For good or bad, legal cannabis is with us now. But what are the impacts of legal weed in Watershed Country?
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE LAST TIME I USED MARIJUANA. It was Reading Week, 1979 – yikes – 40 years ago. A dozen of us in our third year at U. of T. busted loose for a weekend of skiing and partying at a Blue Mountain chalet. Turned out it was more partying than skiing, for even before the skis were off the car, someone was rolling a joint. Someone else was mixing up some brownies.
The weekend was a blur. I have vague memories of bursting into fits of laughter. At some point, we actually did go skiing, which was probably not a wise thing to do while stoned. What a strange and unnerving sensation: it felt like I was standing still, but the hill was moving under me, like a giant, Blue-Mountain-sized treadmill. In time, I began to feel terribly anxious and alarmed. I just wanted it to be over.
Live and learn. Never in the years since has it occurred to me to use pot. Not once.
I suppose almost everybody has a story like this from their misspent youth, and I’m telling it to you at the risk of some personal embarrassment. If my parents were still alive, I wouldn’t be telling it at all. However, my experience so many years ago sets the stage for this article, for in discussing the implications of legal cannabis, it’s important to see how the use of marijuana has evolved, at least for some. It’s not always about getting a buzz these days. And there need not be any stigma about it. Consider this story, related to me by my friend, who recounted a discussion that arose as her extended family gathered around the table at her brother’s house last Christmas. “I noticed a familiar bottle right there beside the salt and pepper,” she confides, having recognized a tincture bottle, the type in which medical cannabis is dispensed. “It prompted quite the conversation.”
It turns out that several family members – across the generations – were using marijuana regularly, more for medicinal purposes than recreation. “My 23-year-old nephew has chronic insomnia and works shifts,” she explained. “He says it’s been great in helping him get regular sleep. And my sister says it works wonders on her arthritis.” Even her 33- year-old daughter, who suffers from chronic pain related to operations she endured as a kid, uses pot. “And so do I,” she confided.
This was definitely a conversation that would never have occurred back in the day.
In my era, pot was always clandestine. It had been illegal since 1923, and if you were busted for possession – and by the 1980s, about 50,000 Canadians were each year – you could expect a fine, perhaps probation, and worst of all, a tick on your criminal record. But that didn’t stop my generation from indulging – in fact, during the Woodstock era, smoking dope was a rite of passage that fully 25 percent of us reported doing at least once. Almost everyone knew someone with connections to the black market. According to figures from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), marijuana use stabilized in the 1980s. It declined as the baby boomers settled into raising kids and pursuing careers and by 1997, only nine percent of the total population admitted to using pot in the past year.
But just when you thought marijuana was yesterday’s news, a couple of things happened. For one, the boomers’ kids – the millennial generation – came of age and embraced cannabis as their own. They turned out to be bigger users than my cohort ever was. CAMH says that cannabis use among young adults surged after 1993 and, by 2017, just over 39 percent of people aged 18 to 29 had used cannabis in the last year. Seems every generation has its fling.
But that’s only part of the story. Toward the end of the ’90s, marijuana re-emerged in a new light among the older crowd. Now in their 50s and feeling the aches and pains of aging for the first time, boomers turned to weed for relief. At first, skeptics scoffed, but converts were adamant: marijuana was not a cure, but a legitimate means to cope with the symptoms of conditions such as stress, insomnia, chronic pain and even some kinds of seizures. As more and more of the medical community came on board, marijuana was made legal for medical purposes in 2001. At the time, less than five percent of folks over 50 counted themselves as users, but since then, marijuana use among boomers has soared. In 2017, it was 29 percent.
Add it all up. Between the millennials and their parents – comprising the vast majority of the adult Canadian population – cannabis use stood at 15.7 percent in 2016. In one short year, the figure rose to 19.4 percent – about one in five of the total population. Now that recreational pot is legal, the numbers continue to climb.
THE CANNABIS PLANT is a hardy annual that thrives on neglect – there’s a reason they call it “weed”. It is the only plant in the world that produces cannabinoids – 113 of them – which are naturally occurring chemical compounds. Of these, two have particular significance. First is something called tetrahydrocannabinol, better known as “THC,” which gives marijuana its psychoactive effect. It’s the stuff that gets you high. Also of interest is cannabidiol, or “CBD,” which has no intoxicating properties, but is the active ingredient in marijuana’s medicinal capabilities. It’s the presence or absence of these – or a combination of both – that determines the potency of marijuana and how it is used.
Some varieties of marijuana plants have more THC than others. In my day, pot came from Mexico, where the sunny, hot climate is ideal for growing a sub-species called sativa. It has enough THC to be intoxicating and was the standard among stoners in the 1970s – this is the “Acapulco Gold” that Cheech and Chong smoked. But something changed during the Reagan era and its war on drugs. Under direction from the U.S., the Mexican government destroyed virtually the entire crop with herbicides and with its supply all but dried up, North America started to grow its own on home turf. This was the era when British Columbia gained a dubious reputation as a major marijuana producer. Trouble was, cannabis sativa isn’t suited to our colder climate, so a much more hardy variety – cannabis indica – was substituted. Not only will it grow where sativa won’t, indica is infinitely more potent. When seized and tested by U.S. law-enforcement agencies, indica crops of the 1990s would routinely register up to 30 percent THC. Back in my day, garden-variety weed was closer to 5 percent.
Much of the discussion about marijuana legalization has centered around its potency, its consistency and its purity. The logic behind legalization, it was argued, is that government control could guarantee these, making marijuana use less worrisome. Moreover, legalization would put a significant dent in – if not eliminate – the black market. And as if that weren’t incentive enough, politicians were positively salivating over the tax revenue it could generate. It wasn’t until the ascendancy of Justin Trudeau that full legalization was on the political radar. As of October 17, 2018, Canada became only the second country in the world – after Uruguay – to legalize cultivation, possession, acquisition and consumption of cannabis and its byproducts. As of this writing, it is legal to:
The introduction of recreational weed didn’t go as planned in Ontario because, at the last minute, the newly elected Conservative government scrapped the Liberals’ plan to sell pot through the LCBO. The new rules are still evolving, but licensed bricks-and- mortar shops will be up and running in the near future, now that virtually all the municipalities in Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward have voted and given retail cannabis their blessing.
Meanwhile, leaping light years ahead of the retail pack are several of Ontario’s First Nations – including Alderville and Tyendinaga here in Watershed country – who are embracing the legalization of pot with what can only be described as entrepreneurial fervour. Both bands have cashed in, big time, well ahead of the rest of the province. It’s easy to lose count of the number of retail dispensaries – open to the public – that have popped up on each reserve in the last year and a half. In Alderville that has a population of fewer than 1,000, there are eight of them, all found north of Cobourg along Highway 45, which has earned the new nickname “the Green Mile.” Tyendinaga, just east of Belleville on the Bay of Quinte, is home to no fewer than 50. Indigenous cannabis has been so successful that it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that marijuana has vaulted to the top as the driving force in the economies of both communities.
IN THE NAME OF RESEARCH, I dropped into the Medicine Wheel, Alderville’s first cannabis dispensary, that opened in June 2017 and is still the model by which others are judged. Before I arrived, I have to admit to some butterflies about what to expect: perhaps a guy in a trenchcoat selling dime bags from the back of his pickup? What a surprise to enter a welcoming and civilized environment. With the familiar riffs of Smells Like Teen Spirit setting the mood over the speakers, the store was brimming with people. To the rear is a large plate-glass window that offers a view into the on-site lab in which the indigenously-grown stock is tested for potency and impurities. Merchandise is displayed in glass cabinets like a jewellery store and the place is so busy that there are up to ten clerks working the counter. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you had stumbled into the fragrance section of a department store, except that the aroma in the air isn’t quite as sweet.
What was especially revealing was the demographics of the clientele. It was a Tuesday morning, but there was never a lull in the number of shoppers and the vast majority was ordinary folk from the baby boom generation. “This is not a party crowd,” observes Brent Morrison, director of operations. “It’s medicine they’re looking for, not a high.”
Brent says more than half of Medicine Wheel’s sales are medicinal. He takes pride in the staff who were friendly and knew their product well. “We don’t prescribe, but we talk with a customer about their needs for as long as it takes to find the right product,” Brent says, pointing to a display of cannabis-based offerings that can be smoked, vaped or eaten (several of which are not yet legal in the mainstream). For medicinal purposes, the best sellers are tinctures, applied with an eye-dropper under the tongue. “With newcomers, we always suggest the lowest dose and urge people to take it slow. It’s usually by trial and error that they find the product best suited to their needs.”
Medicine Wheel – like all the other indigenous cannabis businesses – thrives because of a grey area in the law. While the new legislation does not permit this kind of retail operation – at least not yet – First Nations were quick to cite their inalienable entitlement, as specified in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to pursue their traditional medicines, among which cannabis is included. Although they operate outside federal and provincial laws, the native dispensaries have their own code of conduct and product standards, which they call the Red Feather certification. Someday, Brent told me, it is hoped that it could serve as a baseline in refining the principles for the entire Canadian cannabis industry. For now, the provincial government is turning a blind eye to the legality of cannabis sales on reserves, pending future negotiations between the feds and First Nations.
While indigenous producers have a head start in the marijuana sweepstakes, they are hardly the only players in the game. Canada is poised to become a leader in marijuana production. Currently, there are 130 licensed growers and for several years now, the largest of them – infused with boatloads of venture capital – have been getting ready to thrash it out in a brand new marketplace that the world has never seen before. With names like Canopy Growth Corp. and Aurora Cannabis Inc., the stage is set to see who emerges in the economic battle for their piece of what is expected to be a $5 billion pie by 2020. Close to home, there are at least two new corporate cannabis ventures in the works: one in Cobourg, another in Belleville. Even so, Brent isn’t worried. “First Nations will always have a place in cannabis culture,” he says. “We take the organic, holistic approach. You might say we’re the craft brewers of the cannabis world. The big corporate guys… well, they’re Molsons.”
ONE DAY AFTER MY VISIT to the Medicine Wheel, I found myself in a completely different environment, talking about cannabis in a more businesslike light. There I was, in a slick, professional office in a downtown Toronto high-rise, chatting with Anthony Durkacz. As co-chair of FSD Pharma, he is at the helm of an ambitious launch into the cannabis game that has special relevance to Cobourg. For several years, the company has been producing medical marijuana in a rented corner of the old Kraft Foods factory on William Street, but with a new expanded licence in hand, things have taken a more ambitious turn in recent months. Flush with newly raised cash, FSD Pharma has bought the entire complex and plans to convert all of it to the cultivation and processing of marijuana.
The scale of this endeavour is nothing short of astounding. The Kraft plant, which is being improved to Health Canada’s strict antiseptic standards, covers no less than 620,000 square feet and will be equipped to harvest five crops a year. It is said to be the largest hydroponic facility of its kind in the world, and at 70 acres, the site has plenty of room for future expansion. Hundreds of new jobs – perhaps more than a thousand – are to be created, from cultivation to warehousing to research and development. “We’re on the cusp of something big,” Anthony says, adding that the acquisition of the factory was key. “The Kraft plant was the only available indoor facility large enough for our plans, and close enough to Toronto, which after all, is the largest market for cannabis in the country.”
The first thing I asked Anthony was for his take on Brent’s notion that likened the marijuana trade among First Nations to craft brewing. He thought for a moment and replied, “That may be true of them, but we don’t want to be the Molsons of the cannabis industry. We want to be Pfizer.” Talk about speaking volumes.
It’s the medical aspect of legal weed that has set FSD Pharma on its course. “Cannabis is the biggest news in medicine in a generation,” Anthony says, noting that its applications and marketing are only in their infancy. Thinking beyond tinctures and vaping, FSD Pharma wants to dispense medical marijuana in more precise ways, specifically in familiar forms such as pills, medicated chewing gum or time-release capsules. What if, he suggests, cannabis could be delivered on a tab that dissolves in the mouth, much like a Listerine breath strip?
Anthony adds, “Legal marijuana is going to be a game-changer in so many industries.” Already, the beverage and alcohol sectors are scrambling to adapt their products to the new times and likewise, the tobacco industry faces new challenges. And when you add the cultivation of hemp to the fray, there are big implications for both the paper and textile industries. No wonder so many players are diving into the cannabis biz.
With Anthony’s words still fresh in my mind, I left his office thinking just how far cannabis has evolved since my last encounter back in 1979. It also occurred to me to ask my doctor to weigh in. He will discuss a prescription with almost anyone who asks, but with a caveat. While it seems cannabis has found a legitimate niche in mainstream medicine, the research has yet to catch up to the anecdotal evidence. Indeed, academic study at the corporate and university level has yet to determine exactly how cannabinoids – and which ones – work with the human body. For now, doctors are at a loss to know exactly what should be prescribed, or what the dose should be – it’s still trial and error.
But it’s only a matter of time until the pharmaceutical industry learns the secrets of cannabis. Mark my words: you ain’t seen nothing yet.