Waiting for the smoke to clear... 

With recreational marijuana set to go legal, uncertainty rules the day

click to flip through (5) COVER ILLUSTRATION BY JON PARRIS - Waiting for the smoke to clear... With recreational marijuana set to go legal, uncertainty rules the day
  • cover illustration by Jon Parris
  • Waiting for the smoke to clear... With recreational marijuana set to go legal, uncertainty rules the day

Outside the Vancouver Convention Centre, vendors are slowly gathering for a day of massive sales.

It starts with one tent, where a man in a hoodie weighs and distributes weed from several jars laid out on a table. Cash changes hands, no questions asked.

Soon, another booth is set up nearby, and by the early afternoon more than half a dozen vendors will be doling out the goods.

Normally the vendors would be slinging in Robson Square, but they know to go where the grass is greenest.

It's January 13, and the Lift Cannabis Expo is in town.

One of the booths is fronted by an amiable older couple—a rotund, goateed man and his wife, with hair a fitting shade of green—selling all manner of homemade edibles.

The emerald-haired lady hands out samples of the goods to eager customers—cookies in varying strengths, "flamin' pot Cheetos," trail mix and mini doughnuts—and the pair rake in the cash from an endless stream of convention-goers.

According to their business card, they even do mail delivery and spreads for private parties.

Do they ever get in trouble with the cops?

"We've had discussions," the man says, a shadow of a grin playing at the corner of his mouth.

The cops will come and tell them to leave, they'll "fuck off" for a couple of hours, he says, then come back and get right back to selling—that's really all the cops want.

It's mostly the City of Vancouver that gives them trouble, following up on complaints from certified, licenced vendors.

(Just a few weeks after this exchange, police shut down the vendors selling weed in Robson Square. They were back up and operating within hours.)

One booth over, a man unrolls a large bag of pre-rolled joints and offers me one, free of charge.

Regardless of the legality of it, the vendors are set up all day and making a killing—and there are no cops in sight (though at one point a uniformed, event security guard is seen browsing the available products).

In a few months, the argument will become moot, as recreational cannabis is set to be legalized Canada-wide.

But even in the last weeks and months of prohibition, almost everyone seems to be waiting for the smoke to clear.

Cannabis goes corporate

Inside the Convention Centre, it's a curious clash of corporate and cannabis culture.

Men in slick business suits mingle with dreadlocked, earthen hippie types on the sleek showroom floor, perusing displays and exchanging business cards.

According to Whistler's Patrick Smyth, that corporatization is one of the most notable changes in the industry in recent years.

Smyth recalled the scene at another cannabis convention as recently as 2014.

"I couldn't deal with it, because everybody was stoned, so you start having a conversation with somebody and they're like, 'Well, what?'" Smyth says.

"Fast forward, it's all business."

Smyth has been in the cannabis game since 2013, when he ran into old friend and Olympic Gold medallist Ross Rebagliati while snowboarding in Whistler.

Rebagliati was famously stripped of his gold medal—the first to be awarded for snowboarding—at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano for testing positive for cannabis (the medal was soon returned, as cannabis wasn't actually on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances).

With new laws around medical marijuana and Smyth's background in marketing and startups, it wasn't long before the pair were discussing potential business opportunities.

"I said to Ross ... 'Let's have a beer, and let me think about it. Give me a couple weeks,'" Smyth recalls.

"Basically I left him there, and by the time I was at Creekside, I called him and said 'Yeah, we should do something.'"

The result was Ross' Gold—now an international brand of cannabis products with more than 100 retail locations across Canada.

At the Lift Expo, the Ross' Gold booth is one of the most-visited attractions, with Rebagliati himself onhand to meet and greet thousands—Olympic gold medal and all.

"Legalization's going to be the catalyst, basically, for Ross' Gold to really see its full potential," Rebagliati says between handshakes. "What we wanted to do with the company five years ago was to be an all-encompassing cannabis company, so vertically integrated—we wanted to have our hands in the production side of things, we wanted to have our hands in the retail end of it. Seed-to-sale was our basic model to start off with."

Under Rebagliati and Smyth's new brand—Legacy by Ross Rebagliati—the full scope of that vision is starting to come into focus.

"Legacy is all the ancillary products that you need for growing, and even stuff that's close to cannabis, like coffee," Rebagliati says.

"At the end of the day, you've got the Ross' Gold cannabis products, and you've got your Legacy growing products."

Legalization will present broad new business opportunities for entrepreneurs province-wide, with some going so far as to call it B.C.'s new Gold Rush.

But with so much left to be determined, it's tough to say at this point exactly who stands to cash in.

Municipal marijuana

In October 2015, Whistler's mayor and council went south to Colorado to size up the competition in other mountain communities.

With Justin Trudeau's Liberals having just won the federal election, the time was ripe for council to also learn some lessons on legal weed.

"We talked to government officials about it in the various towns we went to and learned some interesting things, but some of it is not going to be translatable over to what's going to be our experience, because instead of just a state-by-state legalization, as the U.S. has done, we're going to be legal across Canada," Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says.

In Breckenridge, local officials talked about the boom of weed tourism—unlikely to happen in Whistler, with the drug going legal country-wide.

In Vail, the approach was to prohibit dispensaries within town limits, leading to shops popping up just outside the municipal boundaries.

And in Aspen, the mayor got her first crack at purchasing weed legally—a USD$18 pre-rolled joint of "Blue Cheese" bud.

She didn't imbibe (she says).

"I know (Pique columnist) GD Maxwell is going 'Really?' But no, I left it as a tip for the housekeeping staff," Wilhelm-Morden says with a laugh.

Having been in Whistler since the '70s, Wilhelm-Morden is no stranger to the role cannabis has played in local culture over the years.

"You just look at things like Ross' Gold and the whole Rebagliati story," she says. "And going back to the very early days in the '70s, there was a lot of pot being grown locally and smoked locally. It has played a pervasive role in our culture, I think."

Legal weed isn't likely to change the shape of Whistler in the same ways it could in other communities, but that's not to say there won't be an impact.

The mayor points to home cultivation, and the issue that raises with landlords and strata corporations, as one potential impact.

In terms of the local retail model, it's the same story as in many other places—a waiting game.

"We are going to be able to regulate it within the scope of our authority—so zoning, regulations and smoking bylaws; we can actually prohibit retail as well if we want to do that—but we really do have to wait until we see what the actual regulatory landscape looks like," Wilhelm-Morden says.

"We need to consult with the community as well. I don't think people want pot dispensaries every second shop in our village. I would be surprised if that had a lot of support. And we don't want people smoking in our parks or on our trails or in our village."

Some communities, like Richmond, have decided to ban retail stores altogether, while others, like the Village of Pemberton, are exploring the potential of getting into the retail game themselves.

The Ministry of Public Safety has said it's all on the table, and local governments are free to apply for a private, non-medical cannabis retail licence if that's the route they wish to take.

It remains to be seen if Whistler will follow in Pemberton's footsteps.

And while the Resort Municipality of Whistler says it's getting a ton of interest about marijuana retailing, local businesses have been holding their cards close to their chests so far.

"I think everyone seems to be quite tightlipped about it. I guess that's a strategic thing," says Chris Pelz, founder of the Whistler Medical Marijuana Company (WMMC), which has been operating locally since 2014.

Under federal Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations, the WMMC is a licenced producer able to provide product in both the medical and recreational markets.

With legalization pending, are there big opportunities in the company's future?

"Yeah, there are, but we have a limited amount of production. We're not a mega company by any stretch, or a mega producer, and our ultimate capacity of dried cannabis would be somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000 kilograms a year," Pelz says, adding that the company doesn't have plans to expand its production beyond its current capacity.

"What happens with the edibles market, and when the market really opens up in a year after legalization, that's another discussion," Pelz says.

"And that's a question of then building our business, having established our brand, in what's turning out to be both a national and international marketplace. But our priority remains to supply Canadian patients with access to medical cannabis."

Right now, Pelz refers to WMMC's capacity as "a grain of sand on the beach," and the total amount of production needed in B.C. to support the industry is the billion-dollar question.

"No one knows the answer. You could make an educated guess, but you would not be accurate," Pelz says.

"I think we're going to find out."

A work in progress

Building B.C.'s recreational cannabis framework has been an inclusive effort, with extensive public consultation through online surveys and a Union of BC Municipalities working group.

In early February, Minister for Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced key policy decisions around retail, possession limits, places of use, personal cultivation and drug-impaired driving.

In B.C., those 19 and older will be able to buy cannabis from standalone government and private stores and possess up to 30 grams in public.

The province will generally allow adults to use cannabis in public spaces where tobacco or vaping are permitted, with the exception of areas frequented by kids (like parks, community beaches and playgrounds).

Using cannabis in vehicles will also be banned, and the province plans to toughen regulations around drug-impaired driving, including a new 90-day administrative driving prohibition and the expansion of zero-tolerance restrictions for new drivers to include the presence of THC.

B.C. residents will be able to grow up to four cannabis plants per household, so long as the plants are not visible from public spaces off the property. Landlords and strata councils will also be able to prohibit home growing.

On the retail side, the province is launching a pre-registration for those interested in obtaining a non-medical cannabis retail license ahead of legalization coming into full force this summer.

B.C.'s Liquor Distribution Branch (LDB) will operate a new standalone network of public retail stores, and the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch will be in charge of licensing private stores.

Liquor stores, however, will not be permitted to sell cannabis.

The LDB is aiming to open the first government-operated retail store by late summer.

But at this point, it's still too early to say with any certainty exactly how legal marijuana is going to play out in B.C.

There are something like 17 pieces of legislation to be introduced or amended in the coming weeks and months—all before the drug becomes legal.

In a March interview with Pique, Farnworth said he expected to see legislation introduced in mid-April—although at press time, nothing had been put forward.

"There's still a lot to sort out in terms of the retail model, online application, how an online system of retail would work, marketing, packaging, issues around landlords and tenants, those kinds of things," Farnworth said.

"A lot of those will be in legislation, so that still has to be introduced yet, and that's all important."

One of the key pieces yet to be revealed is how tax revenues from the sales of cannabis will be shared in B.C.—some municipalities have publicly asked for 50 per cent of the take.

"We know that they're looking to make sure that costs aren't downloaded onto them, and so we're working with them on those issues," Farnworth said. "A lot will depend, too, on the final format, so for example, if you've left enforcement up to local government, that clearly would be a serious cost to them."

The minister couldn't commit to a timeline for when all of these decisions will be made, other than saying the province wants to have everything in place for when legalization occurs—itself still an unknown.

"There is still legislation at the federal level being debated and discussed in the senate—both bill C-45 and C-46, which deal with the legalization of cannabis and the drug-impaired driving issues," Farnworth said.

"So once they become law, then we'll have a much better idea of when the firm date for legalization will take place."

British Columbians have been voicing a range of concerns about legal weed, the minister said—everything from public consumption and impairment at work to the location of cannabis stores.

And with so many questions still surrounding the file, it's unlikely anything will be set in stone anytime soon.

"This is going to be an issue that's not going to all be resolved even once legalization takes place. I expect that this is going to unfold and evolve over the next two or three years, because there will be unintended consequences, consequences that we want to identify, and I'm quite sure there will be court challenges in parts of it, particularly the drug-impaired driving stuff. We're already hearing about that," Farnworth said.

"So it's something that will evolve over time, and I think it's going to take a couple of years before we get a system fully operating the way that I think we envision it will be."

Health and safety

The uncertainty isn't contained to the business side of things, either.

In response to an interview request, the RCMP's national communications office said it was too early in the legislative process to talk about cannabis legalization.

In an emailed statement, the RCMP said it is working to ensure the necessary tools and resources are in place if Bills C-45 and C-46 become law.

"The RCMP plans to increase its capacity in the areas of prevention and engagement, intelligence, training, systems modifications and data collection, security screening, operational policy, and to provide subject-matter expertise to RCMP officers and law enforcement partners on the implementation of the Cannabis Act," the statement says.

"There will be training changes in light of the impending legalization and regulation of cannabis in Canada."

One concern on the enforcement side of things is dealing with cannabis-impaired drivers. The RCMP says it is updating and expanding training to detect drug-impaired drivers through enhanced Standardized Field Sobriety Test training and increasing the number of Drug Recognition Enforcement (DRE) officers in the force.

"The RCMP is working with partners to add new tools to detect the presence of a drug at the roadside and developing prevention and awareness information for police officers to use when communicating with the public on the laws, risks and safety concerns of drug-impaired driving," the statement says.

"The RCMP delivers DRE-related training, and trains other law enforcement agencies in accordance with International Association of Chiefs of Police standards, which are outlined in Criminal Code Regulations."

Whistler RCMP added its own drug-recognition expert to the detachment last year after the officer, Const. Mike Zwicker, successfully completed a specialized training course.

As Canada moves towards full-scale legalization, the message for the driving public, the RCMP says, is to make the right choice before getting behind the wheel.

"Driving after using drugs is just as dangerous as drinking and driving. A small decision can have great consequences. Let's make the right choice before we get behind the wheel. Everyone has the right to come home safe," the statement says.

From a public health perspective, many officials are happy to see the substance legalized.

"I'm part of a group called the Health Officers Council of BC—so the group of all the medical health officers in B.C.—and we've believed for a long time that the best way to handle psychoactive substances is to legalize them and regulate their sale and distribution," says Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health.

"We believe that that's the way that you can achieve the least harm."

That said, like every other part of the legalization process, regulating the drug will be a work in progress.

"The regulations you choose will determine how much harm is created ... we're probably not going to get that right right at the beginning, but over time we can apply regulations, study the effects, and if we're still seeing certain types of harms we can adjust the regulations to hopefully avoid them," Lysyshyn says.

'Everyone's going to love it'

For Rebagliati, hearing that he had been disqualified after winning gold at the '98 Olympics was a shock to the system.

"I was completely stunned by the whole thing. It caught me completely off guard, because I had gone through huge lengths to pass my tests," he says.

The legalization of recreational marijuana 20 years later isn't just a booming business opportunity for Rebagliati. It represents something deeper.

"It's redemption for me," he says.

"This sounds like a Bob Marley song, but seriously, this is like, what I knew was going to happen, in '98. I saw the vision that this would happen.

"Just like in '87 when I started snowboarding, you weren't allowed to snowboard at the time anywhere, at any ski resort, and I knew snowboarding was going to go to the Olympics. It was too much fun. I knew everyone was going to love it.

"And it's the same with the weed. Same thing. Everyone's going to love it."

Facts and Figures

Estimates suggest consumption of recreational cannabis in Canada could be about 770,000 kilograms a year

At that rate the domestic market would be worth about $5 billion

Based on current consumption rates, Canada's domestic market could be worth as much as $10 billon by 2036

Health Canada estimates the medical marijuana market to be worth about $1.3 billion

B.C. is known to have one of the largest illegal pot industries, and it's growing rapidly: data on electrical power usage and from police raids indicate that B.C. grow-ops had, on average, doubled in size between 2003 and 2010

Estimates place the worth of B.C.'s illegal weed market between $2 billion and $7 billion

Statistics from the Cannabis growers of canada

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