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The Plaid Zebra: Will Canada’s Cannabis Future Be a Stoner’s Paradise or Corporate Nightmare?

The Plaid Zebra – Miroslav Tomoski

In the Nixon administration’s hallmark hammering tone, John Ehrlichman, a former aide to the President, summed up the motivation behind the War on Drugs by saying, “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people…Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

The quote comes from a 1994 interview with journalist Dan Baum. Ehrlichman’s admission demonstrates that we are ready to carve a path through our misinformed past towards a more realistic understanding of drug prohibition.

 “WE KNEW WE COULDN’T MAKE IT ILLEGAL TO BE EITHER AGAINST THE WAR OR BLACK PEOPLE,” EHRLICHMAN TOLD BAUM, “BUT BY GETTING THE PUBLIC TO ASSOCIATE THE HIPPIES WITH MARIJUANA AND BLACKS WITH HEROIN, AND THEN CRIMINALIZING BOTH HEAVILY, WE COULD DISRUPT THOSE COMMUNITIES. WE COULD ARREST THEIR LEADERS, RAID THEIR HOMES, BREAK UP THEIR MEETINGS, AND VILIFY THEM NIGHT AFTER NIGHT ON THE EVENING NEWS.”

Ehrlichman’s colleagues have since suggested that the quote was either a joke or a fabrication and remain certain that Tricky Dick’s crusade on dope was born out of a thirst for justice rather than bigotry. But whether or not the War on Drugs was sinister from the day it slithered out of the Nixon White House, nations around the world are beginning to consider whether it’s caused more problems than it’s solved.

Canada, recent events have given the country reason to believe that the war on cannabis in particular is winding down.

The reason for marijuana’s prohibition in 1923 has baffled historians who haven’t been able to find any record of a debate on the issue. The closest they’ve come to an explanation is a late-night Senate session in which the government seemed to arbitrarily add cannabis to a list of banned substances that included opium.

Though we may never know the Senate’s thinking, recent studies conducted by Forum Research show that two thirds of Canadians believe marijuana laws should be relaxed while nearly half believe that they should be able to grow the plant on their own. In late February, a Vancouver court opened a path to better regulations for medicinal users, and Prime Minister Trudeau has promised to legalize recreational use. A new era of legal cannabis is on its way to Canada, but what will it look like when it gets here?

Cannabis businesses today operate on the edge of legality and are locked in a legal no-man’s land where shaping the rules for the future means navigating a maze of regulations that weave through federal and provincial law as well as local bylaws.

“I saw five lawyers before I started this; two said great idea, two said terrible idea, the other said I don’t know,” Jeff Donaldson, co-owner of Bellwoods Dispensary in Toronto told The Plaid Zebra. “You have to have a little bit of guts because we could be shut down tomorrow. We exist in a grey area, at the whim of the city council and the Toronto police.”

With concrete legislation yet unwritten, legal ambiguity offers an opportunity for entrepreneurs to shape the future of cannabis across the country. But as Donaldson points out, deciding to enter the business is a risk. “When [dispensaries] first started…they would hire a 20-year-old employee and, all of a sudden, they’re facing a huge trafficking charge,” he says. “I never would have been first.”

In Windsor, Ontario Alex Newman and Jon Liedtke, co-owners of Higher Limits—the largest cannabis lounge in Canada—have taken the risk with the hope of growing the industry.

“We’re the first vapor lounge in South-West Ontario,” Liedtke says, “a month-and-a-half after we opened, one opened up around the corner.”

Though he admits that a lounge, which only provides a setting and the equipment needed to consume medicinal marijuana is less of a risk than a dispensary, which provides the substance itself. “The first [dispensary] that opens up: the owner will get arrested, he will go to jail, and it will be raided, and that’s just how it goes.”

Jeff Donaldson (left), Alex Newman (middle), Jon Liedtke (right) Photo: Eric Zdancewicz / The Plaid Zebra
Jeff Donaldson (left), Alex Newman (middle), Jon Liedtke (right) Photo: Eric Zdancewicz / The Plaid Zebra

Still, Jon believes that someone has to be willing to lead by example: “Windsor would have dispensaries, if we had a dispensary… It just takes someone who’s willing to take that risk.”

Dispensaries and lounges in Ontario are currently at risk of having their businesses effectively shut down as the provincial government has announced plans to introduce legislation that would regulate marijuana sales and consumption the same way it regulates tobacco. The Making Healthier Choices Act (MHCA) would prohibit smoking marijuana everywhere tobacco smoke is banned, while dispensaries would be severely limited in displaying or discussing their products with patients who often require assistance choosing the right strain for their illness.

Without the smoke, Higher Limits and other licensed clinics like it would effectively be turned into edibles lounges, which Liedtke considers to be an, “incredibly dangerous proposition,” since not everyone is open to smoking as they are to brownies and gummy bears.

Newman calls this new legislation “death by papercuts” and believes that the industry will suffer under the regulations. “It’ll make the business so unworkable that you just lose the business angle, and if that doesn’t work they can fine the hell out of you.”

A violation of the law would result in a fine anywhere from $5,000 to a maximum of $600,000 and, as the Windsor entrepreneurs point out, any court challenge against the restrictions could place a further financial burden on their business.

Like many lounges and dispensaries, one of the reasons Higher Limits chose their location was that the neighborhood and the surrounding businesses were open to the idea. Their site had been equipped with a ventilation system that removed smoke from the building without disturbing the surrounding shops.

The Ontario Ministry of Health (MOH) told The Plaid Zebra that its proposed legislation would offer, “reasonable and precautionary safeguards against second-hand exposure to medical marijuana smoke by members of the public, including employees, patrons and visitors to facilities that serve medical marijuana patients.”

But with their customers banned from smoking inside the lounge, the new law would force patients to join tobacco smokers on the sidewalk and disrupt the local businesses Alex and Jon have worked to build positive relationships with.

According to one MOH official, the new regulations “provide businesses, employers, and the public with clear and consistent rules, within a single statute.”

But while the government’s ban on tobacco smoke is backed by decades of research, the MOH did not comment on whether they have any reason to believe that marijuana is as harmful as cigarettes or why two chemically unique substances should be governed under the same regulations.

The current legal limbo has left businesses to deal with law enforcement agents who operate within the blurred limits of the law. While the MHCA has yet to take effect, Higher Limits has already been confronted by Tobacco Enforcement, which considers the Volcano vaporizers they provide to their patients e-cigarettes. But Newman insists that the vaporizers are only used to consume marijuana and have been approved by Health Canada for that purpose. The lounge, which sets its own age limit at 18, has been barred from allowing individuals under the legal tobacco consumption age of 19 to use the Volcano, despite its similarity to several other devices that have not been restricted.

The Ontario Government announced its new legislation after Premier Kathleen Wynne had expressed interest in allowing recreational marijuana to be sold by the LCBO. Sending further mixed signals, the announcement of the MHCA came just weeks after license holders celebrated the case of Allard v Queen, in which BC Judge Michael Phelan ruled that the controversial Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR)—prohibiting medical users from cultivating their own plants—were an infringement on patients’ Charter rights. Under the MMPR regulations, new license holders were required to buy their medical marijuana from federally licensed producers who have become major warehouse grow ops under the government mandated program.

Both Liedtke and Newman consider much of the current cannabis legislation to be the result of a lack of education about a substance that has been banned for nearly a century. “The conversation is being dominated by ‘health experts’ who have never looked at weed, never smoked a joint, they don’t know [anything about it],” Liedtke says. Judge Phelan seems to agree.

According to the CBC, the judge called Cpl. Shane Homequist, the RCMP’s expert witness in the Allard case, “the most egregious example of [a] so-called expert.”

He went on to say that Homequist’s testimony could hardly be taken as evidence because he “possessed none of the qualifications of usual expert witnesses. His assumptions and analysis were shown to be flawed. His methodologies were not shown to be accepted by those working in his field. The factual basis of his various opinions was uncovered as inaccurate.”

“Currently all of the experts happen to be criminals,” Newman points out. “If you want to discuss your expertise in the marijuana industry, you’re admitting that you are, in fact, a criminal.”

In order to help cannabis make the transition into a legitimate business, Liedtke and Newman have created the Canadian Cannabis Confederation to inform lawmakers and ensure that the industry is represented by those the regulations affect.

“We realized that there was a need for some kind of a cohesive voice that was actually represented by people who understand what this substance is and what the impacts are.” Liedtke says.

One of the biggest challenges facing cannabis legalization in Canada is that much of the law remains unwritten. The courts, unlike the parliament, have largely mandated the medical use of marijuana, as with the most recent decision that left the government five months to develop a new system before the country’s medical program expires.

In the meantime, many medical users are first-time smokers who have decided to try an alternative medicine but have not been provided the guidance to know which strain is right for them, nor have they been taught how to consume it. In fact, very few official regulations and resources exist to help patients, who are largely left to find medical advice on Google. When information can be found, it is provided by websites like Leafly, which does not substitute for medical professionals.

“The biggest impediment to [medicinal marijuana] is the fact that doctors still aren’t technically trained in this, because it’s a court ordered thing,” Newman says. “[Just because] the courts say, ‘fine you have to have medical marijuana’, doesn’t necessarily mean that the medical schools are now teaching this.”

“The eyes of the world right now are on Canada,” Liedtke says, with a hope that the new Liberal government will take the blank slate the courts have offered to correct the past mistakes and create a legalization model for the world. “I think the people in the business now are just really emboldened. The main reason that we opened up Higher Limits was because Justin Trudeau got elected,” Liedtke says.

Trudeau’s promise of legalization has even brought big corporate players into the game, with Canada’s two largest pharmacy chains, London Drugs and Shoppers Mart, expressing interest in providing medical marijuana. But as the battle with the Ontario Government continues, it threatens to cripple the dispensary program and create a recreational system based on the restrictive Liquor Control Board. “This is Canada,” says Donaldson, who prefers the Washington state model in which dispensaries continue to operate, “we do not do freedom here, we do bureaucracy.”

After decades of thriving under the black market a rich culture has developed around cannabis and laid the foundation for a free market model that has shown the potential to be quite effective under minimal regulations.

“The underground market is stepping up and they’re filling the absence of legislation.” Liedtke points to the example of the high standards current producers have imposed on themselves despite being part of an illegal industry. “They’re child-proofing their packages without regulation…because now that there is actually competition: they have to compete.”

For the time being the illegal market has shown just how effective a free market can be. “Making people happy is a good business move” Donaldson says. “It’s in our own interest to do everything above board and really safe and proper.”

But there’s no knowing how the system will look once it becomes a legitimate business. Currently, the majority of producers are members of the cannabis culture forced into existence by the law and embraced by those with enough enthusiasm for their product to provide the best quality and experience. But in the coming years, as the government established licensed producers and other major corporations enter the industry, the face of cannabis in Canada could be completely transformed.

“At this point, we already have the best distribution system in the world,” Newman says, “it’s called privacy rights, your cell phone, and Fed Ex. There’s a risk to it, and that risk is going to be taken away, but in terms of; will the products be better? Will the end consumer be better [off]?…I don’t know.”

As the war on drugs turns into the battle for legalization, the future of the industry is in the hands of those who dare to live on the edge of prohibition. And with the government waiting in the wings to turn legal weed into tax revenue, Canada walks a line between stoner’s paradise and corporate nightmare.

“One of the things a lot of people don’t think about is that legalization means regulation,” Alex says, “and a lot of times things that are legal are less free.”

By Jon Liedtke

Jon Liedtke is a writer and musician in Windsor Ontario. He tells stories using words, pictures, audio and video.

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