In nearly 30 years of being a cannabis activist, Dana Larsen wasn't arrested a single time—until two weeks ago.
Larsen, 44, had been handing out pot seeds in Calgary as part of his Overgrow Canada cross-country tour when cops showed up to the Days Inn venue and took him into custody. He was subsequently charged with one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking and one count of trafficking marijuana and spent the night in jail.
Larsen started fighting cannabis laws while a student at BC's Simon Fraser University in the 1980s. After he graduated, he linked up with prominent pot activist Marc Emery and began working for Cannabis Culture magazine.
"Marc and I would work together but he'd be the guy getting arrested and I'd kind of work in the background helping him get out," Larsen told VICE while making a stop in Toronto last week as part of his tour.
"It's my turn, I guess."
Over the years, he's helped start BC and federal Marijuana parties, co-founded the Vancouver Seed Bank, and in 2013, launched Sensible BC, a pro-legalization lobby group. He told a crowd at Kensington Market's Hot Box Cafe last week that his goal with giving away one million seeds on this tour is to wear down law enforcement.
"I want so many plants to be growing across Canada that the police can no longer keep up, that they end up giving up," he said.
Larsen told VICE his tactic is generally to engage in civil disobedience that causes a stir but won't necessarily get you in serious trouble. Aside from the seeds giveaway, he made headlines for mailing a gram of pot to each of the 184 Liberal MPs.
In his speech at the Hot Box, Larsen asked audience members to imagine a time in the future when their grandkids would be asking them about the prohibition era in disbelief .
"Let's make it so we can end this war on marijuana now, in our time, in the next few years," he said, to loud applause.
"We have a special opportunity now but let's not waste it."
The government has not yet set a timeline for legalization, but many activists, business owners, and pot smokers are operating as if it's already here. And, unlike in the past, there seems to be more of a push to work with politicians and law enforcement in order to create good policy around the new regime. In addition to Larsen, here are some of the more high profile figures in the expanding cannabis scene:
The former Toronto police chief is now heading up the pot file for the federal Liberals as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Justice. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told VICE Blair wasn't available for an interview on the marijuana file but that the government "will design a system of strict regulation, with strong sanctions for those who sell outside this system, to ensure we keep marijuana out of the hands of children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals. We will take the time that is necessary to get this right."
Blair will be leading a task force that examines different approaches to legalization.
At a policy forum in February, he said the government's goals are to keep weed out of the hands of kids and to dismantle the black market. While he expressed "shock" that there were 22,000 weed possession charges laid in 2014, he said for now "the current laws remain in force and should be obeyed." Activists estimate there have been approximately 25,000 possession arrests in Canada since Trudeau came into power.
When Abi Roach opened Roach-o-Rama, a head shop, in Toronto in 2000, there were barely any others around; three years later, she followed up with the launch of Hotbox, one of the first lounges in the GTA that allowed people to smoke up inside. By chance, the launch coincided with an Ontario court decision that (briefly) made possession of pot legal.
Hotbox recently underwent renovations, launching an upstairs medi-lounge that's geared toward medical users. But most of Roach's energy is currently focused on revamping Bill 45, Ontario's vaping legislation that forbids smoking weed in public and is threatening her business and others like it.
She's had meetings with politicians, including the province's Ministry of Health and Long-term Care, and this week organized a town hall for stakeholders in the cannabis industry to meet with local politicians in an effort to foster better relationships. Roach told VICE politicians seem to understand that the bill, which more or less equates cannabis to tobacco, was "caused by public hysteria" that's not based in evidence.
"I'm not giving up 16 years of my life for a bad bill," she said.
Roach also recently started publishing Spliff magazine, a free publication that covers the local weed scene, and owns weed tourism properties in Jamaica.
Going to jail hasn't stopped Don Briere from building the country's largest empire of illegal pot shops.
Briere, 64, owns a massive chain of Weeds, Glass, and Gifts dispensaries, including more than 28 locations in Vancouver and Toronto, earning him a reputation of owning the Tim Hortons of cannabis.
He was convicted of drug cultivation, trafficking, possession of a firearm in 2001, which landed him a four-year jail term and was later sentenced to an additional two and a half years in prison for violating parole by setting up an illegal dispensary. His recent venture, a vapour lounge Good Weeds that sold recreational weed to patrons in Toronto's east end, was raided and shut down by cops soon after it opened.
When he spoke VICE at the time, he was defiant, saying the raid amounted to "willful blindness" and has since opened up more dispensaries in Toronto.
"The cannabis wars that have been raging for 60 to 70 years are now over, as declared by the government. We'd like to know what's going on."
Briere told VICE he sells 50 percent of a new franchise for $50,000. He said he pays medical, dental, and pension for his employees and contributes to communities where he's located—unlike organized crime.
While many entrepreneurs looking to get into the cannabis industry are women—including dispensary owners, bakers, lounge owners—the changing state of the laws make for a lot of bureaucratic uncertainty.
Women Grow is a networking group that helps newcomers navigate those legal pitfalls, bringing together women who work above board and those who are operating in the grey market at monthly events. It started in the US but now has chapters in Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria.
"There's thousands of women meeting across North America talking about cannabis entrepreneurship," said Lisa Campbell, chairwoman of the Toronto Women Grow branch.
Campbell said much of the medical marijuana industry in Canada was shaped by women, pointing out the first medical dispensary in the country, the BC Compassion Club Society, was founded by Hilary Black. However, she said women, who are typically small business owners, are being cut out of the industry because of prohibition, as most licensed producers are male-dominated.
"We are crushing it but we're not being included in legalization," she said.
Meanwhile, women who are starting their own businesses are "making all these amazing products that technically aren't legal."
Campbell said what's happening the US states such as Colorado and California serve as a blueprint for the emerging market in Canada. She hopes to see Canada adopt an approach that gives different small and medium-sized businesses licenses, allowing them to compete in the market.
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