The building doesn’t look like much from the outside. The boxy row of offices on a quiet industrial park on Vancouver Island is completely anonymous. It’s only when we get closer that we see the signs warning us away, and the thick bars blocking off the door. “One of the inspectors commented that if we were stockpiling heroin, we’d need less security,” says Rob Gagnon, letting us into the reception area. “If we were stockpiling radioactive isotopes, we’d need less security.”
Gagnon’s fun. He’s a former IT professional, a bearish man with huge diamond earrings and a shock of reddish-brown hair. As he explains how we’ll be recorded and monitored while we’re inside, his colleague Gill Pollard passes out blue booties and white paper suits. “Because we’re nerds, we looked at Intel,” says Gagnon, leading us further into the building. “When Intel make microchips, their enemy is dust. When you’re down to fifteen nanometres, dust is really freakin’ big. They spent tens of millions perfecting building microchips. We liked that.”
He isn’t kidding. The rooms he shows us are utterly sterile, the air crisp and dry, pushed through hospital-grade filters. Temperature and humidity are controlled by a custom-built Arduino Linux computer. Gagnon leads us up the stairs to the second floor. Here, things are a little less clinical: we can see bright daylight around the corner. Except it’s not daylight. It’s coming from extremely bright lights, hiding behind thick glass.
And there they are, the reason this facility is so clean, the reason Gagnon invests so much in air filters and paper booties. Marijuana plants, lined up in rows, each of them a minor miracle, with leaves a dark emerald green. The room is small, but there have to be a good fifty plants in there. “These represent a bunch of different varieties,” says Gagnon. He proudly points out several different strains: Master Kush, Salt Spring King, Pink Kush, Early Pearl, Candy Kush (“It smells like cotton candy. It’s delicious!”). He lingers on one plant. “This is our Island Honey,” he says, “which is the one we’re most proud of. But we love all our children. You have to pay more attention to them than real children – and they’re more valuable.”
The building is the home of Thunderbird Biomedical, one of several companies licensed to grow medical marijuana in Canada. In the province of British Columbia, and across the country, marijuana is becoming a corporate concern – and it’s sending shockwaves through the community.
Trying to explain marijuana’s legal situation in Canada will give you a headache. Dive even a little way in, and you’ll get lost in a thicket of lawsuits and injunctions. Here’s a very brief, pain-free history.
Since 2001, Canada has applied the Medical Marihuana Access Regulations (no, that’s not a misspelling, and we’ll explain why later). Under these, doctors could prescribe marijuana to patients, who were then licensed to grow and possess it. The programme was, by and large, a success: 27,000 Canadians had personal production licences, 5,000 were designated growers, and 4,000 got their marijuana directly from the government. Whether or not you believe that marijuana has genuine medicinal benefits, it was a reasonably enlightened system, particularly in a country as famous for its marijuana as Canada.
But the government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, decided that the MMAR was, as they put it, “Open to abuse.” There were too many underground grow-ops, too much excess marijuana being sold to non-medical users. So in March this year, the government’s medical arm, Health Canada, attempted to introduce a new set of regulations: the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, or MMPR.
In short, this required patients to only get their product from licensed growers – and once they’d signed up to one, switching was not easy. In addition, they were required by law to destroy their own personal supplies of marijuana and, as before, they couldn’t write their prescription off against Canada’s socialised medical system.
As you can imagine, that didn’t sit well with Canada’s smokers. An injunction was swiftly brought. “We did it as a constitutional challenge,” says John Conroy. He’s a bearded, somewhat lugubrious attorney from Abbotsford in British Columbia, and the driving force behind the injunction. He marshalled a group of plaintiffs spearheaded by Neil Allard, an elderly retiree who grows marijuana for his wife.
The Allard Injunction, as it was called, was granted on 21 March 2014. Patients could keep their own supplies of marijuana, for the time being. A decision as to whether to repeal or uphold it is expected in February. But something interesting has been happening to Canada’s marijuana landscape. It came to be known as the green rush.
In the months leading up to the switch to the MMPR, 1,200 companies applied to be licensed growers. At the time of writing, only thirteen licences have been granted – Thunderbird being one of them – and there are 300 applications that Health Canada is still considering. There’s a lot at stake here: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation estimates that Canada’s medical marijuana patients could account for up to $1.3bn in revenue (several sources told Huck that it’s not quite that much, but certainly wouldn’t be less than $400m).
British Columbia has become the crucible for all this. Air conditioning for a grow-op in the freezing winters of Ontario or the scorching summers of Saskatchewan is expensive, but it’s a little easier in BC’s mild climate. BC has a reputation, too, for being relaxed about marijuana use. The province is justifiably famous for its BC Bud – there’s a story, possibly apocryphal, that American gangs and BC growers used to swap marijuana for cocaine, kilo for kilo. Of the thirteen licensed growers, five are in BC.
The relaxed reputation doesn’t quite match up to reality (2013 police figures show that arrests for possession are actually higher than in other provinces) but this is still a place where smoking is a part of life. On April 20 every year, crowds pack Robson Square in Vancouver to celebrate marijuana, in the political-protest-slash-street-party known as 4/20. At 4.20pm exactly, thousands of people spark up. You can get a contact high from four blocks away.
You won’t notice Paul Harris’ hand unless you actually look closely at it. The plastic surgeon did a damn good job. Harris, a jocular South African expat living in Vancouver, was born with gigantism affecting his left hand and fingers. Five years ago, his big toe was transplanted to where his thumb is. It’s not an easy operation to live with, so Harris is a licensed medical marijuana patient – he has a prescription of 40g a day, which he takes orally.
Harris used to work in beer brewing, but it’s no surprise that he became a designated grower for other patients under the old MMAR programme. “I was in charge of about 1,000 medical marijuana plants,” he says, when we meet in a bar on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive. “We had a big facility in Abbotsford. The industry wasn’t banking that the injunction would come through, so we had our business plan end in March.”
All the plants in the 40,000 square foot facility were destroyed. Now, both Harris and his father, Brian, are working through the licensing process, hoping to get back into it. But that’s not the problem. Harris still grows his own plants, which helps him meet the needs of his prescription. But if the injunction is overturned and the MMPR goes ahead, he’ll have to destroy them, and buy from a licensed producer. A gram of marijuana from one of these companies can cost anything from $5 to $12, depending on the strain, including shipping and handling. “For me to afford my own prescription… even at $5, that’s $200 a day,” says Harris. “How the hell would anybody afford it?”
Excellent question. Harris’ 40g is a big prescription, but even for a patient with a 10g prescription, you’re talking $50 a day – $18,250 a year. For thousands of people like Paul Harris, these are the kind of numbers they’re looking at. And remember: this isn’t like flu medication. Health Canada won’t pick up the tab.
William MacLean reaches across the boardroom table, and grabs a glossy sheaf of papers. They turn out to be branding documents, put together by an ad agency for MacLean’s company, Wildflower. “We have the best brand on the market,” MacLean says, paging through the images. There are several recognisable symbols, like red crosses to represent a hospital. “Less is more – that’s the message I was pushing to the agency.”
Wildflower’s chosen logo is certainly eye-catching – a stylised marijuana leaf, drawn in thick black lines. MacLean flips the page, showing the logo on T-shirts and snapback caps. MacLean used to sell medical supplies. Before that, he worked in advertising and marketing. But when Health Canada began making rumbling noises about the MMPR, MacLean and his partners decided that marijuana was the next big thing. Wildflower’s application to be a licensed producer is also on the table. All 600 pages of it. The company applied months ago, and they still haven’t been approved. While their offices in the business district of downtown Vancouver are certainly swanky, they don’t have a facility yet. Wisely, perhaps. “You risk not getting approved,” says MacLean, “and committing a lot of capital. There have already been companies who have done that.”
Indeed. And while some are open and friendly, like Thunderbird and Wildflower, many of them are – how shall we put this? – not necessarily acting in the spirit that users of their product would expect. This is an industry that is very quickly becoming dominated by companies for whom the bottom line is everything, who have no previous experience growing marijuana, who have branding agencies and stock options and noses primed to follow the sweet smell of cash. These aren’t crimes – they’re exactly how you’d expect corporate entities to act. And plenty of companies are treating the space and their new customers with respect. But it’s still an uneasy marriage. For thirty years, marijuana farming in Canada was, as Rob Gagnon calls it, “a backyard, cottage industry.” That’s changing, and these companies – who could just as easily be selling iPods, or aluminium siding – are the ones yanking it up by the roots.
One difference between these companies and those selling aluminium siding: they do not like anyone sniffing around. Many companies wouldn’t return our calls and emails, and a few we spoke to were suspicious, even openly hostile. One company that agrees to speak to us is Tilray, another of the thirteen licensed producers – and the only one who has been shipping continuously since April. They won’t, however, let us anywhere near their multimillion-dollar facility, which has over 110 employees and boasts a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police intelligence chief as its head of security. An email, leaked to Huck by a source in the company, shows the detailed results of a media blitz designed to promote Tilray’s sponsorship of a particular medical marijuana study. “We’ve landed a couple stories on message but at this point coverage does not reflect the national splash we were aiming for,” reads the email’s opening line. These are very, very organised people.
Tilray’s CEO is Christian Groh. He is also a part of the Seattle-based private equity firm that owns it, Privateer Holdings. We reach Groh by phone, and ask him about the price issue – how will medical users be able to afford their prescriptions under the new regulations? “Pricing is something that is still currently in flux,” he says. “As [MMPR] evolves, and more producers get into this business, the market will become more saturated and patient driven. Ultimately, that [price] will get a little bit lower.”
The argument that Groh and MacLean and Gagnon make is a simple one: they may need to charge for their product, but they can produce marijuana of a very high and very consistent quality. Indeed, it’s something that Health Canada demands – that 600-page application on MacLean’s table is designed to show they can satisfy production standards. It’s this more than anything else, Groh believes, that will keep customers coming back. “If I was a patient and needed medicine,” he says, “I’d want to know where the medicine is coming from. It’s a highly regulated seed-to-sale process.”
“We DO NOT sell marijuana. We DO NOT know where to get it. Please don’t ask. Thank you.” In the history of signage, there has never been one less believable. It’s on the counter of Cannabis Culture, a colourful store on West Hastings Street in Vancouver, near the city’s trendy Gastown neighbourhood. It’s a pot smoker’s paradise: bongs, vapourisers, literature, accessories, a cornucopia of soaps and oils and unguents. They sell everything but marijuana – not that it stops the staff, and the two store cats, Joey and Curtis, from being almost constantly high.
Cannabis Culture is the home of Marc Emery, a relaxed middle-aged gent with greying hair, wearing glasses and a simple knit sweater. Emery is a committed, fiery agitator for the right to smoke – not just in Canada, but on the planet. He more or less invented 4/20, and is such a central figure in Canadian marijuana culture that his nickname is The Prince of Pot. “This is Marc’s block,” says one of the staff of Cannabis Culture. “Everybody knows it.”
In 2005, Emery was extradited to the US to face charges of marijuana distribution. He was sent to prison, and was finally released in mid-2014. “It was surreal,” he says, as we sit in the lounge above the store. “I went from being in leg-irons, handcuffs and a belly chain for twelve hours, to getting to Windsor, Ontario, and they took my shackles off and pointed to a door in the corner and six seconds later I came through. This beautiful sunny day, people blowing pot smoke at me, cheering, twenty TV cameras. An arm shoots out of that crowd, and I’m mesmerised, and my wife grabs me and pulls me forward to a podium. That was a heady moment.”
The issue Emery raises, as a campaigner, is this. Marijuana is being treated by Health Canada like a pharmaceutical product, requiring health regulations and controls – but unlike most pills and medicines, patients can grow this product themselves. They can’t do it as well or as consistently as the licensed producers can, but Emery firmly believes that treating marijuana as a source of corporate profit is a big mistake. “The license providers are here, but they’re not cheap,” he says. “There’s huge investment. Those people have expectations of profits. And it’s the most vulnerable people who need medical marijuana. They don’t have a lot of money. It’s strange to say that someone should be making millions of dollars off these people.”
Next door to Cannabis Culture is the Dominion Building. Dana Larsen has his office here – he’s one of the few people who can match Emery for campaigning vigour on marijuana issues. He runs Sensible BC, a political organisation agitating for a referendum on legalisation.
Larsen himself is a political animal, with a big, booming voice. “The government aren’t interested in the bottom line for themselves,” he says. “They’re interested in the bottom line for their friends. That’s why we see this. It’s not about what’s good for the government, or good for the country, or they would have legalised it a long time ago.” He also doesn’t think that medical marijuana users will support the MMPR system – at all. “A lot of patients don’t want to get involved. People think, I’ll grow on a large scale, couple bucks a gram, sell it for ten dollars, get rich! But it won’t work out like that. Patients aren’t that interested, and there’s a lot of competition.”
Even Rob Gagnon recognises the problem here. “It’s called medical, but it’s not covered under the medical services plan. It’s not being handled by the usual third party health plans. I think that once the insurance companies realise that this is cheaper than pharmaceuticals, I think they’ll get on board.”
Want to know how absurd things are for marijuana in British Columbia? Go to the corner of Commercial and East 14th Street in Vancouver. Here, a friendly group of folks known as the British Columbia Compassion Club Society sell marijuana to registered patients. They charge a $15 annual membership fee, and their prices are competitive. They sell edibles, smokeables, concentrates, you name it. They have a website, and a sign outside the door. On their ten-year anniversary, Canada’s parliament gave them a commendation – some early employees have even been given Queen’s Jubilee Medals, for significant contributions to Canadian life.
They are utterly illegal. Were the police so inclined, they could move in and shut them down tomorrow. “It’s a long story,” says Jamie Shaw, one of the staff members who run the dispensary. Shaw is as Earth Mother as it gets, with loose dreads and a gentle smile. “We’re in a grey area. People in authority don’t really have grey areas – they’re not allowed to! But cannabis has been a very low priority in Vancouver for a very long time. It’s created an interesting situation.”
The BCCCS don’t get their product from licensed producers. They helped fund the injunction (John Conroy is their lawyer) but if the MMPR is put into practice, they may have a real problem. Not that it bothers Shaw, who couldn’t be more relaxed about it: “If Health Canada ever designs a system that works, we’ll be right there. Or we’ll close down. But as long as they keep designing systems which don’t work, especially for a lot of our members, we’re not going anywhere.”
BCCCS is one of forty-five dispensaries in Vancouver, and so far, they’re the best argument against a system of licensed producers. They offer reasonable product, at a relatively low rate, in friendly surroundings. They are a demonstration of how medical marijuana distribution can be handled. But the rest of Canada’s provinces aren’t as friendly as British Columbia to dispensaries, and there is far less money on the table. So for now, they remain illegal, Queen’s Jubilee Medals or not.
Here’s another portion of absurdity. You will find no greater demonstration of how Health Canada views the entire subject of marijuana than in how they spell it. They insist, point-blank, on spelling it with an h – as in, marihuana. Legally, this is how it has always been spelled. Never mind that no one else spells it that way, or that it makes them sound like a cop convention from the 1950s. That’s what they’ve always done, and they see no need to change.
It wouldn’t matter a jot if they could actually account for their position on ‘marihuana’, but they can’t. When we put questions to their spokesperson, Sara Lauer, her answers are almost hilariously obtuse. For example: under the MMPR, patients will be required to destroy all of their existing crops – plants, seeds, the little bit stashed in the drawer for emergencies, all of it. But how will Health Canada enforce this? How are they possibly going to visit all 30,000-plus patients to make sure? Here is their answer: “If clients wish to destroy the product at home, they should add water to the marijuana to render it unusable, mix it with cat litter to mask the odour and dispose of it with regular household waste.”
And if patients decide that licensed producers are simply too expensive, and go the illegal route? “Possession and use of marijuana remains illegal in Canada unless authorised by a healthcare practitioner and obtained from a licensed producer. Any activities undertaken by individuals outside of the MMPR may be subject to law enforcement measures.”
When Thunderbird was in its early stages, Gagnon was contacted by the hacker group Anonymous, who are famous for their corporate takedowns and denial-of-service attacks. They asked him a simple question: “Are you trying to be Monsanto?” “You know you’re talking to those boys when they cut right to the chase,” Gagnon says. “Like, ‘Okay, corporate scumbag, your court.’ I wrote back and said, ‘We’re trying to be a craft brew from Portland.’ Never heard from them again.”
We follow Gagnon and Pollard as they drive across town to their second facility. It’s a huge warehouse fifteen minutes away from their main lab – a giant, echoing space that could host a killer rave. Unlike many other producers, he intends to expand incrementally – at first, Thunderbird will only offer two strains of marijuana, so that customers can always get what they need. This warehouse is for what comes later. “There’ll be a second building inside this building,” Gagnon says, pointing towards the far wall. “Ten feet in all. It’ll be a totally clean system.”
There’s a real sense that Gagnon, and Thunderbird, are trying to do the right thing. He is evangelical about the product, about its quality and consistency. And although Thunderbird is by no means free of the trappings of a corporation (its initial public offering raised $3m in capital), it’s certainly the least intimidating licensed producer in Canada.
But if the injunction is overturned, and the MMPR goes ahead, then it’s going to come down to people like Paul Harris. Will they be prepared to pay more for a consistently good product? Will they ignore this in favour of the convenience of homegrown operations? In February 2015, when a decision on the injunction is due to be delivered, some of these questions might be answered.
Gagnon looks around his warehouse. “This is an industry where there’s going to be a lot of noise, and a lot of big players throwing around money for a while,” he says. “But this is a marathon. Who’s going to be here in three years? That’s what we’re interested in doing.”