Pubdate: Tue, 16 Aug 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Dan Levin


VANCOUVER, British Columbia - The Cannabis Culture Lounge has 
everything a pothead might need to feel right at home: $3 marijuana 
buds, bongs for rent, bags of Skittles and Doritos for sale, and 
black leather couches where customers can recline in zoned-out 
contemplation in a pungent haze. Never mind that it is all 
technically prohibited by Canadian law.

Still, some enthusiasts have higher hopes for the business, which 
opened more than a decade ago as a kind of speakeasy for marijuana 
smoking - long tolerated by the city's authorities. The lounge began 
selling marijuana after Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister in November.

"This is what recreational marijuana legalization in Canada looks 
like," said Jodie Emery, an activist and the co-owner of the lounge 
and several medical marijuana dispensaries across Canada.

Mr. Trudeau has promised to make recreational marijuana legal in 
Canada as soon as next year, bypassing the nation's strict medical 
marijuana regulations. Under the latest rules for medical use, 
announced last week, patients must be registered, have a prescription 
and obtain their supplies only by mail from a government-licensed 
producer or by growing a limited amount privately.

Impatient to test the shifting political boundaries, entrepreneurs 
have opened hundreds of illicit dispensaries across Canada, selling 
products like organic marijuana buds and potent cannabis 
concentrates, while local governments and the police have tended to 
look the other way.

The marijuana boom they hope for has yet to materialize, though the 
Canadian government is now doing preliminary work on a measure to 
govern recreational use.

Even so, the authorities in some cities have begun to crack down, 
raiding scores of the illegal dispensaries and arresting dozens of 
owners and workers.

And a lobbying battle is raging between the new entrepreneurs and the 
licensed medical marijuana producers, who were the only ones allowed 
to grow and provide the plant under the old regulations. One side 
complains about being shut out by a politically connected cartel, 
while the other complains about unfair and damaging competition from 
those who are breaking the law.

The collision of money, politics and policing has made recreational 
marijuana a major test for Mr. Trudeau. How he solves it will be 
watched closely in Canada and the United States, where federal law 
bans marijuana but state laws are inconsistent.

"Canada is looking to hit a home run, rather than singles and 
doubles," said Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the 
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, based in the 
United States. "What Mr. Trudeau is trying to do is something we can 
only dream about here."

But it will not come quickly. A task force will take a few months to 
gather comments from local officials and the public before the 
Canadian Parliament starts to draft a measure. "It's a long process, 
and we're hard at it," said Bill Blair, a Liberal Party lawmaker and 
former Toronto police chief whom Mr. Trudeau has put in charge of the 
marijuana effort.

Mr. Blair said in an interview that the government's top priorities 
were to keep marijuana away from minors and the profits out of the 
hands of organized crime. That may point to a system similar to the 
way liquor is sold in some Canadian provinces and American states: 
strictly through government-owned or licensed stores.

Some cities in British Columbia are unwilling to wait for Ottawa, 
though, and are introducing their own marijuana policies in defiance 
of federal law. The province has been a center of marijuana growing 
and culture for decades, and it borders Washington State, where 
recreational marijuana is legal - and extremely profitable.

In Victoria, the provincial capital, where more than 30 dispensaries 
have opened in recent years, city leaders proposed new regulations in 
late July that would allow such businesses to operate if they abide 
by certain restrictions.

Victoria is following Vancouver, which has begun issuing licenses to 
some of the 120 or so marijuana shops in the city, provided they 
comply with rules, like being at least 1,000 feet away from the 
nearest school. Two licenses were granted in the spring, and at least 
11 more are in the pipeline, officials said.

Dispensaries that do not obtain a license will be shut down, 
according to Kerry Jang, a Vancouver city councilor. Mr. Jang 
dismissed complaints that the regulations and fees - up to 30,000 
Canadian dollars, or about $23,000, for a license, and 250-a-day 
fines for violations - were too onerous. "They got used to making 
money hand over fist with very little oversight," he said.

Krystian Wetulani, 32, who owns three shops, said he felt he was 
stuck in red tape. Only one of his shops has been approved, and he is 
appealing a denial for another. Fines are mounting while he seeks 
locations that will conform to regulations. "It's impossible," Mr. 
Wetulani said. "Landlords hear the word 'weed' and just say no."

In the Downtown Eastside, a gritty Vancouver neighborhood, a crowd of 
people were smoking crack and shooting heroin on the sidewalk outside 
Farm, a dispensary with a self-avowed social-justice mission. It 
employs only women, many of them immigrants, former prostitutes or 
victims of sexual assault, and its proceeds help finance neighborhood 
programs like needle collection and a community garden.

The city tolerates open use of illegal drugs in the neighborhood and 
a local safe-injection site for heroin users, but Farm still fell 
afoul of the distance restrictions in the new marijuana regulations, 
and had to win an appeal to stay open.

Wang Jingzhi, 83, an immigrant who lives in the nearby Chinatown 
neighborhood, said she frequently bought marijuana from Farm to 
soothe the aches and pains of old age. "Whenever I smoke it, my whole 
body feels better," she said in Chinese.

Like many in the local marijuana business, Cait Hurley, 28, the 
dispensary's manager, said she was worried that new government 
regulations would favor corporate interests and exclude women and the 
working class. "There's a lot of fear this will all be taken away 
from us," she said.

Under Mr. Trudeau's conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, the 
government stripped patients of the right to grow their own medical 
marijuana in 2013, and centralized production and distribution 
through a few licensed companies. But in February, a federal court 
reinstated patients' growing rights; the new rules announced on Aug. 
11 put that ruling into effect.

Facing greater competition, the 34 government-licensed producers are 
calling for everyone to be held to the same rules they must follow, 
said Colette Rivet, the executive director of a producers' trade 
association, Cannabis Canada. "We would be shut down if we tried to 
sell to dispensaries," Ms. Rivet said.

Some critics of Mr. Trudeau's legalization efforts see a conflict of 
interest in the close ties between political insiders shaping 
marijuana policy and the licensed producers. The head of the task 
force, A. Anne McLellan, is a former cabinet minister who advises a 
law firm that represents clients in the industry, and Chuck Rifici, a 
founder of one of the licensed producers, was the volunteer treasurer 
of Mr. Trudeau's Liberal Party until June.

Mr. Rifici said he had no personal or political connection to the 
government's legalization process, but he acknowledged that the 
licensed companies "typically pull in people who know how to navigate 

While lawmakers design new legalization policies, law-abiding 
entrepreneurs like Ivan Miliovski say they feel caught in the middle. 
Mr. Miliovski said his company, Vodis Pharmaceuticals, had spent 
years and millions of dollars seeking a license to produce medical 
marijuana under the existing regulations. His entire business plan is 
now in doubt.

"We don't know what's going to happen," Mr. Miliovski said. "The fear 
is that it won't help all the people who have struggled and advocated 
and pushed to make this industry legitimate."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom