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Canada’s cannabis ‘revolution’

When I was in Vancouver recently I visited a couple of cannabis stores. One was legal, the other was ... well, I’ll get on to that in a minute.

Canada, as you probably know, legalised the sale and consumption of cannabis last year.

A recent BBC documentary (Legalising Weed: Canada's Story) followed three MPs - David Lammy (Labour), Norman Lamb (Lib Dem) and Jonathan Djanogly (Conservative) - on a fact-finding ‘mission’ to see whether Britain should adopt a similar policy.

Lamb caused a minor stir by sampling, on film, a few drops of cannabis oil to ‘help’ him sleep.

According to the Guardian:

The cannabis oil tried by Lamb contains compound Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is a psychoactive ingredient that makes it different and more potent than the legal cannabidiol (CBD oil). It can be prescribed for medicinal use but is difficult to access and parents have had difficulty importing it for their epileptic children.

Of the three MPs Djanogly was the most cautious about legalising cannabis in the UK but he didn’t dismiss the idea:

“I think we have got a lot to learn before the legalisation of recreational cannabis, which I think will happen at some point. I think we’re on a 10-to-15 year cycle, which would mirror what has happened in Canada.”

Also on the trip, which was organised by the advocacy group Volteface, was Chris Snowdon who subsequently wrote an excellent article for the Spectator (How Canada failed to smash the cannabis black market).

It began with this sublime introduction that still makes me laugh:

I had forgotten how much I disliked cannabis until I found myself under its influence, in the rain, trying and failing to find Toronto’s Union Train Station so I could get to the airport and go home. The plan had been to enhance my mood for a long journey, floating back to the UK in a higher state of consciousness. In practice, I just got confused, wet and was lucky to make my flight.

Thereafter Chris’s principal point seemed to be that, despite legalisation, the black market continues to flourish in Canada because the legal market is beset with restrictions and is significantly more expensive.

Having watched the documentary I too felt a bit underwhelmed. Despite legalisation not a great deal appears to have changed, partly because the market is so restricted.

As a result many existing consumers seem unwilling to abandon their previous, illicit, suppliers. Indeed, the scene I remember most was a group of people ordering cannabis from an illegal source and the drug being delivered to their door much like a takeaway pizza.

The delivery guy, I noticed, was carrying a motorcycle helmet so I imagine he arrived on a moped, Dominos style. Interestingly, he wasn’t in the least bit fazed by the sight of a camera crew recording the moment.

In case you’re wondering, my interest in the subject is purely professional!

From a Forest and freedom of choice perspective it makes sense to keep abreast of a drug that is edging towards mainstream acceptability and has an obvious connection with tobacco if you intend to smoke it.

Inhaled with a vapourizer it could also be viewed as a pleasurable and smokeless alternative to smoking, although there are significant differences between the effects of nicotine and cannabis that shouldn’t be overlooked.

(Update: As recent reports suggest, there are potential hazards in using illicit marijuana vaping products that consumers should be aware of, which is arguably a good reason to legalise them.)

Anyway, prior to that my interest had been sparked by a guest at Forest’s 40th anniversary dinner who I first met many years ago when he was working for a leading tobacco company. Today he’s a senior executive at a company investing globally in cannabis.

Meanwhile it’s not gone unnoticed that Imperial Brands (formerly Imperial Tobacco) has bought a stake in the Canadian Auxly Cannabis Group.

Likewise Altria, the US cigarette manufacturer that owns the Marlboro brand, last year bought ‘almost half’ of Cronos Group, a cannabis company in Toronto.

To ignore these developments, and the implications for consumers - including smokers - would be rather silly.

Unlicensed stores are closing following the legalisation of cannabis

Anyway, back to Canada.

Knowing very little about cannabis I needed an expert guide and who better than someone who moved from London to Vancouver last year and now works for a UK-based consultancy specialising in cannabis research.

We began by visiting a branch of City Cannabis Co which, as luck would have it, was a short walk from my hotel.

The windows were opaque but inside it was brightly lit with plain white walls, like a small pharmacy. Products including cannabis oils, dried cannabis flowers and ready-rolled joints in packs of one and three were displayed neatly on shelves or in glass cabinets.

Different strains of cannabis have names like Blue Cheese, Sour Diesel and Bubba Kush. Customers (or ‘guests’) were allowed to sniff samples of the flower but that was as far as it went.

Having travelled to Vancouver from Seattle where cannabis edibles are legal I was surprised there were no edible products for sale. It turned out they’re still prohibited in Canada although that will change in December.

Likewise vapourizers (vape pens) with pre-loaded cartridges of cannabis extract are also illegal in Canada although they too are expected to be legalised before the end of the year, recent reports notwithstanding.

The packaging, incidentally, was much like the packaging you’d see in a pharmacy. I noticed that the size of the packaging greatly exceeded the size of the ready-rolled joints and when I queried it they said it’s because of all the written instructions inside the box!

The staff were young, good-looking and keen to help without being in ‘sales’ mode. As a ‘guest’ I felt under no pressure to buy anything.

The set-up reminded me of Philip Morris’s iQOS stores which - if you’re familiar with them - bear a passing resemblance to an Apple Store, albeit much smaller.

What struck me was how normal it all was. The product was on display and although I was a bit bamboozled by all the information, there was nothing furtive about the experience.

The second ‘dispensary’ we visited was a rather different experience.

A few blocks from the City Cannabis store we were directed to an anonymous unit in a grim looking building where we were let in by an unsmiling bouncer who checked us over and nodded that it was OK for us to enter.

Inside we walked along a dimly lit corridor that felt more like a tunnel. At the end was a small, windowless room whose walls were painted a vibrant psychedelic orange.

Sitting in a corner on a cheap leather sofa, a customer was smoking a joint. A pungent aroma filled the room.

This was not a shop in any traditional sense. The only products I could see were in a tray under glass next to the ‘counter’. They included edibles and cannabis vape pens, both illegal under the current law.

Behind the counter two men in black t-shirts were friendly enough and happy to answer questions.

How, I asked them, were they able to stay in business?

The answer lay in their location which they said is close to an area where heroin addicts hang out. Compared to heroin, an illegal cannabis store is small beer so the authorities turn a blind eye.

Other unlicensed dispensaries aren’t so lucky and many have closed down. Meanwhile licensed stores are very tightly controlled. According to the City Cannabis website:

The BC Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) is the sole wholesale distributor of legal recreational cannabis, and purchases exclusively from government-approved suppliers. Our retail prices are based on standardized wholesale pricing and fee from the BCLDB, which all legal cannabis retailers must order from.

Products are manufactured, stored and distributed by Health Canada-approved suppliers, according to strict industry-wide regulations under the Cannabis Act. Cannabis products arrive at our locations in sealed packaging with standardized labels and amounts.

Cannabis cookie available, legally, in Seattle. Note the plain packaging!

Canada, of course, is not alone in legalising recreational cannabis. Uruguay and a number of American states have done the same.

Last month Luxembourg became the first country in Europe to legalise the sale and consumption of cannabis for recreational use.

Some seem to think it’s only a matter of time before the UK follows a similar path. Given the risk averse nature of Britain’s political class, and the current wars on tobacco, alcohol and sugar, I’m not so sure.

Moreover the outcome of the Canadian experiment with cannabis is far from settled.

Unlicensed stores may be closing down but thanks to stifling regulations the unregulated black market continues to flourish.

In Quebec there have been threats to raise the legal consumption age from 18 to 21 (in Vancouver it’s currently 19) and ban consumption in public places.

Sound familiar?

The reality is that the Canadian cannabis ‘revolution’ is tightly controlled. It’s certainly not the liberal nirvana some would have us believe.

Legal dispensaries are few in number - a dozen or so in Greater Vancouver (population 2.5 million).

Nevertheless, from my very brief visit, I can see that it has normalised the sale and consumption of cannabis to a degree currently unimaginable in the UK.

People talk quite openly about consuming cannabis. For many people it’s no different to relaxing with a glass of wine.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Sir Norman Lamb, one of the principal cheerleaders for the legalisation of cannabis in the UK, is standing down as an MP at the next election, whenever that might be (don’t hold your breath).

Without a strong advocate in Parliament, how are campaigners going to convince parliamentarians to change the law?

Either way it will interesting to see how the debate develops. Watch this space.

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