Canada’s first summer of legalization: it’s a shitshow

Back in the early 90s when Vancouver was being called Vansterdam and self-described “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery was making headlines in the Wall Street Journal for selling pot seeds, my bosses at NOW Magazine sent me to the west coast to take in the vibe.

Medical marijuana refugees from the U.S. were migrating to the province in significant numbers to escape political persecution – and sometimes jail sentences. And the beginnings of a cannabis cottage industry were firmly taking root.

Those with the know-how were growing and selling their own and making enough money to give up their 9 to 5s. Others were experimenting with new ways to deliver the medicinal benefits of cannabis, including in cannabis-packed capsules to treat anxiety.

Head shops (some with smoking rooms) were operating in full view of police selling craft cannabis products and hemp clothes made by artisans in B.C.’s interior. The shops were also doing their part to mobilize the masses, educating Canadians on how cannabis was mysteriously added to the Opium and Narcotic Act in 1929. Fact is, it should never have been illegal in the first place. 

It was a first glimpse of what legalization could look like. 

B.C. bud was seeding a massive, multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry and anyone who wanted was free to participate. The end of pot prohibition was thick in the air. Talk of legalization had never really gone away since the Le Dain commission struck in 1969 to look into the mass criminalization of weed. It recommended the repeal of laws prohibiting simple possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use. 

South of the border, however, U.S. law enforcement in the throes of the “war on drugs,” were blaming B.C.’s lax enforcement for the escalating crack epidemic in the U.S. They claimed B.C. bud was being purchased and resold in the U.S. to buy cocaine for sale on the streets. It wouldn’t be long before the Drug Enforcement Administration was setting up outposts in Canada to monitor the trade.

Years later, the Harper government would end up turning Emery, the most visible symbol of legalization, over to U.S. authorities.

But the genie was already out of the bottle. Medical marijuana patients had won legal challenges in court for the right to use cannabis. (Canada became the first country to authorize cannabis for medical use in 2001). Not only that, patients had won the right to grow their own medicine.

It would take almost another two decades, but Canada became the second country on the planet to legalize cannabis for recreational use last fall. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the fight against pot prohibition continues.

Truth be told, legalization has turned out to be a bit of a shitshow. 

Right here in the Big Smoke, if it weren’t for the dozen or so “illegal” pot dispensaries in town still brave enough to challenge the corporate-backed cannabis orthodoxy that’s taken root, it wouldn’t feel like legalization at all.

Anyone who has tried to cop weed at any of the five government-sanctioned dispensaries will understand what I mean. The experience is decidedly clinical. They’re more tourist attractions than incubators of cannabis culture. And the product they’re selling is at best inconsistent, and at worst subpar – not to mention, over packaged. Besides, who wants to stand in line to score like you’re waiting to get into the club on Saturday night?

It’s not hard to see why most Torontonians prefer their local illegal dispensary, especially if you’re a medpot patient. You can get to touch (sometimes even sample) the flower. You can also buy edibles (which won’t be legal in Ontario until December at the earliest). 

There were 90 operating in the legal grey zone in Toronto last year. A few with good lawyers have managed to stay open, but for how much longer? 

When raids failed to shut Cannabis and Fine Edibles (CAFE) on Harbord a couple of weeks back, the cops and city bylaw enforcement officers turned to barricading the front doors with concrete barriers. It’s the new bulwark in the war on legalization. 

Then we were treated to the spectacle of cops unwittingly barricading a tenant who lived upstairs at CAFE’s Fort York location. The cops came back to release the accidental prisoner and re-barricade the joint. But that didn’t stop the owners from bringing in their own heavy equipment and reopening.

Even in B.C., where the fight against prohibition started, the courts have ordered the closure of dozens of dispensaries, despite legal challenges over “reasonable access” for medical cannabis patients.

Some has been made by police and city officials that these shops are selling illegal product, and that customers don’t know what they’re getting. There have also been not-so-vague allusions to connections to organized crime. 

But as long as product of government-approved Licensed Producers (LP) is not making the grade, the so-called illicit market (which has been around for a lot longer) will fill the void.

Besides, who are we kidding? The corporate heavyweights behind Big Bud aren’t exactly lighting up Bay Street. 

In fact, some of the industry’s biggest hitters find themselves in the crosshairs of Health Canada and industry regulators over accusations of investor fraud and, in the case of CannTrust, reportedly cultivating product on the side and selling it to markets overseas. At Canopy, the country’s largest LP, there has been a big shakeup at the top in the face of declining stock prices. 

In Canada’s most populous province, meanwhile, the high hopes promised by the fact the current premier is a former hash dealer (and reportedly a stoner to this day) are up in smoke. Dozens of municipalities have opted out of licensing retail cannabis businesses.

Queen’s Park has announced another lottery to give away 50 more cannabis store licenses next month, with 13 of those slated for Toronto. You’ll need to have a storefront leased, a bank letter confirming access to $250,000 in cash and a $50,000 letter of credit. The hope is that more stores will mean more avenues to sell government-sanctioned product and provide a much-needed economic boost to an industry not meeting high expectations. 

But it all just adds up to another chapter in government efforts to monopolize the market. And so the struggle to set the plant free continues. What’s a person gotta do to get some decent weed around here? 


Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content