Pubdate: Tue, 07 Jun 2016
Source: Toronto Star (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 The Toronto Star
Author: Alex Ballingall
Page: GT1


After last week's pot raids, experts talk about restraint, acceptance
of the controversial drug

Everybody seems to be talking about marijuana these days. Impending
legalization has prompted a many-faceted debate about how our society
should incorporate the greenery, even as dispensaries selling cannabis
and related goods are popping up like, well, weeds.

The sprouting conversation involves many people with divergent
perspectives and interests in the marijuana regime of tomorrow. Let's
listen to some of them.

The casual toker

Marc Smith wants to believe. At 27, he owns his own roofing business,
and when he comes home after a long day at work, he savours his
ritual: lighting up a big bowl of weed and getting baked.

With the emergence of so much easy-to-get weed from dispensaries in
Toronto, Smith has been able to enjoy his marijuana much more
conveniently than before. He yearns to trust that this can be the new
reality, with Justin Trudeau's Liberals promising to legalize pot.

But he's not quite ready to trust the government, given the recent
slew of arrests and charges on the marijuana businesses in Toronto.

"It's an escape for the bulls---," Smith said of his passion for
toking up. "Some people like to go home and have a couple beers; some
people go home and puff a joint. It's definitely on par with that.

"I want to believe this is going to happen."

The angry neighbour

Olga Fowell doesn't want to be a buzz kill, but this is just getting
ridiculous. The Forest Hill denizen said she's watched with dismay and
disgust as shops selling pot have opened along Eglinton Ave. W.

"This is basically glorified drug dealers with storefronts," said
Fowell, a real estate agent. "Who would've thought that Forest Hill
would have four pot shops?"

She said the neighbourhood "sucked it up" when a weed paraphernalia
shop opened a few years ago, but this is too much. "It's like slamming
it right in your face," she said.

Right now, her kids have to walk by a dispensary to get to tutoring
class, and Fowell won't stand for it. She commends the police for
their crackdown last month, when 43 dispensaries were raided, drugs
were seized and dozens were arrested.

"I'm not saying no to drugs for medicinal purposes, but I'm saying no
to having illegal shops selling drugs," she said. "And we don't need

The licensed producer

With his warehouse lined with lush cannabis, Neil Closner might be an
unlikely voice of restraint in Toronto's budding marijuana market. But
the CEO of Markham-based medical weed producer MedReleaf, which has
thousands of medicinal patients across the country, says things have
gotten "a little out of hand."

He wants the same rules for everyone.

"They're jumping the gun," he said of the dozens of dispensaries that
are selling marijuana in Toronto, which are not subject to the
"onerous" regulations and Health Canada inspections attached to his

"It is an issue from a competition standpoint, but only to some
degree," he said. "The product that we produce is truly a
medical-grade product; the product that the dispensaries sell is quite
simply not.

"No one knows who grows it, where it's grown, under what conditions,
what's going into it that shouldn't be in it."

Closner added that because the authorities allowed the new storefront
shops to proliferate,marijuana consumers are "confused" about where to
find legitimate medical marijuana.

As it currently stands, the only legal way to obtain medicinal weed is
through the mail from a licensed producer such as MedReleaf. (A court
decision in B.C. has challenged this by arguing that patients should
be allowed to grow some pot themselves, while a new regime remains in
the offing thanks to a Liberal campaign promise during the last
federal election.)

Though he's not entirely against the idea of storefront dispensaries
in Canada, Closner said the important thing is robust regulation, just
as with alcohol and tobacco.

"The government has a role to make sure products in this country are
safe," he said.

The rebellious purveyor

The day after police raids drove fear into the city's burgeoning
dispensary scene, a pot shop at 801 Queen St. W. opened its doors in
defiance. Erin Goodwin, co-manager of the Cannabis Culture shop, did
the media rounds in the wake of the raids, proudly announcing that her
store would sell weed to anyone who is 19 or older.

It was a proclamation from the more radical, laissez-faire end of the
marijuana legalization spectrum.

"The people have voted with their dollars, and just the amount of
people that have benefitted from the dispensaries - we can't
understand what the police agenda is," Goodwin, 30, told the Star.

"We're the ones who are checking the product to make sure it's clean
and reputable," she said. "We're happy to be there to provide it for

In terms of selling weed for recreational use, Goodwin said employees
prefer not to "invade on people's privacy" by asking them why they're
looking to buy marijuana. The idea is that it is a product, soon to be
legal, that people should be able to use however they see fit.

But that doesn't mean Goodwin and her colleagues at Cannabis Culture
aren't scared. She said there is a sense of fear, especially after the
raids, that they could be arrested and charged with drug trafficking -
a charge that could result in jail time, even as there are signals
that the legal framework for weed is about to change.

Asked why she's willing to stick her neck out to sell weed, Goodwin
said she's fighting for something bigger than that. She wants to
change the perception of marijuana users, often derided as lazy or
unintelligent, and show that many people from all walks of life
consume cannabis and incorporate the substance as an element of their

"These are historic times, so a lot of us are really proud to be a
part of it," she said. "We're not just going to lie down."

The medicinal user

Lisa Campbell loves weed. She's smoked it since she was a teenager.
She eats it. She rubs it on her skin. She soaks it in alcohol and
absorbs it under her tongue.

And since 2013, she's been a prescribed medicinal marijuana user,
treating chronic wrist pain and other ailments. And though she's
legally allowed to purchase weed from licensed producers, and grow
some for herself, she feels the current system is too restrictive for
people who want to benefit from the virtues of cannabis.

"There's no reason why corporations should be the only ones to produce
this medicine," said Campbell, 32, referring to rules brought in under
the previous Conservative government that restricted the growing of
medicinal weed to Health Canada-approved companies.

"We can create a system where there's room in the market for

One big flaw in the system for Campbell is that many cannabis-based
products she believes can benefit sick people are currently outlawed.

Tinctures and cannabis suppositories, for example, can provide pain
relief in ways different from the effects of smoking, she said. The
system as it stands also doesn't allow for legal production of
marijuana edibles, which can range from gummy bears and brownies to
lollipops and butter.

"All the products that dispensaries carry in Toronto, not one licensed
producer has the variety or is able to service that market, so it is
filling a gap in the system for patients like myself," she said.

Campbell also sees economic opportunity if the government were to open
up the craft marijuana market, not unlike the explosion of breweries
in the province in recent years.

"I'm scared at the future of dispensaries, especially all these small
independent businesses which are patient-driven," she said. "This is
what Toronto is all about: social innovation and coming up with
creative new ways of doing things."

The legal defender

Things have been busy lately for Kendra Stanyon. The Toronto barrister
is representing so many dispensaries these days that she can't count
them off the top of her head. "Maybe over 10," she said. She
acknowledges that there are legitimate worries about the proliferation
of such businesses without regulation - and admits that most
dispensaries are operating outside the law - but blamed the government
for creating the vacuum in which they operate.

She added that many medical patients don't have legal options for the
cannabis they feel best treats their ailments, such as edibles and

Courts in the country have recognized this, as well as the anecdotal
evidence that marijuana can help remedy health concerns, Stanyon noted.

"Certainly it's been confusingly inconsistent," she said. "There are
real concerns (about dispensaries), but I think there are ways to
address them without raids."

The 'legalize it' politician

The war on drugs is an abject failure, and the time has come to try
something new; downtown Councillor Joe Cressy has been saying that for
a long time. He argues we've arrived at a point where it's clear
criminalization doesn't work, while recreational use of marijuana
isn't entirely safe.

The answer, in his mind, is reasonable government regulation for the
legal sale of marijuana.

In a nutshell, it's all about public health.

"We need consistency, right across the country," Cressy told the Star,
adding that a too-strict regulatory regime will drive people to the
black market, while one that's too liberal would normalize the harms
of recreational pot use.

While the federal government needs time to draft its new rules, there
needs to be "clear guidance" for cities such as Toronto, so that there
isn't a vacuum in which dispensaries can operate without any rules.

"It needs to be very clear, just like we've done with alcohol and
tobacco," he said.

The Crack Down politician

In Jon Burnside's eyes, the pot dispensaries in Toronto are
indistinguishable from drug dealers on the street. They just have
fancier wallpaper.

"It's a bunch of people trying to make a buck, and, in my opinion,
they're doing it illegally," said Burnside, the councillor for Ward
26, Don Valley West, who was elected for the first time in 2014.
"Essentially they're dealing drugs."

Burnside is a vocal supporter of the police decision to raid
dispensaries across the city, arguing that just because laws
surrounding weed are going to change doesn't give new businesses carte
blanche to open up a cannabis dispensary.

He added that he has concerns about youth smoking marijuana and that
any legalization regime will need to have strong regulations for any
businesses that sell the stuff.

"It's not like they're baking bread here. Well, maybe they are with
pot in it, but you get my point."

The Doctor Doctor's orders: don't smoke weed before you're

Bernard Le Foll, a University of Toronto professor and researcher at
the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, said people who start
using marijuana in their youth are more likely to develop a dependency
later in life.

There is also the risk of damaging one's intelligence quotient and
mucking up the cognitive processes of the developing brain, he said.

Le Foll's advice bears consideration as the debate rages over how to
accommodate the incoming legalization of the drug.

Asked about the risks of cannabis use, Le Foll said that, unlike
alcohol, cocaine or even nicotine, there's no way to die from an
overdose. "Cannabis is much safer," he said.

But that doesn't mean weed is harmless. Smoking weed generates toxic
components, not unlike cigarettes, he said, while research has shown a
correlation between heavy marijuana use and the presence of mental
illnesses such as schizophrenia. He added, however, that it isn't
clear what causes the association.

At the end of the day, Le Foll says any cannabis consumption should be
done with caution and care.
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