As we draw nearer to the second anniversary of cannabis legalization, there is no better time to reflect on the heroic efforts that paved the way for reforms. It is also an opportune moment to envision the progress we hope to see in the future. Staying in touch with the roots of cannabis activism allows us to clearly conceptualize how far we have come, and where we need to grow.
In this issue of NORML Canada News, we catch up with legendary activists including public servant Abi Roach, lawyer John Conroy, and patient crusader Matt Mernagh. Check out the recap of the Legalization Pros & Cons fundraiser (legalizationproscons.ca) and learn more about the CanMar Global Conference & Expo (canmarevents.com)
Warm thanks to everyone who helps make this newsletter possible. If you are interested in contributing to future issues, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Legalization Pros & Cons
On September 27, 2020, Cannabis Culture launched a 30-day fundraiser in support of NORML Canada and Cannabis Amnesty. This kick-off event was held at 420 Cannabis Court and hosted by Jodie Emery. Speakers included Caryma Sa’d, Erin Goodwin, Britney Guerra, Jack Lloyd, and Tyler James. Things ended on a high note with comedy performances by Tamara Shevon and Black Zeus.
Attendees received free swag, including fabric masks, lighters, rolling papers, and more. There were also prize basket giveaways. Over $6,000 has been raised to date!
To learn more visit legalizationproscons.ca
Q&A with Abi Roach
Michelle Lockwood and Abi Roach
Edited for length and clarity
You moved from a private cannabis culture business owner to a civil service position. For others who may wish to transition to the legal industry, what are some transferable skills?
Everything is transferable. I came from retail, where I sold cannabis accessories for 20 years. Merchandising, consumer insights, consumer buying patterns, understanding how to read data, understanding sales numbers, understanding patterns by reading date; these are all things that I was doing in my old life.
What is transferable coming into the legal industry is what you already know. If you worked at a dispensary before and you know lots about cannabis, then definitely go into the retail end. If you were a grower prior and you want to enter the legal regime, your experience is in growing. If you were a marketer before your experience is in marketing. So, do what you do best, and then bring it into the legal industry because the legal industry needs all these things. Even if you don’t come from the unregulated market and you just come from the food service, or something else, that skill can be easily transferred into the industry as well.
What accomplishments in the cannabis landscape are you most proud of?
I am very proud of fact that I have managed to survive 20 years running the same business; that’s an accomplishment for any business owner. I am very proud of fact that I ran the longest operating (and still operating) cannabis lounge in North America, and it was only the second of its kind in Canada. I am very proud of the fact that I gave people not just a space to consume, but a window for non-consumers into cannabis culture itself, and the fact that they don’t have to be afraid. I am very proud of that. I am very proud of fact that I essentially normalized cannabis for Toronto, and for a lot of people over the last 20 years and I normalized cannabis consumers as real people.
HotBox is one of the most recognizable names in Toronto cannabis culture. Has the future of cannabis culture shops changed post-legalization?
Yes. You have a generation, the new generation that turned 18 in the mid 2000s, they’ve never had to buy their cannabis anywhere outside of a dispensary. They were raised with cannabis being a thing that you buy in a store. So for them, it is a much different experience than it is for me as a 42 year old woman who used to buy her weed in baggies in alleyways. It’s a much, much different experience.
Legalization made it an easier transition into a more user-friendly experience. Laws will change but businesses change to evolve, and a good entrepreneur will be able to take what’s given to them and take that extra inch to make it unique and exciting and creative and outside of the box. Entrepreneurship is not the business, entrepreneurship is the vision.
Legalization was an exciting time. Did you feel a sense of relief that part of the fight was over, or has it just changed, with new purpose?
Absolutely I was relieved. I fought for legalization for more than half my life. I remember the day. Legalization was a whirlwind— there was a lot of media, I was running all over the place eating cake and getting high. It didn’t really hit me until I walked home and I stopped by a group of my friends from the neighborhood, smoking a joint on the street. They were like, “Do you want some?” and I was like “Yeah, sure!” That’s when it hit me that cannabis is legal, and what we were doing is 100% legal. That was when the defining moment was. It wasn’t the party, the New York Times or any of that stuff. It was sharing that legal joint with my friends on the street.
Legalization was a definite moment of a win. Whether it was rolled out exactly as we expected, maybe not, but nothing was built in a day. We have to proud of the fact that Canada is the first G20/G7 country in the world to do this. We broke treaties, we broke all kinds of rules to be able to show the world that it can be done.
Will legal cannabis to look the same as it did yesterday in five years from now? Definitely not. It’s going to be a much different landscape. If you look at the two years that have passed, it’s completely different. It’s an evolving legal landscape. The products keep changing, the consumers are changing, the companies are evolving, the retail landscape is changing, Everything changes, but then again, it’s a transformation. Yes, I was overjoyed when cannabis became legal, and I wasn’t afraid.
As the OCS Senior Product Manager, you’re familiar with products on offer to Ontarians. What changes do you see in store for the future of cannabis products (medium/long term changes)?
Right now what you are starting to see coming into market are sort of the staples of the legacy market. The LPs are really starting to think outside the box. The Health Canada review of all the regulations and the bylaws is coming up a year from now. I think as we see those regulations start to evolve, products will become far more innovative. Even though it may seem like we have fallen behind more advanced markets, like Colorado, California or whatever else, what we actually have as an advantage is we are 100% legal. We can do research and development in Canada that they can’t do legally in the United States because it is federally illegal. I think that once permissions start to change a little bit, and different products have come out and as we start to get a bit more dialed in as to who consumer is, and as that consumer evolves again, I think you will start to see innovations happen in cannabis that are well ahead of what is happening anywhere else in the world.
If you look at some of the beverage technology that’s coming out right now, the nanotechnology that makes drinks and edibles fast acting, even though you have a 10mg limit on edibles— which the legacy market will scoff, “Haha, I just ate an edible that is 150mg”— those companies have figured out how to make that 10mg dose feel as though it is 100mg, but staying within those rules. Again, I repeat the point that entrepreneurship is not the business, it’s the vision. Great products will come out of that. Great businesses will come out that. I think what we are going to see three, four, five years down the road will be vastly different than what we saw two years ago or a year from now
What is something you think people who don’t consume cannabis should know?
That it is not the devil’s lettuce. Most of the propaganda you have heard throughout your lifetime might not be true. It would be good to do some research, open your mind, and understand that cannabis is now legal and should be treated the same as any other legal product available on the market.
Q&A with John Conroy
Justin Gordon-Deacon and John Conroy
Edited for length and clarity
How did you get started in cannabis advocacy?
My first memories of cannabis were when I was a boy growing up in Malawi (and a few other countries in Africa). The locals would smoke and grow their own cannabis in their fields. My father wasn’t too thrilled about this, but no one else seemed to care very much.
I was called to the bar in 1972. Before then, arrests for simple possession in Canada were quite low, only a few hundred a year. After 1972 the arrests jumped up significantly to upwards of ten thousand a year. Many more people were coming to my office looking for help with possession charges. Many people were looking at significant prison time just for having a joint on them. There was a great need in the community for change.
Over the next few years I worked with NORML and other groups on all kinds of drug treatment and reform, but particularly cannabis. In the late 70s, more middle-class white kids were getting busted for possession and there was growing political pressure from those families to limit the legal consequences. Until then, cannabis reform was kind of a niche issue. With the War on Drugs hysteria in the United States and Canada, regular people had mixed feelings about cannabis.
When the original Trudeau government brought in the Charter in 1982, the whole legal landscape changed. Before the Charter, drugs laws were mostly political; the courts were not looking to go against the will of Parliament. After the Charter, we had a list of core political rights that protected personal freedom and security that we could use to our advantage.
There are many legal cases that paved the way to the medical and recreational cannabis systems. What do you look for in a test case when you’re looking at reforming laws?
Charter fit is really important. To get laws struck down or changed, they generally need to conflict with a freedom listed in the Charter. We also love to see positive motivation in the litigants. People who are looking for relief from suffering or are looking to change the legal landscape in a positive way are more helpful to a case than people just looking for a payout. Change in the law is always a mix of political and legal action. We used to have protesters come to possession trials of medical cannabis patients with signs saying things like, “Dying for a joint.” It’s all about using different methods for the same goal.
Attitudes towards drugs have obviously changed a lot since you started your legal practice. Younger generations tend to have liberal attitudes towards cannabis. Drugs with low harm profiles (like MDMA, psilocybin, and even LSD) are gaining more mainstream attention and acceptance. Do you thinks this is translating into a larger movement for drug decriminalization?
Absolutely. I have no reason to think we are stuck at cannabis law reform. There’s still some “reefer madness” hysteria that exists. People in my own community in central BC have tried to get a few licensed producers shut down and there’s still some prejudice out there. Despite that, there’s has been a lot of progress; I don’t see it being rolled back any time soon.
I think the real danger for drug reform is the harm being done by the opioid crisis, which actually started with perfectly legal prescription drugs. I’ve been working to expand access to medically helpful drugs with the Cannabis Substitution Project in downtown Vancouver. There’s so much potential for the really lifesaving applications of drugs like psilocybin and others. People will always have doubts; it took us 40 years to get cannabis law reformed, but hopefully reforms for other drugs won’t take as long. I think even the police are glad to see decriminalization of drugs. They have more important things to do than police personal use of drugs.
What’s the next frontier in drug law reform?
Drug laws, especially cannabis laws, are still mostly dealt with by the criminal legal system. I would like to see more progress made in having drug issues dealt with by other, non-criminal methods. I think the purpose and framing of the Cannabis Act is to slowly move things in that direction, but there’s still a long way to go.
Where does the fight end for you? What would have to happen for you to hang up your judicial gown and say, “We did it”?
I’ve been trying to do that for seven years! I’m semi-retired now, but I’m addicted to the interesting cases people bring to my office. Drug education and legal reform programs are so important. There’s a whole new generation of lawyers and activists out there who will take up the mantle of drug reform when we can’t. While I’m still in a position to help, I will.
Q & A with Matt Mernagh
Justin Gordon-Deacon and Matt Mernagh
Edited for length and clarity
When/how did you discover cannabis to help with your medical issues?
Throughout high school, I was dealing with serious chronic pain from scoliosis and fibromyalgia. I was given powerful opioids to help cope. While I was in college for journalism, I was introduced to cannabis. There was an instant recognition that it was relieving my pain without the effects or risks from opioids. The Toronto Compassion Club was a great resource at a time when there wasn’t much official information going around.
Was cannabis purely a medical issue for you? What are your feelings on recreational use/legal issues?
While I have lots of love for cannabis culture and have always fought for recreational adult consumers of cannabis, medical cannabis will always be a very personal issue for me. If you had asked me in 2005 if in my lifetime I would ever see the systems we have now, I would have laughed. Legalization and normalization just seemed so unlikely back then.
That links to another issue I wanted to discuss. Legalization for recreational use kept the medical system mostly intact. Do you see that dual system surviving in the long term?
Yes, I absolutely believe they should and will remain intact. The motivations for medical users and recreational users can be very different and should be treated differently. Medical users enjoy, and should enjoy, tax benefits and other legal rights to grow and possess cannabis that meet their individual needs. Medical cannabis users were at the forefront of cannabis activism and contributed a great deal to both medical and recreational legalization. I think these contributions should be recognized and celebrated through the medical system being respected going into the future.
You spent some time in the Don Jail. During your legal fight, did you prepare yourself for that as a possible outcome? Did you feel prepared when it came time? How did you frame that experience?
I was totally aware of the potential legal consequences of cannabis activism, though I was surprised by the sheer tragedy of the prison system. You can read about the racial and economic injustices of the carceral system all day, but nothing can prepare you for experiencing its violence. I was held for over two weeks on a ridiculous $100,000 bail requirement along with some very serious characters. After some publicity I was finally released on a $2,000 bond.
How did you feel after legalization? Did it feel vindicating or did your experience with the law leave a sour taste?
Frankly, I feel very successful and amazed with our achievements. I harbour no ill feelings, only relief.
Is the fight over for you? What would be a sign the fight is over?
My response to this is always, “No fighting champion ever retires.” And I plan to live by that. I am always looking to pass the torch to new activists, but I will always come and lend a hand at political events. Five years after legalization there will be a review of the medical cannabis system at the federal level. I plan on making sure our interests are being looked out for.
Along with medical cannabis issues, I also think we need serious reform in the way the legal system deals with non-violent offences. There must be a better way to deal with social problems than incarceration. At heart I’m a harm reductionist. There’s been a huge cultural shift towards drugs use in the past few decades. I think that while these things are happening, there’s a lot of noise from detractors, but once something is legal, people tend to shrug and the world goes on.
Do you have a message to send to non-consumers? Anything they should know?
Relax, it’s just a plant.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tracy Curley was a fearless and compassionate advocate for medical cannabis patients who passed away in 2019. She exemplified the adage “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” Learn more about her legacy here.
CanMar Global Conference & Expo
Join us for 3 days of education, networking, and developing new opportunities amongst the thought leaders of this growing sector. NORML Canada is proud to be a supporting partner of the CanMar Global Conference & Expo from October 23-25th.
In a year full of worldwide challenges and rich of virtual events CanMar are the people connector, bringing the world of cannabis to you. 20 panels on wide range of topics such as Diversity & Inclusion, Science & Innovation, trends, education… You name it.
CanMar are a proud member of the community and offer the stage to thought leaders, influencers, athletes and advocates to expand your knowledge. Everything you wanted to know about the industry, for you. Network with companies hiring on the CannCareers segment. An opportunity to meet and chat directly with decision makers, apply to jobs and broaden your horizons.
Helping you grow, and helping the community, when you buy a ticket, you donate $4.20 to charity, and you can choose between 3 fantastic organizations. The early bird Sale ends October 9th!
Get your ticket now on canmarevents.com