Smart businessmen, savvy doctors, stoned cats and other tales from the last days of the age of marijuana prohibition

by Gregory Beatty, Ashleigh Mattern and Chris Morin

illustration by Myron Campbell

Every April 20, enlightened humans all over the planet pause to reflect on a small, magical and usually illegal plant called cannabis. The controversy: cannabis can be smoked or consumed to alter one’s state of being. It’s called getting high, stoned, wasted, blue, buzzed, blitzed, blasted, bombed, toasted, trashed, wacky, fuzzy and fucked up (and lots of other things) — and anecdotally, it’s often described as totally awesome.

It’s also totes illegal.

More than that, however, cannabis may have great medical promise — and it’s in large part because of this promise that the conversation about weed is changing.

Here’s what you need to know about marijuana in 2014.

This Is The Dawning Of The Age Of Cannabis

New Health Canada regulations governing medical marijuana were supposed to take effect on April 1. But that got derailed on March 21, when Federal Court Judge Michael Manson granted an injunction to a patient lobby group to grandfather them under the old regs until arguments can be heard on whether the new regs violate their constitutional right to life, liberty and security of person.

New patients fall under the new regs, though, which require them to purchase their medicine from large-scale commercial growers, instead of growing it themselves or buying from small-scale local growers as had previously been allowed.

Then in early April, two Health Canada-licensed commercial growers got a belated April Fool’s joke when RCMP seized packages of marijuana that they’d purchased from “old reg” growers to help meet patient demand.

“Apparently that needed to be done before April 1. And I don’t think that was clear to everybody in the sector,” says Robert McAllister, president of Vancouver-based Enertopia, which recently inked a $500,000 partnership deal with Saskatchewan’s Green Canvas co-op to pursue a commercial license to grow medical cannabis.

“Under the new system, everyone was supposed to change over,” he says. “A lot of people went through that process. Now they have a prescription, but they can’t get it filled as hardly any of the licensed producers today have product to sell.”

McAllister believes things will get sorted out in time. And they likely will. But for over 37,000 Canadians who rely on cannabis to control chronic pain, seizures, nausea, anxiety and many other debilitating conditions, time is of the essence.

“In the ruling, the Federal Court said there isn’t easy access; if anything there’s a shortage,” says McAllister. “And the second concern is what happens with low-income patients. How do they receive their medical marijuana? That was the basis for the original ruling in 2001 [R v Parker, where the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled access to medical cannabis was a constitutional right], and that was supported in the court injunction.

“Those are the issues that need to be addressed, and then everything else falls into place,” McAllister says.

With the market expected to grow tenfold in the next few years as patients and doctors learn more about the benefits of medical cannabis, commercial production stands to be a profitable business.

Tweed Marijuana Inc. recently made headlines by becoming the first medical cannabis company listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Enertopia is publicly traded too, says McAllister.

“We’ve gone from two cents a share to a month ago, before the injunction, where everyone was really excited, to $1.20,” he says. “So it’s been a big home run for our shareholders. Things have cooled off in the last few weeks, and we’re back around 50 cents.”

McAllister envisions the medical cannabis industry (and possibly a much larger recreational market one day) evolving to resemble the beer industry. You’d have your majors producing pot for the masses, with craft growers catering to niche markets and connoisseurs. Individuals could even have small grow-ops akin to home brewing.

To get to that point, says McAllister, the industry needs to organize.

“I think it would help to have an advocacy group with licensed producers [and] medical marijuana patients, and have a roundtable,” he says.

“Marijuana is classed as a narcotic. It took us 70 years to get to this point, and in the last two years there’s probably been more movement than in the previous 68. Things are happening at an accelerated pace, and I believe they’ll be ironed out over time.” /Gregory Beatty

Medical Marijuana: A Doctor Talks

Under the new medical marijuana regulations, doctors can prescribe cannabis as they would any pharmaceutical. Before, they had to fill out piles of Health Canada paperwork to qualify their patient for a license.

Dr. Matthew Abraham has gone that route before.

“When I was in school there were lectures about use of cannabis, especially for chronic pain,” he says. “It was always treated as an option.”

One month into his family practice at Regina’s Broad Street clinic (January 2013), Abraham started prescribing.

“But at that stage I’d already done my own research, and gone to some chronic pain seminars in the U.S. and Europe,” he says.

“It’s very important to know what medical problem [a patient has],” says Abraham. “Have they been seen by a specialist, or had x-rays and other tests done? Then if they have a diagnosis, have they tried appropriate medication or another medical intervention to correct the problem?

“If traditional treatment options like painkillers or surgery haven’t helped, they’d meet the criteria for using medical marijuana.”

So far, Abraham says, results have been encouraging.

“I always tell patients I can’t guarantee success. But by and large, people have done really well. Their pain is controlled. They feel better overall.”

One girl with epilepsy is especially memorable, says Abraham.

“They’d seen specialists and tried every known treatment, but nothing worked. The specialist in Calgary wanted to try marijuana but wasn’t able to get approval from the University of Calgary.

“The mother came to me, and after talking about it we tried a tincture, and the seizures have been reduced dramatically.”

Still, Abraham understands the “go slow” approach by medical authorities. New ground is being broken, and marijuana’s black market appeal does complicate things. Abraham says he occasionally has “patients” approach him looking to score, but without a legit medical need he won’t prescribe.

In the black market, ironically, it’s pot’s psychoactive THC kick that’s prized. For medical use, though, it’s cannabinoids that are key. They bind with receptors in our body to provide pain relief and other benefits.

That’s why Abraham thinks Health Canada is making a big mistake restricting patient access to dried cannabis only.

“Dried marijuana was probably the most common form initially. But research shows it’s the CBD oils that have the best result,” he says.

“I don’t know why Health Canada’s so strict about dried cannabis.” /Gregory Beatty

Health, Science and Marijuana

Over 28,000 Canadians are licensed to use medicinal marijuana, even though Health Canada has not approved marijuana (or “marihuana,” as they call it) as a medicine, and the Canadian Medical Association does not support its use.

Clearly, these patients see a benefit from using the drug, but the scientific evidence for medicinal marijuana is lacking.

Brent Zettl, CEO of Prairie Plant Systems and CanniMed, says evidence for cannabis as a medicine is “more at a lab-rat-model level than a human-clinical-trial level,” in part because of the plant’s overall illegal status.

CanniMed is an online pharmacy that provides patients with the product grown at Prairie Plant Systems in Saskatoon. Zettl says their patients use marijuana to treat arthritis, cancer, MS, spinal cord injuries, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, epilepsy, and PTSD. It’s used for neuropathic pain, as an anti-tremor, an anti-seizure, and a sedative.

“From a prescribing point of view, most doctors approach this as a drug of last resort,” said Zettl. “Individuals who have certain conditions, they should try those clinically proven treatments first… Medical cannabis hasn’t gone through those rigorous trials yet. It’s only being administered or offered on a compassionate basis.”

How Weed Works

The main psychoactive component in cannabis is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), but there are over 400 other compounds in the plant, including at least 80 other cannabinoids. Cannabinoids are chemical compounds that act on cannabinoid receptors in the brain.

In fact, the brain naturally produces compounds similar to those found in marijuana; natural cannabinoids regulate how cells communicate.

When marijuana is consumed (by smoking, vaporizing, eating extracts or taking capsules), the THC attaches to cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain, all at once, causing a variety of effects including relaxation, mild euphoria, a decrease in short-term memory, dry mouth, impaired motor skills, red eyes, increased heart rate, increased appetite, and lowered blood pressure.

The product grown at Prairie Plant Systems is not your dealer’s pot. PPS has 281 control points that help to ensure they’re creating a clean, consistent product. Anyone who enters their facility must shower, and wear hair nets and scrubs. They use no pesticides, and ensure no mold can grow on the plants.

“We’re trying to dial it in to succinct formats so people can use it truly as a medicine, even though it’s in an herbal format,” said Zettl.

He also notes there’s a big difference in the way patients use the drug and the way people use it recreationally.

“It’s a very small dose for medical applications,” he said. “The amount to get high is between 10 to 100 times more.”

Sinsemilla Safety

While there are reports that the U.S. government holds back research on the beneficial effects of marijuana, there is ample research on marijuana as a drug of abuse.

Contrary to popular belief, cannabis can cause dependence and withdrawal symptoms. There is also evidence that cannabis interferes with the development of the brain while it’s still maturing, up to about 25 years old or so.

“There is a growing body of evidence that because the endocannabinoid system is involved in the structural development of neurons, adding in [cannabinoids] can interrupt the normal brain development,” said Zettl.

Animal studies suggest cannabis may have impacts on reproduction, and some studies say it may worsen psychiatric issues. Cannabis smoke also contains thousands of organic and inorganic chemical compounds, and the tar produced is similar to tobacco smoke, with about 50 carcinogens identified thus far.

Smoking can bring on bronchitis, coughing, and chronic inflammation of the air passages, though surprisingly, at least one study suggests marijuana smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer (but this could be because marijuana smokers tend to smoke less, or because their other habits are different).

Then again, some of these effects can be avoided through ingesting rather than smoking the drug, and there have been no reported fatal overdoses of marijuana.

Zettl says in 13 years of operation, none of their patients has reported adverse effects.

Alcohol, on the other hand, causes about 6,000 deaths per year in Canada (including everything from overdoses, to complications from chronic drinking, to car accidents), while tobacco causes about 37,000 deaths per year. /Ashleigh Mattern

Researching Reefer

The potential for medicinal marijuana is huge. Brent Zettl tells a story of a man who was using up to eight oxycontin per day for pain, but with the help of medicinal cannabis, eventually weaned himself off the opioid. With marijuana, he was able to manage his pain, and still function normally.

But anecdotes prove nothing in science-based medicine. More research is being done, but the results aren’t in yet. Still, three drugs derived from cannabinoids have been approved in Canada: nabilone, dronabinol, and nabiximols.

What other treatments might we find if there were no restrictions on marijuana research?

Colorado’s legalization of the drug for recreational use may help lead to scientific answers, as state officials report that several Colorado organizations will soon launch research into “a variety of aspects of marijuana.”

Evidence for the use of marijuana as medicine dates back thousands of years. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good medicine — arguing so would be a logical fallacy, an appeal to antiquity — but it does suggest there might be something worth investigating.

Until governments and funding agencies get their heads out of their asses and allow more research to be done, the science will be out on this topic. /Ashleigh Mattern

Rocky Mountain High Income

As of Jan. 1, 2014, marijuana was legal to purchase in Colorado for recreational and medicinal use.

How about that?

In many ways, Colorado’s legalization is an experiment. Worldwide, few countries or states have legalized marijuana. Washington state’s first retail marijuana stores won’t open until later this year, and while Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana in December 2013, those changes haven’t come into effect yet.

Even the Netherlands — famous for its cannabis-selling “coffee shops” in Amsterdam — hasn’t legalized the use of the drug. Instead, they have a policy of non-enforcement.

Of course, before the new laws came into effect in Colorado, politicians and law enforcement were making dire predictions about its consequences: “If voters pass this amendment, I believe there will be many harmful consequences,” said Douglas County Sheriff David A. Weaver in a September 2012 press release. “Expect more crime, more kids using marijuana and pot for sale everywhere. I think our entire state will pay the price.”

So: what are the results of this experiment so far?

Well, the state made $2.9 million from marijuana taxes in January, $3.7 million in February, and is expected to make anywhere from $64 million to $134 million by the end of the year. The first $40 million in tax revenue will be going toward school construction. (If that doesn’t make a conservative squirm, I don’t know what will.)

And other than suddenly having oodles of extra funding for education, the crime rate has fallen by 2.4 per cent in the past year.  Even the sheriff’s prediction of more kids using marijuana will almost certainly end up being proven wrong, especially with talk of spending a good chunk of the tax revenue on large-scale drug awareness campaigns.

Basically, cannabis is now treated like alcohol in Colorado: adults 21 years of age and older must have photo ID to purchase marijuana products from licensed providers, it’s illegal to drive with more than five nanograms of THC in your blood, and it’s illegal to give it to minors.

But other rules are a bit more strict.

This is no Amsterdam, where coffee shops offer a place to sample the product. Public use in Colorado is still illegal, and while residents can have up to one ounce on their person at any time, businesses and property owners can ban possession and use on their property, effectively vetoing the new law.

Residents can grow up to six plants for personal use, but it must be grown in a fully enclosed and locked space that cannot be openly seen. (No natural sunlight for these buds.) You also can’t sell any homegrown cannabis. Plus, municipalities are able to pass their own, stricter laws, so rules can vary by city.

To make things even more complicated, cannabis is still illegal federally in the States, which means using it can have implications for things like college tuition and owning firearms. On tuition, if you have any convictions for the use of marijuana you won’t receive funding, and you’ll be denied a firearm if you’ve used any illegal substances — marijuana included. (Lying on a firearm application is also illegal.)

But visitors to Colorado don’t have to worry about all that. If you’re considering visiting, which every unconvicted Canadian stoner probably is, visitors can possess up to one quarter ounce of marijuana.

Cannabis products are sold in packaging that is opaque, resealable and child-resistant, and which features labels and warnings. The State of Colorado’s Website for Retail Marijuana Information and Resources says these features are for “the protection of adults and children who may not realize that a brownie is more than it seems.”

Washington State also legalized retail marijuana sales last year, but due to regulatory delays, the first licensed stores won’t open until July. Their system is also going to look and feel a bit different than it does in Colorado. Retailers won’t be allowed to grow their own product, for example — they’ll need to buy from growers instead. So far only eight growers have been approved, though three dozen are still under inspection. (Compare this system to Colorado, where retailers are required to grow at least 70 per cent of everything they sell.)

The new laws in Washington have also caused headaches for medicinal marijuana suppliers. Under the old laws they could grow their own product, but they now have to apply for licences along with all the other new pot businesses. (In Seattle alone, there have been over 400 applicants for just 21 available licences.) The Washington Post reported that these complications meant the medicinal marijuana industry was, ironically, “one of the heaviest spenders against the legalization initiative.”

Despite these bumps in the road for Washington, they still have high hopes for tax revenue, expecting about $134 million generated in the 2015-2017 biennium.

There’s no doubt public opinion about cannabis is turning from years past. Forum Research reported in 2013 that 69 per cent of Canadians support either decriminalization of marijuana or legalization and taxation.

With Liberal leader Justin Trudeau publicly voicing his support of marijuana legalization, maybe changes are on the horizon in Canada. /Ashleigh Mattern

 Friends Don’t Let Pets Do Drugs

As far back as high school, I can remember people who had no qualms about shotgunning a joint into their pet’s face. But even back in my naïve youth, dosing dogs and cats with weed seemed like nothing more than a complete prick move.

Can we just call this animal abuse and get it over with?

Unfortunately, any attempts to stop ignorant stoners from mixing pets and pot were just met with denials and resentment. “Dude, they totally love getting high,” one particularly dismal partygoer told me.

As it turns out, it’s not just something that goes on in shadowy basement ragers and teenage keggers. A quick search of YouTube shows that the “pets high on weed” genre — which apparently includes cats, dogs, ferrets and birds — is wildly popular. It’s also wildly unfunny. Most of the pooches in the videos are utterly depressing.

And rightfully so, because it turns out it’s not exactly healthy to get your pet high.

Meg Scuderi, a doctor of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, says she’s treated several cases of animals — mostly dogs — that have ingested marijuana. Not shockingly, the results are usually ugly.

“They are disoriented and ataxic, so they look like they’re stumbling,” she says. “They have dilated pupils and they may be vomiting. Their heart rate will be low and there will be tremors and dribbling urine. For treatment, if they’re coherent we’ll induce vomiting and put them on fluids overnight to wash the THC out of their system.”

It’s a problem that some officials say is getting worse.

In U.S. states where marijuana is either more accepted or can now be purchased legally, vets at emergency animal clinics are reporting an increase of pets being brought in who have accidentally eaten their owner’s stash. True, if your pet accidentally ingests it, you might not necessarily be a horrible douchebag like those morons at the parties I attended years ago. But you might want to think about storing your weed in the same way you’d hide your prescription drugs or the bleach-filled cleaning supplies that are normally kept under the sink.

There are also a whole other slew of problems associated with pets eating pot, says Scuderi.

“Generally they’ve ingested a joint or some marijuana in a rolled form, but every now and then we get a dog who has eaten marijuana brownies, which is a whole other problem because chocolate is also toxic to dogs. You never know what’s in pot as well, so if it’s laced with something, that could be fairly problematic.

“Plus, it’s fairly expensive to get treatment for your dog for this sort of thing.”

But despite all the reasons not to share your dope with your dog or cat, there are reports of some vets who are prescribing medical marijuana for Fido or Fritz, believing it to be a treatment in the same way pot can alleviate some symptoms of illness in humans.

Doug Kramer, a Los Angeles-based veterinarian, is one of the few pet doctors willing to go on record to espouse the effects of weed on animals. When Kramer’s dog, Nikita, was diagnosed with cancer, the vet began treating her with marijuana. He noted that it improved her appetite and temperament. While not a cure, said Kramer, it did improve her quality of life.

But before you start adding the sweet leaf to your pet’s diet, consider that there’s little if any research done in the field. True, cannabis is very rarely lethal for animals. But it’s also an issue of your pet’s consent — because it obviously can’t.

“It’s not hugely concerning from a medical standpoint. But the pets are agitated and they don’t understand what is going on,” says Scuderi.

“I can’t imagine this would be something that’s very pleasant for animals.” /Chris Morin

By The Way: Weed Is Still Illegal And You Could Totally Go To Jail For It

A fundamental principle of law is “ignorance is no excuse.” Still, when it comes to marijuana, where there are distinctions between medical and recreational use, and some jurisdictions such as Colorado and Uruguay even permit both, it can get confusing.

To help clarify things, I spoke with criminal defence lawyer Noah Evanchuk.

Marijuana is covered under the Controlled Drugs & Substances Act?

That’s right. There used to be two pieces of legislation: the Narcotic Control Act and the Food & Drug Act. But it led to confusion for prosecutors, because there were different standards in terms of proving what a substance was, certificates of analysis, etc. The CDSA was passed in 1996. Schedule I covers drugs such as opium, morphine, codeine, cocaine and amphetamines. Schedule III covers LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), mescaline and other hallucinogens. Schedule IV covers barbiturates and steroids. Cannabis and its derivatives, like hashish, are classed under Schedule II.

It seems problematic that marijuana is lumped in at all with truly harmful drugs like heroin and crack cocaine. Do you think that’s where some of the stigma around pot comes from?

The purpose of the different schedules is to reflect the [presumed] social harm caused by each substance. In Malmo-Levine [2003], though, the Supreme Court found as judicial fact that the federal government’s criminal law power over marijuana is not due to the harm principle. They even said it was less harmful than alcohol. Instead, the court held that the federal government can make things criminal whether they cause harm or not. And yes, the net result is that all drugs under the Act are prosecuted in the exact same fashion. The sentence guidelines are schedule-dependent, but it’s still the federal government using its criminal law power.

What penalties can a person incur under the CDSA?

Section 4 provides that except where authorized by regulations, as in the case of medical cannabis, no person shall possess a schedule I-IV substance. In the case of schedule I the maximum penalty is seven years’ imprisonment. For schedule II it’s five years. The penalty is weight-specific though. If the amount of marijuana is under 30 grams, it’s a summary offence and the penalty is less: for a first offence it could be a fine of up to $1000 or six months in jail.

Trafficking is covered under s. 5. It’s weight-specific too, and technically, for Schedule I and II drugs, you can get a life sentence (although for marijuana, the amount has to be more than three kilograms).

Does enforcement of the CDSA vary province to province?

Unlike the United States, where the criminal law is administered on a state-to-state basis, in Canada criminal law is exclusively a federal matter. So the same laws apply no matter what province you’re in.

Police always have a degree of discretion in how they enforce the law under the [provincial] police act, though. It’s hard to gauge, but when you look at statistics you see that s. 4 CDSA prosecutions for marijuana possession in Saskatchewan are more common than in B.C. Sentences for drug offences in Saskatchewan tend to be higher than in other jurisdictions too.

Another wrinkle that’s been added in Saskatchewan is the Safer Communities & Neighbourhoods Act. Under that act, people can be kicked out of their houses if allegations are made that they’re producing, selling or using illegal drugs like marijuana.

In 2012, voters in Colorado and Washington state approved the recreational use of marijuana by adults. There is some talk about that in Canada too. Do you think the time’s right?

As it relates to marijuana, the war on drugs has been a complete failure. Because of that, there’s lots of involvement by organized crime in the marijuana trade. And our existing approach has done absolutely nothing to stop that. So we’re going to have to discuss a process of decriminalization where the federal government works with the provinces.

Might that discussion be part of the next federal election, in October 2015?

I think there’s a consensus that something has to be done. If the federal government was to vacate its power under the criminal law, it would be up to the provinces to regulate, like they do with alcohol — that’s a perfect example of a decriminalized substance. There’s still penalties for various offences, like transporting open liquor, underage possession or driving while intoxicated. You’ll need a framework like that for marijuana. It’s not just a matter of waving a magic wand; there’s lots of constitutional issues that would have to be dealt with.

But for now, as a defence lawyer, I would strongly advise people that no matter what is happening in Colorado and Washington state to remember that marijuana is still illegal. And people in Saskatchewan still go to jail for simple possession. /Gregory Beatty