A man smokes from an enormous joint at the annual 420 Marijuana Rally in Vancouver, Canada, in 2013. Photograph: Zuma/Rex
Jan 8, 2015
The Guardian - Top corporate law firm hopes to benefit if legal hurdles to commercial cannabis trade can be overcome but grow-your-own medical users fear being priced out
Most conversation between two lawyers that include the word “marijuana” also involve other words such as “charges”, “defendant” and “sentencing”.
But when Hugo Alves, a partner at Bennett Jones – one of Canada’s largest corporate law firms – chats about the drug with his associate, Michael Lickver, they are more likely to be discussing investment opportunities
, exports and quality control.
Since 2001, Canada has allowed patients to grow their own marijuana or designate a grower to do so on their behalf, but a policy change in April established the opportunity for licensed growers operating under strict quality controls to supply patients – essentially spawning a new legal marijuana industry overnigh
So far, however, the new regulations have been plagued by lawsuits, injunctions and complications for patients. Now, the future shape of Canada’s marijuana trade is likely to be established at a string of court hearings due in early 2015.
One of the key cases to be heard in the coming weeks has the potential to establish a highly regulated system of licensed marijuana producers in Canada, but threatens to strip patients of their legal right to grow their own product at an affordable price.
“It’s not often that you get to put together a legal service business focused on an industry that’s brand new,” said Alves, sitting in a boardroom 32 storeys above Toronto’s financial district. “We think it’s a good opportunity to create a business within our firm, we think it’s a good business, and it’s exciting to be part of an industry when it’s at its nascent stage.”
Alves and Lickver explain that the switch from homegrown to quality-controlled industrial production has opened a door into the once self-contained ecosystem, allowing the firm to enter the newly budding industry from the ground floor.
“We want to be the go-to lawyers in the industry,” said Alves. “We’re making sure that our networks and our connections expand to all verticals and various channel partners across the whole value chain so that we can be connectors as opposed to just dispensers of legal advice, and create a brand that has value.”
While the two are focused on providing value to the medicinal marijuana industry, there is no denying the opportunities that would result if Canada were to follow in the footsteps of some American states and legalise marijuana for recreational use.
Unlike their neighbours to the south – where individual US states have legalised recreational consumption, but whose products cannot legally leave the state – Canada’s marijuana laws are set at the federal level, meaning that legalisation would in theory provide the opportunity for foreign investment and exports.
But before Canada can consider opening a recreational marijuana market it must first successfully implement the new medicinal marijuana regulations, which have already proved problematic for many of Canada’s 40,000 medicinal marijuana users.
British Columbia resident Jason Wilcox has been HIV positive for the past 21 years: to treat his symptoms, instead of taking anti-inflammation pills, antipsychotics or mood-stabilising medications he smokes marijuana.
“The main reason I use cannabis is to counter the nausea and a lot of the inflammation from the 21 years of toxic treatment I’ve had to take daily to stay alive,” he said. “I throw up in the morning if I don’t medicate, so that’s where cannabis helps, as well as a sleeping aid at night.”
In 2007 Wilcox started a YouTube channel called Cannabis in Canada where he teaches his 16,000 followers to grow high-quality marijuana while adhering to the strict regulations laid down by Health Canada – the country’s national health department. So far, he has made more than 450 videos which have together been viewed almost four million times.
The looming change in regulations means that Wilcox may no longer be able to legally produce his own medication. Instead Wilcox – along with his fellow licensed medicinal marijuana users – may soon have to purchase marijuana from licensed producer at approximately $5 per gram, as opposed to growing their own for a price of $0.50 to $1.00.
John Conroy, a British Columbia-based lawyer whose client, Neil Allard, filed an injunction challenging the new regulations days before they went into effect, explains that this jump in price would be especially challenging for patients who depend on disability benefits.
“They’re not part of the licensed producer market because they can’t afford it,” said. “We’re concerned with the ability of the patient to continue to grow for themselves or have a caregiver to do so.”
The appeal will be heard in February, and while Conroy is challenging the new regulations he is also aware of the important role that licensed producers would play in a recreational marijuana market.
“We’re not trying to stop the licensed producers and the development of that market, frankly we see that they would be the main suppliers of any legitimate market if the stuff is legalised,” he said.
The leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau, who is currently leading in the polls, announced that if elected this October he would legalise recreational marijuana.
Conroy is sceptical, having seen various prime ministers – including Justin’s father, Pierre Trudeau – make similar claims on the campaign trail before, only to abandon them in office.
This time, however, the victor in this year’s election could potentially take office with a network of licensed legal marijuana producers already established – if the lawsuits surrounding the new legislation have been settled. And if that happens, a commercial marijuana industry could come close behind, said Alves.
“We have a pretty positive outlook on the industry. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be spending as much of our own time within the industry, so we’re cautiously optimistic,” said Alves. “We’re not making grandiose claims about legalisation being around the corner, but we’re enjoying it. It’s an exciting time.”