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On the Scene at Toronto’s NORML Conference

September 21, 2017
(Ezra Kaplan/AP)
What do you get when you gather budding Canadian cannabis entrepreneurs, some of the top legal minds in the country’s marijuana space, and a legalization advocate-turned Liberal Party federal politician? The 2017 speaker conference for the Canadian chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Law, which took place September 9-10 in Toronto.

The NORML Canada conference couldn’t have come at a better–and more tense–time.

Hosted by the Vapor Central lounge, where patrons pay for a membership fee to enjoy their cannabis with like-minded individuals, the NORML Canada conference couldn’t have come at a better–and more tense—time. The country’s Standing Committee on Health was prepping its hearings on the adult-use-legalizing Cannabis Act, and Ontario had just announced that legal cannabis sales in the province would be restricted to 150 government-run stores and one government-run website, effectively obliterating the province’s thriving and beloved dispensary scene. Tense times indeed.

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While some of the conference’s panels featured established, corporate licensed producers of legal medical cannabis, a majority of the conference’s speakers represented a new wave of cannabis advocacy– one that attempts to ensure that the voices of cannabis consumers and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs are not left out in the budding new regime.

One of the first talks was a fireside chat between NORML Canada director Abigail Sampson and cannabis entrepreneur Brittney Guerra, who was arrested earlier this year alongside Marc and Jodie Emery for her involvement in the Cannabis Culture franchise.

As a young woman, Guerra elbowed her way into a job in ad sales at Vancouver’s Cannabis Culture magazine. “It was my introduction into the industry, and it was so much fun. I was calling, hounding people, bugging other stoners—‘Look, I know you don’t like telemarketers, but I’m a cool weed one, so listen to what I have to say!’”

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In 2011, Guerra opened her own dispensary in Burnaby, British Columbia, which was eventually shut down by an RCMP raid. Guerra later moved to Hamilton, reconnecting with Cannabis Culture, which had transformed itself into a Canada-wide dispensary chain. Soon after, she oversaw the launch of Cannabis Culture’s Hamilton franchise, running the dispensary until another raid resulted in Guerra’s aforementioned arrest and she was barred from returning to the store as a condition of her bail.

If Guerra’s story shows anything, it’s that arrests won’t kill the determination and zeal of cannabis entrepreneurs. After the Hamilton Cannabis Culture arrest, Guerra persevered and opened yet another store in Hamilton, a cannabis-themed jewelry shop called Canna Gems.

“Canna Gems is interesting for me, because it’s the first business that I have owned that does not break any city bylaws or criminal laws,” said Guerra. “It’s my perfect little legal shop, but I never had as much fun as I did in the dispensaries.”

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At one point, John Conroy—the maverick cannabis lawyer that successfully fought the government’s shutdown of personal medical cannabis cultivation in the Federal Court Allard case—took the stage to encourage cannabis activists to continue pushing for a progressive version of legalization. Conroy was quick to hail activists like Guerra and the Emerys as catalysts for the change that has taken place in courts and legislatures around the country. “We lawyers can’t do things without people like them, who are willing to put their bodies on the line to advance the cause” said Conroy. “If people don’t get up and keep after it, it ends.”

Conroy told the crowd he was not a fan of the country’s legalization bill, which legalizes adult-use recreational cannabis but still contains around 45 criminal offences, including the possession of even a small amount of “illicit” cannabis. But he shared one encouraging insight, noting the he and other cannabis lawyers weren’t seeing the same number of cannabis- possession arrests they once were.

“I used to get hundreds of people charged with cannabis [possession] offences,” said Conroy. “I barely get any anymore.” 

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Encouraging Words from a Renegade MP

One of the most intriguing talks came from MP Nathanial Erskine-Smith, a former commercial litigator who, during his legal studies, researched the fight in the Canadian Supreme Court to legalize cannabis.

While he supports his party’s legalization plan, Erskine-Smith’s also been a renegade on this issue, lobbying Ministers and MPs for a Crown directive that would stop cannabis charges from being pursued pending legalization.

“I am very happy that we’re going to stop arresting people in 2018.”
MP Nathanial Erskine-Smith

He was also the lone Liberal MP to vote in favour of a failed motion to immediately decriminalize cannabis before the drug was fully legalized. “I will fully acknowledge that was a failure in advocacy,” he told the NORML crowd.

But Erskine-Smith would rather focus on success, and thinks the Cannabis Act is a step forward. “When you have someone like myself, a civil libertarian, and police chief Bill Blair also supporting the bill, I think it’s struck the right balance.”

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Erskine-Smith praised his party’s proposal to allow home-growing of up to four plants, but says there is more work to be done on the bill, including expedited pardons for past low-level possession convictions. He also noted the new law relies on the criminal law more than it should.

“No legislation comes out perfectly,” said Erskine-Smith. “I have a bit of record of disagreeing with my own party…but if you’d asked me five years ago if I would see legalization in my lifetime, I would’ve been skeptical. I am very happy to be disagreeing on details and that we’re going to stop arresting people in 2018.”

It left the crowd feeling hopeful that, despite the flaws of the bill, the country was taking steps in the right direction.

But the remaining objective is still clear for the activists who came to the conference.

“We need to get rid of the criminal law in this area completely,” said John Conroy, to loud applause.

Harrison Jordan's Bio Image

Harrison Jordan

Harrison Jordan is a graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and enjoys reading and writing about the regulatory affairs of cannabis in Canada and around the world.

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