Jodie Emery fought the law and the law won.
At least, that’s the short version of how things went down when Emery and her husband Marc tried to open five illegal marijuana dispensaries in Montreal last December.
Hours after the dispensaries’ carnival-like grand opening, the Emerys were in handcuffs and police shut down all of their storefronts. Though Emery had escaped the initial crackdown, undercover officers caught up to her at a downtown hotel.
“I was getting to my room when these guys in plain clothes ran over and said, ‘Hey, Jodie, can we get a photo?'” Emery said. “I expected one of them to pull out a cellphone but he pulled out a pair of handcuffs instead.”
As someone who has battled against Canada’s marijuana laws for years, it might seem only logical that Emery would embrace the Liberal government’s legislation to legalize recreation weed by summer 2018. But Emery is skeptical.
“The whole legalization process is being guided by (former Toronto police chief) Bill Blair, a man who fought against marijuana for years,” she said. “You’re putting the fox in charge of the hen house.”
Case in point, Emery says, are provisions in the bill that mandate 14-year prison sentence to those convicted of selling marijuana to minors. Selling tobacco or alcohol to minors, in comparison, is punishable by a fine for first-time offenders.
Marc-Boris St-Maurice, who runs the Fondation Marijuana dispensary on St-Laurent Blvd., also finds the legislation problematic.
“They’re creating a whole new category of criminals in the process of legalizing weed,” said St-Maurice, who has advocated for legalization since he founded the Bloc Pot provincial political party in 1998 and Marijuana Party federally in 2000. “For example, a 19-year-old passes a joint to a 17-year-old, is that a 14-year jail sentence you could be facing? The law doesn’t just say selling to minors is illegal. Giving is also included.
“If you have over 30 grams (of marijuana) on you when you’re out and about, that’s a two-year sentence. This is a huge problem.”
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defended the penalties last week in Ottawa, telling reporters they were necessary to keep marijuana out of the hands of children. But both Emery and St-Maurice — who have a track record of fighting marijuana prohibition in the courts — question whether the penalties would survive a constitutional challenge.
The other major stumbling block for St-Maurice will be distribution. The proposed law, called Bill C-45, gives provinces the mandate to determine how and where marijuana will be sold.
Last week, the union representing 5,500 employees of the Société des alcohols du Québec implored the provincial government to take control of the cannabis trade. Only a state operation “whose social and financial objectives are defined by the government” is in a position to “ensure the strictest respect for government standards and the framework,” said Alexandre Joly, president of the Syndicat des employés de magasins et de bureaux de la SAQ.
“If the government decides to set up their own state-run SAQ sort of place, I don’t think customers will be particularly well-served,” said St-Maurice. “If Quebec puts up something too restrictive and hard to manage, people are just going to keep going to the black market.
“Even though, right now, there’s a black market and it’s illegal, it caters to people’s needs. There’s home delivery, you get a selection of what there is. You see variety.”
One advocate says there’s a possible way around the headaches that come with legislating marijuana distribution in 13 provinces and territories. Under the system Health Canada put in place for medical cannabis, patients mail-order their product from one of 43 federally-licensed producers.
“While this jurisdictional argument happens, there will also be a mail-order system that’s preserved as well. That bypasses local jurisdictions,” said Adam Greenblatt, who works for the Tweed brand of medical cannabis. “The feds don’t have to worry about 13 different provinces and territories making their own system. Everyone in Canada gets mail.”
In anticipation of a vast legal market, Canada’s largest medical marijuana producers are ramping up production and building millions of square feet in new greenhouses. Bill C-45 puts companies like Canopy Growth — whose product is tested and regulated by Health Canada — in a position to dominate the multi-billion-dollar trade.
But Emery says she doubts the licensed producers have the infrastructure to feed a market that could be “10 times bigger” than the medical space. And with new, harsher penalties in place for selling the drug, she says the bill is essentially prohibition by another name.
St-Maurice — who founded his dispensary in 1999 to supply medical marijuana patients — says it’s possible Bill C-45 will put him out of business. The irony is that it was through his own arrest for drug trafficking and subsequent court victories that helped pave the way for legal access to medical cannabis.
“We’ve done this for 20 years and we want to be included in the (legal) process,” he says. “Will they put us out of business? I would hope they’d try to keep us involved. We could also try to thumb our noses and challenge in court. If we do have to, we’re prepared to fight for our rights in court.”
Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette contributed to this report.