At first glance, the January 13-14 Lift Cannabis Expo convention in Vancouver was like any other industry gathering of insiders and curious onlookers roaming between rows of well-lit showcase booths, weaving through dense crowds in the habit of stopping abruptly to check their phones in the middle of the aisles.
But for a cannabis industry convention, one thing that was noticeably absent was cannabis itself.
With legalization still months away, attendees were instead greeted upon entrance by a table teeming with branded tote bags and a “no smoking and no vaping” sign. Those who wanted to consume had to bring their own and use an outdoor vapour lounge and smoking area, while those who wanted to buy could go outside onto West Cordova, where an impromptu market popped up selling everything from pre-rolled joints to cannabis candy edibles.
“We figured we would pop up a little farmers’ market outside just to see if there was any supply-and-demand forces in action, and apparently there is,” cannabis activist Daron Rutter told Business in Vancouver. “There’s a huge demand for it, but there was no supply at the convention.”
Rutter was selling $2 sample “dabs” of his own shatter concentrate as he’s done for more than two years, often at the pop-up cannabis market at Robson Square, which was recently singled out by the mayor after a string of negative media coverage.
While Rutter remains, as he says, civilly disobedient in the face of looming legalization and continued criminalization, wary of the large-scale corporatization and commercialization of cannabis, other longtime activists have embraced the coming change.
“Next year when this expo happens, you’ll be able to just go to the weed store outside that’s legal and come in here and maybe sample it,” said Adam Greenblatt, who ran a compassion club in Montreal for years and now works as Canopy Growth’s (TSX:WEED) Quebec brand manager.
“It’s unrealistic to expect there to be no penalties for operating outside of a regulatory system that we have been asking the government for, for decades,” he said. “This is what winning looks like.”
Alongside Greenblatt was Hilary Black, founder of the BC Compassion Club Society, now Canopy’s director of patient education and advocacy.
“I like to think of this as legalization 1.0, and that the work isn’t done, and we have to keep evolving,” she said.
In her role, she spearheads the company’s corporate responsibility initiatives, such as organizing a grant for the creation of physician’s guidelines for cannabis for AIDS patients. As well, she said, with industry growth come increased resources for advocacy that grassroots activists could never match for things such as insurance coverage for medicinal cannabis like any other prescription drug. Black continues to do government relations work for the compassion club, while her past activism remains front of mind in her current role.
“To me it will always be imperative to remember our history and to remember where we came from,” she said.
Dispensary owner and activist Dana Larsen, in an interview outside the convention’s vapour lounge, said the coming legal regime will be far from perfect at first, but he believes incremental change will improve it over time as long as public pressure on policy-makers is maintained.
“I think the proliferation of dispensaries was very instrumental in getting us to where we are now, and even though many politicians are kind of seeing dispensaries as the enemy, or as a bad thing, to me there’s no doubt that the reason we’re moving toward legalization – not the only reason, but one of the very big ones – is because they’ve lost control over prohibition,” he told BIV. “With this massive civil disobedience, not only with head shops and rallies, but dispensaries selling cannabis everywhere and the inability of the police and courts to stop or punish this, I think that’s a big part of why we’re at legalization now.”
While debate rages over the role of large-scale licensed producers versus small “craft growers,” Larsen said he’s bothered that prohibition is still ongoing at the same time the industry is booming.
“I find that part of the discussion is lacking,” he said.
“This is just the beginning of a decades-long process, and we’re getting over the hump when the laws change; it’s going to be easier, hopefully, to make more change in the future. There’s going to be plenty of people who like things the way they are, just like plenty of people like prohibition the way it is on both sides because a lot of growers make a lot of money off prohibition, they don’t want to see it legalized; it’s going to hurt them too.”
Back outside at Rutter’s tent and table dab setup, he laughs about the high-tech machines being showcased at the convention to make extracts like his “that you’re not allowed to buy, use or have on you.”
He said he’ll continue his business and his activism as long as he has something to sell, admitting there’s a way to go before he’ll declare victory.
“We have to push hard to get where we want to be,” he said.
“We’re getting away from that prohibition mindset, I think, finally, and we’re going to start seeing people here in Canada growing lots of cannabis and the free market is going to overgrow the government. I think that the underground, or the black market or whatever you want to call it, the grassroots, the mom-and-pop stores, dispensaries and farmers markets will continue whether or not they continue to be criminalized and shut down and harassed and hurt in the process.”@BIVnews