Prometheus re-bound

A long-time marijuana activist tries to make sense of Canada’s new cannabis capitalism
March 1, 2018

Prison made out of pot

Illustration by Kara Sievewright


Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.

~ Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

I find myself poised between astonishment and outrage at the miserable marijuana monstrosity that has been bred by the Trudeau government and sold to doting Canadians as “legalization.” You might think that legalization without decriminalization is paradoxical, that one cannot exist without the other. You might believe that law is based on logic and facts. My skeptical nature had me anticipating that “legalization” actually meant “financialization,” that is, a regulated framework of legal and financial engineering that would create a new species of aristocrat, the Canadian Marijuana Entrepreneur. My healthy distrust of government had me predicting that legalization would also continue to oppress and criminalize minorities and the poor. Two years ago, I speculated “It's going to get worse before it gets better.” Now bills C-45 and C-46 are slouching toward Ottawa to be born. Now, it's worse.

I have been a member of the Marijuana Party since 2004. I have run in the last five federal elections and am currently the peace officer for the party. I have had to consistently deconstruct the flawed thinking of reefer madness; I have had to face the medusa of racism that hides in the history of Emily Murphy; I have suffered the slings and arrows of every Cheech and Chong joke; I have smiled at every Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley reference; I have risked my personal and professional reputation by aligning myself with something that was thought to be immoral, dangerous and criminal. The members of the Marijuana Party have been unified by one common ideology: Cannabis should not be criminalized. In order to defend this position, I have had to study botany, science, the policies of Health Canada and Veterans Affairs Canada, and the law. I am now, as I have always been, in a bit of a haze at the reasoning of it all.

Having marijuana or cannabis included in the schedule of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and enforcing that with the Criminal Code is outrageous. It is non logical. It defies the laws of nature, science and the will of the people. Marijuana prohibition is a monster roaming the countryside that kicks in doors and takes property away; takes children away from their parents; randomly beats down the public; handcuffs people and saddles them with a criminal record. Humans become outcast before they can apply for a “pardon,” or a “record suspension” as it is now called. Yet, Bill C-45 is creating a monopoly for the rich; Bill C-46 will let the police continue to beat down the poor.


It's been over two years since Justin Trudeau said the new Liberal government would legalize marijuana “right away.” When the Prime Minister formed his cabinet, he appointed a lawyer to be Minister of Justice, an infantry officer to be Minister of National Defence, and an astronaut to be Minister of Transportation. One would reason that a scientist (a biologist or a botanist) or health expert would be put in charge of drafting marijuana legislation in 2015. Instead, Trudeau appointed a police officer.

The former Toronto police chief William Sterling “Bill” Blair was made Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice and the head of a nine-member task force on marijuana, responsible for co-ordinating with Health Canada, Public Safety and each of the provinces and territories. At this point, I am reminded of the Iron Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck's maxim about “laws and sausages,” which was actually a quote from lawyer and poet John Godfrey Saxe: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” My personal respect was ceased not by process, but by the man in charge.

Bill Blair was the chief of Toronto Police during the infamous G20 summit in Toronto. In June 2010, 1,100 people were arrested, including some kettled by riot police in the rain. It was the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. In April 2015, Ontario ombudsman AndréMarin reported that Blair’s handling of the G20 was “the most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.” The heavy-handed response, which was seen as an egregious abuse of power and a massive human rights violation, led many to call for the resignation of the chief, but Blair remained aloof of the whole affair. “I'm responsible for policing and safety in Toronto,” he said. “I wasn't making the operational decisions that weekend, but it's still my town and my responsibility.”

You've heard of “sorry not sorry”? Well here's “responsible not responsible.” Blair later explained that he had misinterpreted regulations from the Ontario cabinet on the increase of police powers for the G20 summit. The man that misinterpreted provincial law is now in charge of drafting federal law. The man that facilitated people getting stomped on by horses and thrown into pop-up prisons, like in the dystopian film Punishment Park, is now in charge of making the Frankenstein sausages of legal marijuana.

The elite 89

So, some of my outrage comes from the appointment of Bill Blair, which I can only view as a foreshadowing of police abuse on an epic scale (more on this later.) As for my astonishment, that comes from the current marijuana industry as it is shaping up, based on the numbers—and by numbers I mean money.

Canada's current marijuana climate—the foundation on which a “legitimate” industry is now being constructed with the co-operation of the federal and provincial governments—was created by the sick and the poor who were for decades persecuted by police and the courts. It is their resistance, their court battles and their sacrifice that have resulted in today’s marijuana reforms.

But a curious thing happened on the road to legalization: what was once known as marijuana is being transformed into cannabis. The new cannabis laws are designed for political insiders and an elite group of entrepreneurs who have emerged from what is now referred to as “the grey market” or “the former underground economy.” Canada's cannabis industry is all about the licensed producer (LP).

Health Canada issues authorized licences to produce cannabis for medical purposes under the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR.) There were, at publishing time, 89 LPs in Canada, all fairly small companies (though some of them with big market clout), most having around 100 employees. Many of these corporations, licensed to grow what was once called “medicinal marijuana” for licensed recipients, are simultaneously preparing themselves to be able to grow “recreational marijuana” or “cannabis” under Bill C-45.

Wordplay aside, LPs are grow operations that have made it through a rigorous system, passed all the inspections, met the requirements and have been given the green light. Wouldn't you love to start a LP? Yes I would, or so I thought.

In October 2017, I attended the Ottawa Cannabis and Hemp Expo at the Shaw Centre. It was a mixture of glass blowers, bong sellers, people hocking LED grow lights and different home-grow systems, and something that I had never encountered before called the “cannabis consultant.” For $20,000, these guys would do all the paperwork for your LP application, find you a commercial property, ensure that you met the requirements of Health Canada, and get you a licence to grow. They weren't lawyers or government officials, they were all information middle-men, “brokers” that made lots of assurances but no real guarantees on your application.

As of March 2015, Health Canada had received nearly 1,300 applications for commercial growing licences. Approximately 75% of applications do not meet the standards. They are rejected, assessed as incomplete or withdrawn completely. The first few LPs spent around $1 million to meet the standards set by Health Canada. In order to meet the standards created by C-45 an LP will cost $5–10 million.

So, aside from the rare application where a “cannabis consultant” is successful, how does one actually get to create an LP? Prepare to be astonished.

The fix is in

A monopoly is the exclusive possession or control of the trade in a commodity or service. An oligarchy is a government of a small group of people. A plutocracy is a government of the wealthy, for the wealthy, by the wealthy. Canada's burgeoning for-profit cannabis industry is a fascinating conflict-of-interest mélange of elected officials, high-ranking police officers, and almost exclusively white Anglo males, who are trying to figure out how to capture and control the whole industry. A 2017 Maclean’s article compiled an interesting list of some of the players.

That list includes famous insiders such as Senator Larry Campbell, a former RCMP officer and Vancouver mayor who is now an advisor to Vodis Innovative Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Norman Inkster, an independent director at Mettrum who was once head of the RCMP; Dr. Joshua Tepper, former assistant deputy minister of health and one-time senior medical officer for Health Canada (also an independent director at Mettrum between 2014 and 2016); Mike Harcourt, a former B.C. premier who is now the chairman of True Leaf Medicine Inc.; George Smitherman of THC BioMed, a former Ontario Liberal deputy premier and minister of health; and John Turner, former prime minister, who has an open medicinal marijuana application in Ontario.

We can also add Kash Heed, a strategic consultant with National Green BioMed who was formerly B.C.’s solicitor general and a West Vancouver police chief; former Vancouver-area federal cabinet minister Herb Dhaliwal, currently the chairman of National Green BioMed; and Tim Humberstone, a 20-year veteran of the RCMP’s municipal and federal drug enforcement sections who spent time on the B.C. Organized Crime Agency and who is now a director of Abcann Medicinals. (Humberstone has provided expert court opinion in the fields of cannabis trafficking and production techniques.)

The men who are going to profit the most from the ground-floor creation of a multi-billion-dollar industry are veterans of the establishment. They formerly enforced the law, incarcerated people, and were the status quo. Now they are going to be the international profiteers who benefit from the legal recreational growth and distribution of cannabis.

Stocks, dude

So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein—more, far more, will I achieve; treading the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

~ Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

One of the problems with articles on Canada's cannabis industry is that the handful of top LPs are going to get a tonne of free publicity when weed is “legalized.” The media, the public and everybody trying to cash in on the green wave is going to have to go to the experts, the insiders, to determine what is best practice, based on what they have already made a deal on. But I think that the public should know just how big these grow operations are, and how incredibly ambitious their profit motives are.

Clearly number one is Canopy Growth, aka Tweed. The company operates famously in a former Hershey’s factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario and was the first federally regulated publicly traded marijuana producing corporation in North America. Canopy has around 650 employees and a market capitalization of over $5 billion (this number fluctuates quite a bit). The company has about 665,000 square feet of growing capacity with plans for significant expansion.

In December 2017, Canopy announced plans to open a 40,000-square-foot grow facility in Odense, Denmark to cater to medical marijuana patients in the Scandinavian country (in a partnership with Spectrum Denmark, a European Hemp producer). Canopy also has a business deal with Constellation, an international producer of beer, wine and spirits that has operations in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Italy, and they are the first LP to be underwritten by a major bank (BMO Capital Markets and GMP Securities bought roughly five million shares in Canopy for $175 million earlier this year). This shift from one of Canada's big six banks means that many more LPs will be able to benefit from the financing and commercial banking that they desire.

Aphria Inc. had a market capitalization of about $2.5 billion in early February. The cannabis company has raised capital through private investors, without any major banks backing them yet. In late January, Aphria announced it had entered into a definitive arrangement to acquire 100% of Nuuvera Inc., a cannabis company with a strong presence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Aphria is growing by purchasing portions of smaller companies, which is basic yet effective business. If your company makes a bad investment, you can sell it off, most likely at a profit, before that other company, which is your competition, tanks.

OrganiGram Inc. was the first LP to have a recall for pesticide contamination when it failed an inspection by Health Canada. Mettrum Ltd. also had the same infraction. Both companies were found to be selling medical marijuana that contained chemicals not authorized for use in cultivation, including trace amounts (up to 20 parts per million) of the pesticide myclobutanil, which produces hydrogen cyanide during combustion. Company stocks tanked (albeit temporarily) on the news, and both are facing a class action lawsuit from patients who unknowingly ingested the chemical through use of their medicine. The upside in a for-profit market is that if the companies settle, or if they successfully defend, there’s always the option of changing their name, and their stocks will go up again. Mettrum was purchased by Canopy Growth in 2016, and OrganiGram’s stock has soared since September 2017.

Hydropothecary was the first LP in Quebec and is now one of six coperating in the province. The company also had a Health Canada infraction for myclobutanil but suffered no ill effects for the practice. In February, Hydropothecary signed a letter of intent with the Société des alcools du Québec to supply 20,000 kg of cannabis products in the first year of adult recreational use.‎ The expansion of their grow facilities will help them meet their target of producing 108,000 kg of dried cannabis annually, and make them on of the country's largest producers.

Supreme Pharmaceuticals is the only company that is a business-to-business grower. All other LPs in Canada sell direct to the consumer, but Supreme grows for other LPs, as they have a licence to cultivate but not to sell. Their 342,000-square-foot grow facility is one of the largest in the world. By 2019 they will have invested over $70 million into their corporation and hope to expand to over 300 employees. The goal is to reach a maximum output of 50,000 kilograms per year. Once Health Canada approves their licence to sell recreational as well as medicinal cannabis, they will most likely be one of the most profitable cannabis corporations on Earth.

Colonize this

In February 2017, I went to Jamaica to be a feature performer at the 14th Annual Poetry in Motion Festival, held in Mandeville. I was featured in two newspapers and did three radio broadcasts to promote the show. I was John Akpata, international poet, not John Akpata, marijuana politician. During my stay, I had several people try desperately to get in touch with me through social media and through my host. They invited me to their homes, their yards and their gardens because they wanted input and advice on their plants. Keep in mind that Jamaica decriminalized marijuana in February 2015. Possessing two ounces may result in a small fine (approximately US$5) and no criminal record. Each person is allowed to grow five plants at a time, and Rastafarians are allowed to use marijuana as sacrament.

One of the people I met was an extremely enthusiastic Canadian from B.C. who was overly excited to meet me. He had dozens of plants around his property, in myriads of pots, at different stages of growth, and some monsters in the ground. He didn't know much about genetics, could not differentiate sativa from indica, lost track of which plants were from seed and which from cuttings. All he knew was that he wanted to make a profit. He was determined to partner with anybody, needed a source of seeds, and wanted a famous spokesperson for the branding of his corporation.

Canada flag with pot leaf

Illustration by Erin Taniguchi

He told me that with my previous life experience, my dreadlocks and general appearance, I was exactly who he needed to make him legit. His goal was to become the number one marijuana producer on the island before anyone else got to it.

“I'm not interested in competing with Jamaicans on their island for growing marijuana for profit,” I told him. “Don't you think that Jamaicans can grow their own? Don't you think that they would rather have their own citizens and people making the money off of ganja, as opposed to importing foreigners who are going to take the money out of the country?”

The man was shocked. “It's already happening,” he said. “We have to get in on the ground floor before somebody else does.”

At the time, I thought that this person was either high or hallucinating if he thought that a Canadian company could set up shop in Jamaica. The idea was inconceivable to me. It turns out that I was as naive as ever, unaware of the larger plans of some Canadian entrepreneurs.

Timeless Herbal Care was founded by a Toronto lawyer one month before I had arrived. It has ties to Israel, Canada and Jamaica. Timeless has established strategic partnerships with the University of the West Indies, the University of Technology Jamaica, and O.penVAPE, producers of the Ziggy Marley signature vaporizer. Ernie Eves, the former Progressive Conservative premier of Ontario, joined the company as its chairman. “Huh,” I thought, “Canada is trying to colonize the world with grow operations.”


Save the children

When it comes to the creation of regulations and drafting of laws, one principle is to ensure that the most vulnerable people in society are protected. That usually means the elderly and children. As such, the federal government has fomented the idea that they have to strictly limit or block access to cannabis to young people, for their own protection. Bright colours and logos will not be allowed on packaging. Advertising will be tightly controlled for the same reason, and all cannabis activity is to happen well away from any schools, where young inquisitive minds may be enticed to experiment with the herb.

There will be severe penalties for those who sell or give marijuana to youth (up to 14 years in prison) or otherwise exploit them in the trafficking of cannabis. That length of sentence is in the ballpark of what you’d get for producing child pornography or engaging in terrorism, so I suspect there will eventually be a Charter challenge to this aspect of the law. Currently, the penalty for supplying alcohol to a minor is a maximum of one year in prison.

Under the proposed federal rules, people aged 12 to 18 will be able to possess five grams before facing criminal charges. According to Ralph Goodale, the federal minister for public safety and preparedness, “a person with a very small amount of cannabis in their possession should not face a criminal record.” There will also be zero tolerance for drug-impaired driving for anyone 21 and under, novice drivers, and all commercial drivers. In Ontario, a fine for drug-impaired driving would range from $250 to $450.

In September 2002, the Senate’s special committee on illegal drugs published “Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy,” which recommended 16 years as the threshold for legal access to cannabis. Fifteen years later, in September 2017, a House of Commons standing committee on health that was assessing the Liberal legalization plans heard from marijuana activist and former Liberal hopeful Jodie Emery (the party rejected her as a candidate for the last election) about how incongruous these age limits were.

Emery quoted a Journal of Adolescent Health report suggesting that teens do not exhibit an increase in psychosis with cannabis alone. Only those with genetic predispositions, and those who used tobacco and alcohol, showed increased symptoms. Emery also quoted a 2016 report from the British Association of Psychopharmacology that claimed there is no IQ loss in users of cannabis, even in long-term users. The American Psychological Association in 2015 reported that the majority of cannabis-only users, even youth, have no health problems associated with cannabis.

All of this suggests strongly that the reefer madness scare tactics employed by detractors in the Senate and by opposition parties, and ridiculous notions about pot dealers in schools ruining the minds of children, have no scientific basis whatsoever. It's when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a car, however, that young people tip the scale.

According to Statistics Canada, “drug-impaired driving peaks among young adults, with a rate of 17 incidents per 100,000 drivers aged 20 to 24.” This category is also more likely to be accused of impaired driving. So, although many adults decry the validity of police doing roadside stops to determine who is “impaired” or “intoxicated” with cannabis, I have always believed the police are most likely going to ruthlessly target young people for driving while blazing, and most likely violate their youthful rights with impunity.

Bill C-46 comes with a $274-million budget to detect and deter any drug-impaired driving. Police will be able to pull over the driver of a vehicle, based on their reasonable suspicions of impairment, and demand an oral fluid sample to determine whether or not the driver has THC in their body. Three new offences have been created for having specified levels of THC in the blood within two hours of driving. Any of these tests can determine whether there is THC in your blood, but they cannot determine your level of impairment. Tests can also include a blood sample or a drug test at a police station, and will most likely incur another Charter challenge.

Over the next five years, a cannabis education and awareness campaign will be launched under the direction of Health Canada with a budget of $36.4 million. Another $9.6 million over five years will focus on public education, awareness and surveillance. Under the current Controlled Drugs and Substances Act there are eight cannabis-related offences, such as importing, exporting, trafficking and possession. Under the Cannabis Act there will be 45 offences with penalties that can only be described as severe.

Although the enforcement arm of the new law is being advertised as protecting children and youth and keeping drug-impaired drivers off the roads, my dreadlocks start to tingle when I consider actual statistics: 27,000 Torontonians were arrested for marijuana possession in 10 years; Black people were charged at more than three times the rate as white people with similar backgrounds; once charged, Black people are more likely to be detained for bail; a 2005 profiling study found that Kingston police stopped Black people 3.7 times more than their white peers.

In October 2016, a similar report on profiling was released in Ottawa. The Traffic Stop Race Data Collection Project showed that Ottawa police demonstrated bias and prejudice, from every police officer that generated data, against Black and Middle Eastern people, who are disproportionately pulled over. Blacks get pulled over 2.3 times more often than others in the population, and those perceived to be Middle Eastern are pulled over 3.3 times more often than the rest of population.

Add Bill C-46 to what already exists and I suspect that police will have a marijuana chip on their shoulder while they racially profile on the open roads.

Recreational medicine

There are over 100,000 medicinal users of cannabis in Canada. Like Emery, Philippe Lucas from the Canadian Medical Cannabis Council, which represents seven LPs currently supplying 40,000 patients, has also made recommendations on legalization to the House of Commons health committee. In his presentation on behalf of the industry group, Lucas highlighted a survey of 2,032 patients conducted by member company Tilray, where he is vice-president of patient research and access, that garnered some very interesting results.

The average age of a medical cannabis user is 40. Most sought out cannabis after other treatments had failed (i.e., they were seeking alternatives). The Tilray survey found that about 40% of users are medicating for insomnia, mental health and PTSD; 37% use for body pain and headaches; 78% use less than three grams per day, and most use 0.5–1.5 grams; 31% of medical users vaporize instead of smoking; 69% use cannabis instead of prescriptions; 35% use cannabis instead of opioids; 44% use cannabis instead of alcohol and 26% use cannabis instead of illicit drugs; 60% gave up opioids altogether, and 31% gave up alcohol altogether.

Lucas told the committee of another study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showing that medical cannabis use reduced rates of violence, homicide, suicide and accidents. According to his presentation, teen use of cannabis has declined in all U.S. states where medicinal marijuana is legal.

The Supreme Court ruled that medical marijuana patients should have access to edibles. The only way to do so today is to purchase cannabis from LPs and make your own. The non-legal cannabis producers have moved on to edibles as a staple in dispensaries. The future lies in LPs reaching out to edibles producers, but there are no Health Canada regulations in place for edibles yet. Perhaps that is why, as of August 31, 2017, there are 10,547 Canadians approved to cultivate for personal use, an increase of over 50% in two months.

Set the captives free

In the federal election of 2015, when Justin Trudeau promised to legalize marijuana, I adopted a wait-and-see attitude. I did what was required to get my name on the ballot (in Ottawa Centre), but was not interested in participating in a 13-week campaign where every federal political party except the Conservatives had promised to either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. I attended only the all-candidates debate at Carleton University, and was allowed one question.

I asked the panel of candidates how long it would take to expunge the criminal records of every marijuana-related offence in Canada? How much they were going to compensate people for the harm done to these people? How long it will take to let people out of prison? And, at the end of the day, how many plants can I grow? Both the Liberal candidate, Catherine McKenna, and the NDP’s Paul Dewar were shocked. “Nobody has ever asked that before,” said Dewar. McKenna, now Canada’s environment minister, spoke about drafting legislation that would protect children and keep the profits away from organized crime.

It was not until January this year that Public Safety Minister Goodale said those Canadians who have a criminal record for simple possession of marijuana deserve amnesty. He recognized that a record suspension would be the fair and equitable thing for the Liberal government to do, especially in the face of impending recreational legalization (and, perhaps, another upcoming federal election in the fall of 2019).

Justin Trudeau was wishy-washy and lukewarm when questioned recently about Goodale's sentiments, which is a shame. Any reasonable person who knows a few facts would support amnesty. Approximately 55,000 people were charged with a marijuana-related offense in 2016, 17,733 for simple possession of pot, according to Statistics Canada. Approximately 30% of court time is dedicated to drug offences where there was no harm, loss or injury. It will be difficult to determine who is eligible for a record suspension for marijuana, as most police forces do not differentiate between a marijuana offence and an offence for other drugs. Possession is possession, of what, nobody specifies.

California’s 2016 ballot initiative to legalize the production, distribution and use of marijuana for recreational purposes also included the reclassification and/or expungement of marijuana-related offences. For those still serving sentences there will be opportunities for re-sentencing. When the law came into effect on January 1, 2018, California officially ended the war on marijuana, which disproportionately targeted non-white citizens. When Uruguay legalized marijuana in 2013, the government included a strong emphasis on public health and human rights.

In Canada, over one million people have been charged with a marijuana crime and over 500,000 people currently have a criminal record ahead of the summer 2018 deadline for marijuana legalization. If the Liberals do not create a mechanism for widespread record suspensions this year they can expect an election battle from opposition parties, as well as a class action lawsuit from a group of lawyers in Toronto who are including racial profiling statistics in their strategies.

I was asked on CBC News in January to respond to Goodale’s and Trudeau’s statements on pardoning people with marijuana records. I said I agreed with the minster, but added that amnesty does not go far enough. There should be an apology issued to all Canadians for past marijuana practice, especially directed to those harmed by an old-fashioned, outdated and antiquated prohibition system that has ruined lives, destroyed families and punished people who, according to the Canadian public, should not be criminals at all.

Perhaps during the next election I will again break out the soap box, climb up my high horse, and quote warnings from Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft and declarations from Bob Marley:

I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.

~ Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft, Frankenstein.

Set the captives free.

~ Nesta Robert Marley, Exodus.

 John Akpata is an Ottawa spoken word artist and Peace Officer with the Marijuana Party of Canada.