With marijuana legalization looming, 420 is different this year

Ottawa has promised to introduce legalization by July 1, but cannabis industry is divided on challenges ahead

By Nick Boisvert, CBC News

APRIL 20, 2017 - While thousands gather under a cloud of smoke at Thursday's 420 event at Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto's Sheraton Hotel is preparing to host the country's first marijuana business expo.

The two events will bookend a stretch of days unlike any other in the city's cannabis history, and highlight a growing divide in how Toronto's marijuana industry is preparing for upcoming federal legalization.

Abi Roach, owner of the Toronto marijuana cafes Roach-O-Rama and Hotbox Cafe, will be one of the vendors with a booth at the 420 gathering.

"The 420 celebration is celebratory," said Roach. "But we also have a long road to haul."

Roach's businesses allow patrons to consume marijuana on site, but they do not sell marijuana, something she would like to do once recreational marijuana is legalized.

She's hopeful, but not convinced that the federal government — and the provincial government which will coordinate distribution — will allow longtime cannabis activists and businesses like hers to become licensed distributors, instead favouring larger corporations and the LCBO.

To Roach, 420 remains a powerful way to push marijuana consumption further into the mainstream, and reduce the stigma around the drug, changes that could make businesses like hers more palatable to lawmakers.

"There's a lot of reefer madness," Roach said of Ottawa's yet-to-be-announced legislation. "A lot of this legalization is based on that madness misconception and old prohibitionist ways, and that's really scary."

'Never a better time' for cannabis businesses

The message at this weekend's O'Cannabiz Conference and Expo will likely be more optimistic.

The $399 event is billing itself as the first of its kind in Canada, a three-day conference that — according to its website — "will explore the latest regulations, industry standards and best practices for medicinal and recreational marijuana."

It will include keynote speakers, networking mixers and feature consulting firm MNP as a title sponsor.

"If you're looking to get into the cannabis business, there's never been a better time," said Dooma Wendschuh, founder and CEO of Province Brands, which sells cannabis-based beverages.

Cannabis entrepreneur Dooma Wendschuh will host a panel during the O'Cannabiz Conference & Expo. (O'Cannabiz Conference & Expo)

For entrepreneurs that follow the proper steps, Wendschuh believes "there are going to be opportunities that have never existed before."

He is also advising the operators of marijuana dispensaries to apply for licenses, rather than continuing with their "grey or black market activities."

Wendschuh, who previously operated a cannabis business in Colorado while the state legalized recreational marijuana, will host a panel discussion on Sunday.

"We're instructing others on what's coming up and how to build brands that will last in the recreational cannabis industry," said Wendschuh, who is now based in Toronto.

Perils of profit

Other longtime marijuana activists warn that a focus on profit could undermine the creation of a successful and safe recreational marijuana industry.

An excessively competitive industry with a high cost of entry might allow illegal drug dealers to continue thriving, says cannabis lawyer Paul Lewin.

"The cannabis community would be best served by not falling over themselves trying to get rich, but maybe with more attention to more just laws," said Lewin, national secretary for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Roach offered a more pointed criticism.

"The O'Cannabiz Conference to me is really a bunch of suits who don't really get the industry that they're catering to," she said.

While Wendschuh concedes that larger companies do enjoy a competitive advantage in the cannabis industry, he too is calling for a laws that will give smaller businesses an opportunity to distribute marijuana.

"This is not the business people versus the potheads," he said. "This is about trying to enact possibly one of the largest social changes to take place in any of our lifetimes."