “Cannabis in the Capital Market,” Quadron Cannatech CEO Rosy Mondin explains: “We advocated for breaking up the Cannabis Act so a lot more participants could enter. For now, there isn’t a whole lot of competition. I keep hearing about market crashes. I’m not sure about a crash, but I think there’s going to be a reallocation of the wealth that’s out there to a bunch of different companies. We’re going to have so many more big players coming in. This industry is moving at light speed. It’s going to continue like that for the next three years.”

Later in the day, industry veteran Hillary Black offers some needed perspective. Black founded Canada’s first dispensary, BC Compassion Club Society, in 1997 and is now director of patient education and advocacy at Canopy Growth in Ontario. “It’s time to come out of the closet as people who use cannabis for pleasure,” she declares. “If we want to export legalization around the world, we need to act responsibly. It’s up to educators, professionals and parents to step forward and say that they’re highly functioning people. We’re selling legalization here. We’re not selling a particular brand. It’s our responsibility to get it right.

“We’re paying for the sins of Big Pharma, Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco,” Black concludes, “so we have to be kinder, smarter, more conscious, more compassionate and more generous. We have to put our money where our mouth is.”

A Voice from Vancouver Island

When I returned to New York, I tried to pick up the loose ends of my legalization fact-finding trip to Vancouver. Each day another news story about Canada ended up in my email box or on my Facebook timeline. It was hard to make sense of it all, so I asked Rob Laurie to help me out. I’ve met Laurie at several ICBC events, from Vancouver to Berlin and back to Vancouver again. He’s a jovial guy who likes to recite lines from classic Canadian TV shows like The Trailer Park Boys and SCTV. But he’s dead serious when it comes to cannabis in Canada.

British Columbia lawyer Robert Laurie

Laurie’s not thrilled about the new law and does little to hide his contempt for it. “Legalization 1.0 in Canada is really Prohibition 2.0,” he tells me from his home on Vancouver Island. “There is no dispute that the Constitution of Canada gives Ottawa the power to legalize marijuana. To what extent it also empowers Parliament to regulate marijuana is less certain.

“The Cannabis Act passed at the federal level along with the British Columbia statutes (Cannabis Control and Licensing Act and the Cannabis Distribution Act) are designed to replace the traditional industry with a new government monopoly, which has many legalization supporters questioning whether this is, in fact, legalization.

“The aim of the federal government is to effectively eliminate the black market. It will be tough, but the government is attempting to limit access in order to achieve public safety and public health goals, such as the protection of children and communities. The elimination of the black or illicit market, I believe, is just the excuse the government needs to justify the creation of a federal controlled monopoly, which has many folks in British Columbia nearly up in arms over the fact that the traditional BC craft-cannabis industry has been effectively sidelined with respect to participation in the legal market. The black market will not go away. I suspect it will just adapt. There is too much money involved for people and communities like Nelson and Grand Forks that have made their livelihood out of the illicit cannabis trade.”

ROBERT LAURIE: «It’s an amazing opportunity to shed the cynicism and engage with government.»

Despite his pessimistic outlook, Laurie holds out hope for Vancouver’s dispensaries and others in the surrounding areas. “Under the new provincial and federal cannabis framework, I suspect that most of these current businesses will apply and attempt to participate in the retail application process,” he explains. “The BC government has indicated that current operators will be permitted to apply and each case will be considered on a case-by-case basis. In Alberta by comparison, folks who’ve been selling or distributing cannabis prior to legalization, from non-LP sources, will most likely not make it through the screening process. Legalization and civil rights regarding access to cannabis, like law generally, is an evolving process.»

So then Vancouver may not be washed of its current dabbing establishments? “BC is generally considered a very tolerant and open place,” Laurie says. “We’re very much the San Francisco of Canada when it comes to cannabis, libertarian, LGBT and environmental activism.”

Laurie and others suspicious of the federal government’s motives will have “mixed emotions” come October 17. “It’ll be a day like any other,» he sighs. «I suspect my office will be quite busy.”

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This article appears in Issue 33Subscribe to the magazine today!