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Justin Trudeau's Battle for Legal Weed in Canada Is Going to Be a Total Mess

Newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly promised to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to marijuana for recreational use in Canada, making it the first G7 nation to do so.

by Rachel Browne
Dec 10 2015, 7:15pm

Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

The air was thick and everyone was giddy at the grand opening of one of Toronto's newest marijuana shops, one of a dozen that have popped up here over the last few weeks. No one seemed to care about, or even notice, the police car idling just outside.

Hundreds of people dropped by 416 Medicinal that day to celebrate and to partake of the special deals — like $100 ounces of medical marijuana and free edibles for new members. Attendees also got to hang out with Canada's cannabis activist power couple, Marc Emery and his wife Jodie, who were flown in to "budtend" the occasion, helping patients select the best product to soothe their ailments.

The pair, like the store's employees, wore white lab coats adorned with green crosses on the front pocket. "The doctor is in!" Marc cheered as he wrapped his arms around girls with bright green wigs and marijuana leaf accessories to pose for a photo. A tray of "slightly medicated" beet and carrot juice shots floated by.

"I would suggest getting a prescription so that you can get in on this," said one employee, pointing to the glass jars on the counter with various marijuana strains, such as Aphrodite and California Orange. Below, there were mountains of cannabis-infused chocolates, macaroons, and lollipops. "It's important we do things right here, by providing to people with valid prescriptions," she added.

In the end, the cops never came. But this shop, and the estimated 300 other dispensaries like it in the country, nonetheless operate illegally — at least for now. In Canada, only people with medical prescriptions for marijuana can legally buy it, through the mail, from the 20 companies that hold licenses from the federal government to produce and sell dried marijuana. Six more companies currently hold licenses to cultivate, but not to sell, the product.

Newly-inaugurated Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly promised to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to marijuana for recreational use in Canada, making it the first G7 nation to do so. Trudeau has long criticized his Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper for rolling in new mandatory minimum sentences for cannabis-related offenses, and for ignoring evidence-based approaches to cannabis research and policy decisions.

Related: From 'Raving Maniacs' to the 'Prince of Pot': A History of Weed in Canada

According to the most recent data from Statistics Canada, almost 4,000 adults convicted for marijuana possession were sentenced to prison from 2008 to 2012.

In spite of its pitfalls, Canada's existing federal medical marijuana infrastructure, honed under the Conservatives, has been hailed as the most sophisticated in the world. Estimates suggest that a new recreational market would have as many as seven million customers and a market value of $5 billion a year — setting it up to be the largest government-monitored marijuana jurisdiction on the planet.

It's unclear exactly when or how legalization will happen. And it certainly won't be easy to roll out, with experts and Trudeau himself saying it could take years. But for many, it doesn't matter: Trudeau in power means the drug is as good as legal.

But reality paints a different picture.

So far, under the Liberals' reign that began last month, federal and local police forces across the country have carried out several raids on dispensaries. Marijuana-related criminal charges continue to be pursued. 45 days after Trudeau came to power, cannabis advocates who rejoiced at his victory are getting anxious at the silence.

Some are threatening to "revolt" if he doesn't get down to business soon, as questions abound over who will be included in and pushed out of Canada's new weed regime.

The fruits of an independent grower operating under a former regulatory regime in Ontario. Photo by Anthony Tuccitto 

Growing It Alone

One of the first bumps on the long road toward legalization will likely be the standoff between the thousands of people who have held licenses to grow their own plants for more than a decade — a number of whom illicitly supply to dispensaries — and the 26 government-sanctioned companies that have recently superseded them as the official growers of medical marijuana.

Starting in 1999, Canadians could possess dried marijuana and produce their own plants for medical purposes if they got an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. The following year, the government grudgingly set up the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) in response to an Ontario court ruling that found the prohibition of marijuana possession violated basic civil liberties by making it almost impossible for patients to legally access cannabis.

This new system, the world's first national medical marijuana regime, also marked Health Canada's chokehold on a drug the department never believed had medical benefits and refuses to refer to by its correct spelling.

The MMAR allowed patients to get a special license to produce their own plants, get someone else with a license to produce it for them, or allow them to buy one strain of marijuana through Health Canada.

But this wasn't good enough. The MMAR was dealt a series of blows in court, with patients arguing the program still didn't ensure reasonable access to medical cannabis. That being said, the number of people enrolled in the program exploded from 477 in 2002 to almost 22,000 in 2012. Most of them held a license to grow cannabis, though the program was never designed to allow for large-scale grow operations.

For years, police complained about safety hazards associated with these private growers — like heat lamps, electrical malfunctions, and flooding. In 2011, federal police in Mission, British Columbia, sounded the alarm over growers being violently robbed of their crops by an organized crime group, a trend that was seen in other parts of the province. Shortly after, the government decided to take things into its own hands and do away with the MMAR system.

In 2013, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) came into force, replacing the MMAR. It's the system that's still in place today, in which only companies with government licenses can grow and distribute marijuana under strict conditions. Doctors are the gatekeepers for the system, but because of a lack of research and guidance from Health Canada, most refuse to sign prescriptions for the drug.

Recent stats say the entire number of patients registered for medical cannabis is around 40,000. Individuals must now purchase their products through these companies alone.

Whether MMAR license holders can continue to grow is an ongoing topic of dispute, and the substance of a class action lawsuit by patients who argue that the MMPR is unconstitutional and should be struck down. Until the federal court makes a decision on the matter, it has granted an injunction so that they can continue growing.

Related: Canada's Medical Weed Industry Braces for Legalization if Liberals Win Election

Because this case deals solely with a class of medical, not recreational, users, it's difficult to say whether the court's decision will have any impact on recreational users in the future.

But whatever happens, legalization will need to account for the interests of the people who rely on it for medicine, John Conroy, the lawyer representing the patients, said.

"There is a distinction between medical and social use," he said. "People seem to think that if you can get marijuana socially, you don't need to have special rules for medical users."

That's a concern in some US states where marijuana is legal for any purpose, but which cap how much patients can buy. 

"Also, these patients want to be in control of how their medicine is made and how much it costs. They want to buy products that are certified to be medical grade, not compromised by what some huge producer will put in it," he said. "So allowing individuals to produce for themselves and control the cost is the big factor in our case here, and that's something that should be allowed in Canada's future system of legalized marijuana."

Infographic by Jane Kim

Risky Business

A bunch of dachshunds, one very pregnant, looked up at their owners, who were smoking their homemade shatter in a living room in Ontario.

Brothers Jeff and Ben — who requested their real names and exact location be omitted out of concern for prosecution — had spent the morning tending to their cannabis plants, as they do every day. They, along with other members of their family, have MMAR licenses to grow for themselves and a small roster of local patients. They supply to a few dispensaries in Toronto, under law enforcement's nose.

"Our customers all love it, they just eat it up," said Jeff as he opened the concealed door to a room where the plants are kept. It takes a minute to adjust to the bright yellow lights. "Once we started to get recognition for our product, we couldn't keep the stuff longer than a minute."

There are about 50 plants, three different strains, that have a couple more weeks to go until they're ready for harvest. There's another batch starting to grow in a room upstairs.

Ben said he recently tried a friend's product from a licensed producer, but couldn't bear it. "If I could find where I threw it on the floor, I'd show it to you," he laughed. "It's ground up like coffee. There's no smell. It tasted like shit. And the whole thing is just mean because of the prices they charge."

The secret to a high-quality crop, they say, is constant devotion to each and every plant.

"We're here at least two hours a day trimming them, talking to them, playing music for them. Their favorite is Michael Jackson," Ben said.

This family talks about legalization all the time. They hope to expand further and finally bring their business out into the open. They dream of being able to take orders online. "We're definitely not the only ones around here with licenses. Everybody knows about each other, but we don't all talk about it. But we're really proud of what we do. The recreational market could be a big industry in these parts for sure."

A huge part of their business is the extraction techniques they use, with the chemical butane, on parts of the plant to produce concentrated forms of marijuana. "The patients don't want to smoke their bud anymore these days, it's this they want," says Jeff as he unwraps a package of hard brown shatter — also referred to as wax, sap, and budder, depending on what it looks like.

One of the Ontario brothers at home. Photo by Anthony Tuccitto 

The product created is smoked or vaporized with a special device and heated with a blowtorch. This is commonly known as "dabbing."

Jeff holds his up to the window as it glows in the sun. "Just look at that color and clarity. Hands down we have the nicest and best out there. It's a monster."

"It gives you that instant pain relief without having to consume a lot. It's like a kick in the ass that you want," he said.

Their operation is radically different from those of the licensed producers, who are subjected to monthly inspections by Health Canada, and must follow strict protocol on how they cultivate and produce their marijuana. All facilities must have high-quality security systems throughout. Anyone who enters the facilities in which the plants are grown must sign in and out, wear a hazmat suit, and cover their hair and mouth. Shoes are also covered. Any recalled products are posted online. Licensed producers are required to destroy any and all product found to be in violation of these guidelines.

Ask any licensed producer, also known as LPs, and they will boast about their "state of the art" facilities and growing techniques.

A big one of those LPs is Canntrust, whose production facility is in Vaughan, Ontario and operates under a a license to produce granted by Health Canada in 2014. 

"We're organic," said CEO Eric Paul Sitting, a pharmacist by training. "We want to be pesticide-free and we only use naturally occurring elements. That was our design."

"With this new government, however they are going to legalize it, they want to get the illegals out of the business," he continued. "The back end is the gangs, whoever controls those grows."

"We know there's a lot of pesticides in those products. Heavy-duty pesticides. Unsanitary conditions. Some of that stuff is pretty damned dangerous for you," he added.

"So you think you're getting something that will give you a recreational high, or may help your condition. But … they are poisons."

Yet, the new corporate enterprises surrounding medical marijuana are a sore subject for patients and purist growers who originally entered the MMAR. When the LPs first started, it's said that some had to turn to MMAR growers to get the original seeds and dried weed to get their businesses off the ground. What's more, many key growers and employees of several LPs had their own gardens under the MMAR.

Merely seeing the words "licensed producers" prompts a visceral reaction.

In a closed Facebook group called MMAR Coalition Against Repeal, with more than 5,500 members, people share articles on topics ranging from legalization in Canada and abroad to discussing their run-ins with the law. When asked by VICE News to share their thoughts on licensed producers, dozens immediately posted their replies.

"Ya the LPs fucked all of us and didnt even lube up," writes one member. "My life has been much more difficult since 2012."

"The New Licensed Producers are 'Strain-Thieve's and profiteer's making a living off the Backs of sick people...Animals.!" (sic), adds another.

One grower also chimes in: "Ain't nothing better than my homegrown legal medicine, will never ever [buy] from these LP's, their quality will never match up to anyone's home garden for one reason, there's no love in these mass warehouses."

A worker at Bedrocan, a licensed producer in Toronto, checks the crop. Photo by Anthony Tuccitto 

Later that day, Chuck Rifici sent an unsolicited email to VICE News about the perspectives shared in the group. Rifici is the former CEO and co-founder of Tweed Marijuana Inc. — now under Canopy Growth Corp., the country's biggest supplier of medical marijuana — and is currently the chief financial officer of Trudeau's Liberal Party. He recently left his position at Tweed to join the board of another licensed producer, Aurora Cannabis Inc.

"Saw your post on the MMAR coalition site. You'll certainly get one [type of] view from that forum," Rifici wrote, offering to connect VICE News with Chris Mayerson, a grower under the MMAR who co-founded Aurora, which was granted a license this year.

Mayerson became licensed to grow medical marijuana for patients in 2006. He is not a patient himself, but said he always had a love for gardening and knew he could transfer those skills to growing cannabis.

But he was frustrated by the lack of oversight provided by Health Canada. "I requested inspections to make sure everything was done above board, but it was difficult to get a reply," Mayerson told VICE News. "I found it really difficult to be accountable."

Because of the court injunction, he can still grow under his MMAR license, and continues to grow medical cannabis for one patient.

"I can understand the frustrations many patients have toward the LP system. I would be lying if I said the MMPR system was perfect," he said. "If there's anything I could say to some of the patients out there who are concerned about the transition to this LP model, who take out anger and frustration at them, saying they're greedy profiteers, it's not the intention. We're not the only LP who started out providing for patients on a one-on-one basis and just saw this as an opportunity to scale up and provide more people with medicine and legitimize the market."

He added that he "absolutely" thinks people should be able to grow their own cannabis in a recreational market "within reason."

The Grey Market

Like Jeff and Ben, Eric Paul from Canntrust says he is looking forward to tapping into the recreational market. He says the biggest question on everybody's minds right now is what the distribution channels will be under legalization.

In an ideal world, these independent growers, dispensaries, and the licensed producers would coexist in harmony. But in reality, speculation looms about the future of the flourishing illegal or "grey market" dispensaries that run parallel to the licensed producer system, and is closely linked to the MMAR growers.

Even though the restrictions on LPs are prohibitive to the point where they are unable to keep up with the demands of the market, they hope the new government will give credence to the system in which they have already invested millions of dollars.

"I don't know where it's going. But it's exciting times," said Paul. "I do think it's going to be a hell of a lot better than it's been for all of us who are producers. We've invested a lot of money, and haven't got the uptick in the market that we expected because of the availability from these illegal, these grey market dispensaries and also the negative impact of the Conservative government on doctors' psyche."

This is a sentiment held by many other licensed producers who spoke to VICE News.

And according an exclusive poll for VICE News by Forum Research, 40 percent of Canadians agree that corporations should be the ones to grow and distribute legal marijuana only through government agencies. The sampling group was also asked whether they want consumers to be free to grow their own product and distribute it, under an age restriction. 15 percent said they would favor this model and 17 percent said they would want a combination of the two models; 28 percent said they would not choose either model.

Related: In Canada, Parents Vow to Give Their Sick Children Medical Marijuana — Even if Doctors Won't

"I would think [that] licensed producers, which are large, regulated, and under controlled shipping and accounting procedures, would be the first choice for delivery because that's the first methodology to gain control of the supply chain," Bruce Linton, CEO of Canopy Growth, said in October.

Big Weed is taking root in Canada, albeit at a glacial pace, and moving into the popular edibles market — no thanks to the government.

Medical cannabis at Bedrocan. Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

In a unanimous landmark decision earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of patients who argued they should be able to consume their medicine in any form, including through edibles and extracts. Until then, licensed producers could provide only dried buds.

According to the Globe and Mail, industry insiders assumed this decision would mean Health Canada would allow licensed producers to create and sell edibles such as lozenges, baked goods, and lip balm. But the department allowed them only to produce and sell concentrated cannabis oil.

Finally, this week, Health Canada granted its first license to sell cannabis oil to Ontario-based licensed producer Peace Naturals Project. Their product is priced at a whopping $125 for a 30-milliliter bottle.

Other licenses are expected to be granted in the coming weeks. Brent Zettl, the CEO of licensed producer Prairie Plant Systems Inc., told reporters that his company is still waiting for a final inspection, but that it will begin selling its oils, with or without the government's approval, by the middle of the month.

Referring to his company's 1,600 clients, who are getting impatient, Zettl said "I don't expect [Health Canada] to be very happy about it, but it's the lesser of two evils."

But even with the new ability to sell oils, the licensed producers still won't be able to compete with the dispensaries who can offer any cannabis product they want to, including ready-to-eat baked goods, a myriad of oils of varying potency, and topical ointments. Because of the slow-moving bureaucratic process, there's no telling how long it will take for them to be allowed to match these products, putting dispensaries in an even better position to succeed.

Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, said it's impossible to keep up with the rapid rate at which dispensaries are opening in Canada. And many of them do not apply for business licenses. She estimates there are at least 300.

Health Canada does not keep track of them because it sees them as illegal businesses.

"We don't want what happened in Washington state after they legalized, when medical patients were thrown under the bus. Before, medical patients were allowed to use medical marijuana but not buy it," she said. "Then, when the recreational market was opened up, medical patients were expected to go to the new recreational dispensaries, which didn't have the same products at first, and the prices were prohibitive."

Shaw is ready to embrace legalization, but is consulting with the government to ensure that patients' rights remain a priority.

"We're hoping that patients get recognized,. They have always been on the front lines, and they have been suffering the most."

Marijuana dispensary in Toronto/Photo by Anthony Tuccitto 

Legalization: The New Prohibition?

Legalization is different from decriminalization, in that there are strings attached.

The Liberal campaign platform pledges to "design a new system of strict marijuana sales and distribution" and create stronger laws to "punish more severely" people who sell weed "outside of the new regulatory framework."

On top of that, they plan to strike marijuana consumption and incidental possession from the federal criminal code.

Back in Toronto, at the launch party at 416 Medicinal dispensary, Marc and Jodie Emery sat down on the green couches by the front window. Marc has been an outspoken critic of drug policy in Canada for decades, with a lengthy criminal record including a five-year stint in a US federal prison for selling marijuana seeds through the mail. He said he's been arrested another 28 times for marijuana-related offences.

And he smoked pot with Justin Trudeau in 2003 — or so he said.

"He claims he doesn't recall or that he didn't do it. But the reality is, that's not important now. He's got a lot on his plate," Emery said. "Does he need to remember that time we had lunch with some mutual friends? No. And it's quite possible I don't remember it clearly. There were a lot of joints being passed around at that table."

The day after the election, he was even more elated about Trudeau's plan for legalization. Finally, he would be vindicated after decades of letdowns and clashes with law enforcement.

But as the honeymoon period draws to a close, reality sets in. And Emery's worried about what the future holds.

"There's more to it than it just being 'legal.' Handing a monopoly to the licensed producers as they are is unacceptable. These are all people who did not have a hand in supporting our culture. Where were most of them before they got into the business? Everybody has to be able to grow their own, and be in the business without restrictive licenses."

Jodie, whose application to run as a federal candidate for the Liberal party was rejected earlier this year, said that as a marijuana activist in a country that is finally going to make the substance fully legal, she has been thinking about what her role will be. Now,the Emerys' message that prohibition is bad and doesn't work isn't relevant. She thought her job as an advocate for legalization was over, and she spent the last year going through an identity crisis.

"We need to get the argument out there so that the legalization doesn't become a new form of prohibition," she said.

416 Medicinal in Toronto. Photo by Anthony Tuccitto 

Damian Abraham contributed reporting to this article. 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne 

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