Big Cannabis vs Activism – The Great Marijuana Divide In Canada

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It’s always fascinating to receive messages from people in the “unlicensed” marijuana community after writing an article about big business. The messages are almost always a comment on how something was not included in the piece that disparages the corporation in order to reveal how “bad they really are.”

It’s understandable that those on the front lines of legalization in Canada and elsewhere are always ready for a fight, because unfortunately, that’s the reality they live in. Most of these small business owners are desperately trying to stake a claim within a large industry that’s growing tens of acres of pot right before their eyes. On the other hand, dispensary owners in Canada for example, are raided, arrested and even robbed at gunpoint.

In defense of our licensed producers on the other side of the discussion, it’s all too easy to make a large corporation a scapegoat for the problems in marijuana legislation. An enormous money-making entity can quickly be written off as a faceless automaton that exists for the bottom line and nothing else.

Standing in the middle for a living, this journalist sees both sides of the argument.

Most cannabis patients in Canada will agree that dispensaries should certainly be a legal part of the landscape, and licensed producers (LPs) should have the right to make as much profit as possible — assuming no shortcuts on quality and safety — and continue to pave the path of global legalization and acceptance.

Hilary Black is the Director of Patient Education and Advocacy for Canopy Growth Corporation, the largest marijuana producer in the world. “Twenty years ago I started the very first medical cannabis dispensary in the country called the BC Compassion Club Society [which is] the first civilly disobedient dispensary.” Black added that she was breaking the law for approximately 18 years before moving over to Canopy. She’s also still with her compassion club as they continue their civil disobedience.

“Dispensaries have had a very important role in being the roots of a movement that has become an industry. I do believe that patients and also people who use cannabis for recreational and lifestyle purposes, would like to access cannabis in a brick-and-mortar storefront. The real problem is that we do not have a cohesive set of regulations across the country.”

Black pointed out the examples of Vancouver and Victoria, where municipal governments have handed out business licenses to qualifying dispensaries despite the federal government urging the police to shut them down. The rest of Canada, and most specifically Toronto, have pushed forward with draconian law enforcement measures in comparison.

“We have a huge schism between what’s happening on the ground in B.C. and what the federal legislation says. That’s the first problem, we need a cohesive set of federal regulations.”

Black went on to add that both sides, the LPs and the dispensaries, feel that the other has an unfair advantage in this mishmash of opaque regulation. “From the perspective [of the dispensaries] licensed producers have an unfair advantage because what they’re doing is federally licensed. The application process to become an LP was very onerous, the security requirements are very expensive to implement, there were a lot of barriers to get access.”

Out of thousands of applicants, there are currently a handful (38 to be exact,) of LPs across the country, which is a clear indication of how difficult it is to join the club.

“I believe that Health Canada didn’t handle the application process very well. That’s a big problem that’s not the fault of either the dispensary community or the licensed producers. The responsibility for the problem in that process belongs to the government.”

On the other side of the coin, LPs believe the dispensaries have a luxury not afforded to growers. “The LPs feel that the dispensaries have an unfair advantage because they’re unregulated. They don’t have to do any testing, they don’t have the expense of quality control or quality assurance. They don’t have to go through the slow process of getting approvals from Health Canada every single step of the way.”

Black was quick to agree that the reason dispensaries don’t have this is because the federal government won’t grant them these guidelines.

“The dispensaries also are able to distribute a much broader range of products than the LPs are. This is something that perhaps from the LP perspective is an unfair advantage. Again, the root of the problem is a lack of cohesive national legislation.”

As mentioned, Black still works for her Compassion Club and Canopy Growth supports her in doing so, which is a fascinating dichotomy. Those actions make her a hybrid between the two sides. “It was a part of the negotiations around my employment was that I always need to be able to protect that Compassion Club if push comes to shove.”

When Black accepted the job at Canopy Growth, there was no shortage of trolls on social media to make snide remarks about her move. One that was particularly nasty was being referred to as “Tweed’s fluffer” from someone she thought was a friend in the industry.

These comments have not deterred her resolve to bring the two sides together on the issues. When asked what she would say to the entire unlicensed dispensary community across Canada, she poignantly chose her words. “I would say the solution is that we need to be advocating for, and presenting examples of how the dispensaries want to work inside a regulated environment. Together, we all need to be working towards creating a fair and cohesive set of regulations across the country.”

But do Canadian dispensary owners also feel that it’s the fault of the Canadian Government as opposed to “big cannabis?”

Brandy Zurborg and Tanya Cyalume are the owners of Queens of Cannabis Dispensary. They are also two of the activists at the forefront of the marijuana movement in Toronto fighting for dispensaries to maintain their rightful place in the industry. Marijuana.com asked them similar questions about licensed producers.

“The licensed producers have been treated poorly by the government. They have to abide by very strict rules and when it comes down to it, it’s just cannabis which is a plant,” said Cyalume. “They’ve had to pay a lot of money to upgrade their facilities in order to comply with Health Canada’s standards.”

Zurborg went on to add that from their perspective, because of the high costs associated with running a growery, LPs are put into a position where they have to lobby against unlicensed dispensaries who cut into their bottom line. “They’re over-regulated and at the same time they’re not responsive to pushing the government [for greater patient access] as well.” Cyalume also added that she believes it’s unfair to the licensed producers that the LPs are required to control THC potency in their buds.

Cyalume and Zurborg agreed that if the government allowed dispensaries to purchase cannabis directly from licensed producers, Queens of Cannabis would source quality product from some of them. “In some cases, that’s already happening and I’m sure as we get closer [to adult-use cannabis] it will happen more frequently.”

Zurborg pointed out that they are leery of large corporations selling cannabis in some cases because inevitably they will need to answer to their shareholders. “I can see some of the smaller ones being in it [for the patients] but there’s always going to be financial aspects, especially if you are publicly traded. Once you are publicly traded, that is where the issues come in because the bottom line is shareholder value.”

Inevitably, the same question that was presented to Hilary Black was asked of these two dispensary owners. If you had all the LPs listening, what would you say? After some thought, Cyalume answered four simple words. “Eyes on the patient.”

The final word of the day will go to Adam Greenblatt, who is also a pioneer of the Canadian cannabis industry. He is now the Head of Quebec Engagement for Canopy Growth. Prior to working with Canopy, he ran a health and wellness clinic called Sante Cannabis as well as storefront dispensaries.

Greenblatt too had his share of significant ribbing when joining the licensed producer; people thought he was no longer an activist after taking on the position. “I’m still an activist. That’s the cognitive dissonance in the activist community is that you somehow stop being an activist when you start working for a corporation.”

Greenblatt added that he received flack for joining Canopy simply because members of the community felt that he had sold out. “There’s this false division between craft cannabis and so-called corporate cannabis. My critique of the craft campaign has been in their denigration of what they call big cannabis. I don’t think activists should be echoing this [same] language that an anti-tobacco lobbyist uses. I don’t like the notion of big cannabis because it conjures up stigma.”

Greenblatt, as well as Black, feel wholeheartedly that dispensaries should exist. “Of course [they should exist].  I ran dispensaries for years. I worked in storefront dispensaries in Montreal for a long time. They’re necessary.”

Greenblatt added that the challenge in working for a legal corporation is that it is impossible to publicly endorse cannabis dispensaries across the board as they currently exist. Just like Black, Greenblatt puts the blame on the government for having a lack of direction in this issue. “Most of the people in weed are otherwise good, law abiding people. They just want to be able to do what they’re doing legally and not get raided. That’s been my experience with most people that grow weed or sell it.”

Just like the others, Greenblatt was presented with the same final question. If he had the ear of the dispensary community all at once, what would he say? His answer was very apt for someone in his position. “I hope we’re cool.”

When the day finally comes for adult-use cannabis across Canada, hopefully, everyone will have a proper seat at the table. That includes activists, dispensaries, LPs and anyone else who wants to be involved in this burgeoning multi-billion dollar industry.

At the end of the day, the same people who have been pushing for marijuana legalization all these years want what we all want — legal cannabis for everyone.

Once that happens, we most certainly will be cool.

About Author

Jonathan Hiltz has been a journalist, a TV producer and marijuana advocate for over sixteen years. He has a wife, two young children and lives in the Toronto area.

2 Comments

  1. Lawrence Goodwin on

    Thanks for this excellent article, Jon Hiltz. Lots of nutritious food for thought. Canadians have been forced to suffer 80 years of horrible side effects related to my own federal government’s “marihuana” psychoses. Until now, Canada has basically remained in lockstep collusion with the United States’ tyrannical war against recreational weed (going so far as deporting Canadian Marc Emery for selling cannabis seeds to Americans—and proving that ‘freedom’ and ‘pursuit of happiness’ mean nothing in the United States anymore). That war may soon be resurgent, nobody knows for sure, due to unambiguous hostility to weed revealed in public by new U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Canada already has reintroduced medical cannabis and hemp farming but these bold moves were clearly not enough. The problem, unbelievably, remains the demented legacy of U.S. bureaucrat Harry Anslinger, who, through the United Nations, even managed to impose his reefer madness upon most other countries of the world. I hope you Canadians find ways to settle your differences and finally wrest control of common sense toward cannabis plants from every last heartless bureaucrat.

  2. Timothy MEEHAN on

    Pretty sure who called Hilary that name, and this fellow should be ashamed of himself, because when he was downing clomazepam and vodka, Hil was serving the sick with a beeper and a backpack. As for Adam, I first met him in 2007 and he got into this because a family member was ill.

    We all need to remember our roots. The money will be made in the processing; the LP system will be going away very shortly.

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