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Pot power play

2016 paved the way for legal weed in Canada. The real test will come in 2017.

2016 paved the way for legal weed in Canada — the real test comes in 2017

Marijuana advocates were jubilant last November in the days after Justin Trudeau became prime minister with a promise to “legalize, regulate and restrict” the drug. “We’re dancing in the streets,” said Don Briere, one of Canada’s most notorious marijuana entrepreneurs, at the time.

But the road toward legalization hasn’t been smooth. And as the country gears up for the next crucial juncture — legislation that will legalize recreational marijuana expected this spring — momentous changes that have already occurred this year provide clues for what’s to come, and who will be left out.

New weed order

In the first week of 2016, the Liberals tapped Toronto’s former chief of police, Bill Blair, to lead the government’s marijuana legalization file. Blair, who retired in 2015 and successfully ran for federal office, was known for opposing any easing of Canada’s drug laws and was vilified for his role in the mass arrest of protesters during the 2010 G20 summit.  

While the Conservatives praised the appointment, marijuana advocates were shaken.

“I worry that the police chief will have a prohibition-based bias,” long-time cannabis activist Jodie Emery told VICE News following the announcement. “I hope [he] will bear in mind that many people have paid with their lives and their time, and have been arrested and gone to prison.”

In recent months, Blair has signalled his preference for the big marijuana companies currently in charge of producing and distributing the product for medical use in Canada, and has slammed the illegal dispensaries as “reckless” and only out to make a “fast buck.” This doesn’t bode well for the future of the shops, which have become the most popular way for Canadians to buy their cannabis, and are largely supplied by patients who grow their own supply and illicitly sell their surpluses.

But just as those on the front lines of cannabis activism were feeling dejected, a BC federal court issued a landmark decision in February that ruled Canadian medical patients had the right to grow their own supply. The decision struck down existing rules that only allowed patients to purchase their supply from one of the federally licensed producers (LPs). It forced Health Canada to scrap its Marihuana for Medical Purposes Act (MMPR) and rewrite its regulations. In August, it introduced the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) that allows patients to grow a restricted number of plants for their own use, and laid the groundwork for any future recreational market.

Big pot gets bigger

More than 35 companies hold licenses from Health Canada to cultivate and distribute marijuana to the 70,000 or so people with prescriptions for it. With a limited market and complex and costly government regulations to abide by, it’s a struggle for them to turn a profit.

Even so, the biggest players like Aurora and Canopy Growth Corp., better known by its subsidiary Tweed that’s recently partnered with rapper Snoop Dogg, have nevertheless been gearing up to dominate the recreational market — at home and abroad — confident they will be sanctioned to play an integral role in the future supply chain. Both companies, for instance, expanded to giant new growing facilities, to serve numbers well beyond the current pool of medical patients.

A number of licensed producers also entered medical cannabis markets abroad, from Croatia and Germany to Australia.

Canopy further solidified its reputation as Canada’s pot powerhouse after it started trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) this summer, the first time a marijuana company had been listed on a major North American exchange. “We have been the outsider until now,” the company’s CEO Bruce Linton declared at the launch party.

Come November, Canopy was crowned the first marijuana “unicorn” after it was valued at more than a billion dollars, a feat fueled by a number of cannabis legalization votes in the U.S. There’s now a dozen or so publicly traded Canadian weed companies, the market valuations of which have tripled or quadrupled in a short period of time.

Weed stocks got so hot later in the month that six of those companies had their trading halted after a massive price surge tripped a circuit breaker.

Task force

Among the year’s most anticipated weed moments was the findings by the government’s special task force on legalization, released earlier this month. The force outlines dozens of recommendations in the 112-page report that was widely praised as progressive and realistic.

“We are the largest developed nation to ever move on legalization,” the task force’s chair Anne McLellan, a former Liberal cabinet minister who once described marijuana as a “dangerous substance” in 2005, told reporters.

Although it’s unclear whether the government will adopt any of the report’s recommendations when it tables its proposed legalization law next Spring, they provide the clearest indication to date on what any future recreational regime might look like.

The recommendations include setting a minimum buying age of 18 years old for recreational weed, allowing recreational users to grow their own, and encouraging provinces to consider distribution through storefronts. While this might seem like good news for the rogue dispensaries, the task force also urges the government to utilize the existing licensed producers in the recreational market — which inherently excludes illegal growers and sellers.

And when it comes to cannabis concentrates like shatter that can contain THC levels higher than 90 percent, the report calls on the government to impose a harsher tax to deter use, rather than a THC cap.

Ongoing crackdown

In spite of the fact that laws around selling marijuana have always banned storefront sales, hundreds of marijuana shops opened up across the country following Trudeau’s win. Last week, Canada’s so-called “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery was arrested and charged for the umpteenth time for flouting drug laws, this time for his role in opening eight illegal marijuana shops in Montreal. He and his wife Jodie have long criticized the existing regime of licensed producers, and accuse the government’s legalization plans as being overly restrictive and just another form of prohibition.

“There are a number of loud activists who will resist virtually every level of regulation,” Toronto-based cannabis lawyer Trina Fraser told VICE News. “And if somebody wants to get into the new legal system, and they have criminal records, they might be excluded and never allowed in.”

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