“It’s very distressing to see how [legalization] has unfolded,” says long-time Canadian cannabis activist Jodie Emery.
She says that many of the activists that fought so hard to get the drug legal have now been “thrown under the bus” by the forces of legalization, with some facing criminal records.
It’s not hard to see what she is saying. There is a sense that the industry has been taken over by “suits” — more business-oriented people who may not be passionate about the plant or even care for it. Just think of former Toronto chief of police Julian Fantino, who once compared weed to murder and is now running a cannabis business. Emery says people are hopping on board to make a buck.
She thinks that legalization has made cannabis “sterile” and has sucked out its “spirit and heart,” bringing the industry away from its community roots and those who fought hard for the drug to be legal.
“When you go into [a legal cannabis] business, there’s no heart, spirit or soul,” she says. “It’s just the same packages that every other store carries.”
Emery romanticizes the days when cannabis wasn’t grown in big factories but in smaller communities. Now, she says there are so many obstacles to getting into the legal business, such as licensing fees and background checks, that it is “not accessible for the vast majority of people.”
“You really need to be a millionaire or connected to a millionaire to open a legal retail store,” she says.
Even the legal stores that are opening aren’t aware of the “history of persecution” connected to cannabis, according to Emery.
She says that customers feel this lack of passion for the plant, and have told her that they avoid legal stores because the product is inferior and expensive compared to what they could get in the black market.
Indeed, Statistics Canada reported that one year after legalization, just 29 per cent of cannabis users said they got their bud from a legal source, while four in 10 said they bought it from an illegal source.
“[Customers] don’t want to buy what those corporations are selling,” Emery says.
Getting Back to Its Roots
So how can the cannabis industry get back to its roots?
One way is for legal companies to embrace the expertise of those who were active in the black market. A number of these “legacy players” already have joined up with legal cannabis operators, including cannabis grower Kevin Anderson.
Anderson is now the award-winning master grower for Vancouver Island-based producer Broken Coast, but before the gilded days of legalization, he hinted that he had a reputation for growing killer weed.
“There’s a reason I got offered the position at Broken Coast … and it certainly wasn’t because I grew bad cannabis,” he says with a laugh.
Anderson says people active in the illicit days of cannabis are very important to the current industry because they are the ones who actually know how to grow the plant.
“Cannabis is a very different beast,” he says. “It doesn’t necessarily like exactly the same things as some other crops.”
Experience is a necessity to grow high-quality weed because it helps you determine what a good or bad crop is and how to deal with it. But most important is having a passion for the plant.
“If you have that passion for the plant and the bud itself, then you know what really beautiful and good pot is, you know what you’re striving for,” Anderson says. “Hopefully with work and dedication you can get there.”
Still Not the Same
While legacy players can help legal companies find their footing, there are still limits to the heights they can reach in the legal environment.
Anderson says it has been a “difficult transition” moving to the legal environment due to stringent regulations around sterility, which can distract from just trying to grow great weed.
For example, he can’t just try the weed he is growing to see what changes need to be made on the fly — it has to go through quality control first, now.
“It’s like [tieing] your hands behind your back,” he says. “You can’t be as nimble.”
Emery agrees that the same growers who made top-notch bud before won’t be able to reach their old highs in the legal environment.
“It’s like if you took an artisan winemaker out of Italy, and then just plunked them in the middle of an entirely different environment,” she says. “All their expertise couldn’t produce the same product.”
Doing It Their Own Way
If big factories are a factor in preventing the legal industry from providing the same level of product as in the illicit days, legacy players also have the option to become a micro-cultivator.
Anderson says the world of micro-cultivators is blowing up since it is becoming easier to get a license and third-party processors are coming online to aid in quality insurance, packaging and processing.
These processors take the burden off of micro-cultivators so they can just “focus on growing high-quality weed,” Anderson says.
They can do so in more intimate environments where they can keep a closer eye on their bud, similar to how weed was grown in the black market.
The going is slow, though, and licenses have been handed out at a snail’s pace. Only a handful of micro-licenses had been handed out by fall of last year, with up to 200 still in the queue.
Emery also notes that it is still tough for micro-cultivators to make a profit with the taxes and fees involved to get started. It costs $2,500 for a micro-cultivation license from Health Canada, and another $2,500 for a micro-processing license, which allows the flower to be packaged and processed.
“[Fees] make it a non-starter,” she says.
Joining the Man
There is also the option for legacy players to join “the man” and impact the industry from the inside, if that is possible, in other roles besides growing.
One activist who recently did so is Abi Roach, who has long fought for legalization as the executive director of advocacy group NORML Canada.
She was recently appointed as the Ontario Cannabis Store’s senior category manager.
Although Roach had been a vocal critic of the dispensary rollout in Ontario, it seems she felt she could influence the industry more from the inside than out.
Indeed, NORML Canada communications director Andy Lee says that Roach will be able to help the OCS introduce innovative new products they might not have otherwise considered by using her knowledge of what pot users want.
“Her experience, her judgment, her knowledge of cannabis, the cannabis landscape — all of that is going to be, in my view, a tremendous asset for OCS,” Lee says.
However, the OCS denied a request for a comment from Roach for this article, citing that it was her first week on the job, so we can only speculate on what the once vocal activist would say on the topic.
(Note: The editor has edited this section for a more accurate representation of the issue.)
Criminal Records Still an Obstacle
Some legacy players wanting to help bring the weed industry back to its roots have to contend with criminal records, though. Emery is trying to join the legal industry but has to contend with a conviction for the possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking.
Currently, anyone who has had any convictions are barred from entering the cannabis industry as the government requires a criminal background check, Lee says.
While the Liberal government in Canada has agreed to issue pardons, which means the government forgives you for past convictions or crimes related to cannabis, you have to apply yourself and wait for approval, according to Lee.
Lee says very few pardon applications have actually gone through and even fewer have actually been pardoned.
According to Lee, the government has gotten rid of fees for applying for pardons, but there is still a “bureaucratic process” that requires documentation such as old police records, and that comes with an administration fee.
“[People] still have to go through all these hurdles,” he says.
Even if you are granted a pardon for cannabis crimes, Lee says you will still have a criminal record as well, which can affect housing and employment opportunities, create travel restrictions, and affect child custody.
Both NORML Canada and Emery advocate for expungement, which means the complete erasure of all cannabis criminal records by the government.
“It doesn’t make sense to not have expungement for something that is now legal,” Lee says.
Authenticity Is Key
Hopefully over time, more legacy players can enter the industry to bring it back to its roots. Authenticity, it turns out, could be an important way to impact pot customers, according to Nick Ward, a co-founder of cannabis consultancy Empathy North.
He says that some in the industry are very good at calling out hypocrisy in others, so those entering the industry should know that they can’t just fake it, or else “it won’t be pretty.”
But Ward thinks there is currently more of an “authenticity opportunity” for companies rather than a problem. What he means is that companies can align themselves with the plant’s history and its fight for legalization to better represent themselves, rather than exist in ignorance.
He doesn’t necessarily think that people in the industry even need to be cannabis users, but what’s needed is a “deeper degree of empathy” for cannabis users, which can be achieved through understanding, not necessarily taking the drug.
When a company is authentic, it means more repeat customers, Ward says, and also more engagement with the company.
While the cannabis industry has been very focussed on bringing in new users with educational pieces and a fresh new look for the drug, that doesn’t mean that a large percentage of the market who used cannabis while it was illegal should be shunned.
Perhaps there is a happy middle where new and old users can both feel comfortable and satisfied in the legal industry. The legal industry’s health could be reliant on it.
In the meantime, advocacy is one way to build that bridge. After all, what’s more authentic than an activist?