The complicated conundrum of Canadian cannabis is real.
Yes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his administration are swiftly creating one of the world’s most important legal marijuana markets—a federal recreational weed economy debuting summer 2018 and widely considered a triumph for sensible and progressive drug policy.
But there’s a battle brewing inside this kind country, one pitting licensed medical cannabis growers and regulators against the illegal industry, which is doing its best to manifest a make-shift recreational marijuana market.
Much like California’s current reality, where long-unregulated ganjapreneurs are now scrambling as they await the severe government regulations to come, Canadian marijuana is having its own pre-legalization identity crisis. It makes for uncomfortable industry relationships and a severely segmented market.
One of the most fascinating outgrowths of the current environment is the Green Market, a 14-month-old women-led pop-up farmers’ market that hosts vendors peddling cannabis flower and other pot products—infused edibles, concentrates, drinks, topicals and more—to anyone of age, no medical license or recommendation necessary.
While the market’s organizers preach responsible use and encourage clean cultivation practices among their vendors, they’re still operating illegally and risking prosecution.
“Initially we thought that it was a cool idea to have patients meet the edible makers and have the ability to ask questions about products and be able to explore the vast options provided at a market,” says Green Market co-founder Sarah Gillies, who also runs cannabis brands Mary Jane’s Touch and The Baker’s Shop. “But our main objective is access for all, no matter which province you are in.”
Cannabis activist Lisa Campbell, who co-founded the Green Market with Gillies, says they’re in this illicit business for the long haul: “We will keep doing the Green Market until cannabis is accessible in all of its forms, including edibles, extracts, tinctures and topicals. In the future we would like to work with the federally licenced producers to bring these products to market in time for recreational legalization. There is a huge supply gap in the current medical and future recreational cannabis markets, so it makes sense to find a way to include the existing industry.”
Underground marketplaces like these are essential, Gillies and Campbell argue, after a May 2016 Toronto police operation dubbed “Project Claudia” raided more than 40 dispensaries and arrested around 90 people. The police action polarized Canada’s infant cannabis market more than it already was, with regulators demanding that all cannabis products be tested and declared safe for consumption and activists questioning accessibility in the country’s mail-order-only medical market.
“The federally licenced producers were not able to carry any products besides dried flowers and diluted oil, resulting in a robust gray market,” says Campbell. “Instead of letting this local innovation die with legalization we chose to take a huge risk in providing pop-up spaces for these brands to continue to exist.”
The activists’ defiant response—a farmers’ market where your parents would likely feel comfortable—is proof of how normalized cannabis already is in certain parts of Canada.
The Green Market first launched in Toronto and eventually expanded into Victoria in British Columbia. Campbell and Gillies will soon hit the road with the risky concept—throwing additional cannabis farmers’ markets in Windsor on June 25th and Montreal on July 23, in addition to regularly scheduled Toronto pop-ups on July 8-9 and July 16.
The entrepreneurs describe the Green Market as “a welcoming, open experience” with live music and good vibes in “safe venues” that draw customers from “all ages and backgrounds.” Event spaces are always announced the evening before to avoid warrants, they say, and vendors typically offer free samples of their products to curious shoppers.
“The Green Market vibe is very much about people being able to figure out what works best for them personally, hence being able to go around and sample a little of everything helps our customers buy the best product for them—and taste is important too,” says Gillies. “It is up to the vendors, of course, if they want to make their samples infused or not.
“Sometimes (customers) appreciate a non-medicated munchy item.”
The on-site sampling of cannabis is important, adds Campbell, because it allows customers the opportunity to try the products as they’re engaging directly with the people who crafted them.
“They can ask about the strain, taste the terpene profile, try dabs and other products like topicals for the first time,” says Campbell. “I have worked with seniors with chronic pain and seen them try extracts or topicals and have instant results. There is a lot of peer-to-peer intergenerational knowledge sharing at the markets, as cannabis connoisseurs have a place to congregate and share tips on the best products.
“Some producers will make special samples out of their products, like maple syrup-infused popcorn.”
And the marijuana-infused creativity doesn’t stop with the popcorn.
“So many small, local brands have launched at our 420 pop-ups and gained a cult following, including the Mary’s Wellness line of medicinal teas,” said Campbell. “My favourite out-of-town vendors are rural Ontario’s Cannabiscotti, which makes delicious homemade mom-and-pop biscottis, as well as EP Infusions, which makes handcrafted artisanal cannabis-infused chocolates and beverages from Montreal.”
While the Green Market’s tea and biscotti are infused with a psychoactive controlled substance, the market’s founders aren’t the stereotypical stoners one might expect.
Campbell, 33, is a dual citizen (Canada and U.S.) who is bilingual (English and Spanish) and has worked in the harm-reduction field for 15 years. In addition to past roles as outreach director for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy and founding member of Elle Collective and Women Grow Toronto, Campbell also runs her own consulting company Mobile Revolutions and is the spokesperson for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association and a board member of harm-reduction nonprofit DanceSafe.
“After Trudeau was elected we were on the verge of a cannabis revolution,” said Campbell, “so it was time to ride the green wave, despite the numerous risks involved.”
Gillies is no slouch, either, running two underground cannabis businesses that are regulars at the Green Market, as well as a marijuana promotions company known as the High5.
“(The Green Market) definitely gave us a support system where we can work on our own regulations and problems that we as producers specifically face,” says Gillies. “I feel it gives us a lot of exposure so we can meet outside clients, and it also acts as a space for the public to have access to our products. We also get to hear what people like and don't like, so as entrepreneurs we can grow with our clients.”
Each Green Market pop-up generally draws between 300-400 people, and the organizers estimate they’ve served more than 1,000 unique customers in their history. But given different provinces’ attitudes toward cannabis, the upcoming tour will surely be a telling experience for the entrepreneurs.
“Montreal has extremely strict laws, and there are next to zero dispensaries, so I think it will be a social experiment to see how Montreal will react to having access to edibles and if their demand is as high as it is in Toronto,” says Gillies.
Adds Campbell: “In order to usher in legalization you need to change how cannabis is perceived culturally from a drug to a medicine or artisanal product. By seeing cannabis in all of its forms in a farmers’ market-style venue you are changing how cannabis is perceived in both popular culture and street culture.
“But there are still many risks about selling cannabis openly in Quebec, including persecution from law enforcement or violence from organized crime.”