Stuff & Things

As legalization approaches, what will happen to the cannabis OGs operating outside the law?

Inside the End of Weed’s Wild West

Andrew Gordon can’t take five steps across the Lift Cannabis Expo showroom floor without running into someone who needs a handshake or a hug.

As the director of operations at Aura Cannabis (one of 18 Vancouver dispensaries to receive a business licence granting them permission to operate within the city) and one of the country’s few professionals who has proven himself capable of getting a multi-million-dollar dispensary concept up and running and making multi-millions, Gordon has cultivated a reputation for being someone with the skills, experience and optimism required to succeed in this uncertain business. It’s the kind of reputation that pays dividends in hugs, handshakes and job offers, especially at an event like this one that brings the biggest players in the cannabis space together in the epicentre of pot in Canada.

“It’s better to be kind than right,” he says, carving his way through the 200-plus booths and thousands of visitors crowding the floor of the Vancouver Convention Centre. “And we as an industry need to be mindful of that because, fuck yeah, we’re right! There’s no doubt we’re right. Of course we’re right. That’s easy to prove—just look at the situation.” He’s trying to provide some context for the changing attitudes—and subsequent businesses—in the cannabis space. He speaks quickly, with the confidence of someone who knows exactly how precipitous the cliff they’re dangling from is because they scaled its face to get there. “But can we do it with humility and grace and understanding and meet people where they are?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course. The hugs and handshakes are the answer.

Pushing through the front doors and out into the coastal air, Gordon is greeted by a side of the city’s weed scene that, unlike the rapidly evolving ecosystem inside, is much the same now as it was in the ’90s. Hundreds of people are gathered outside the convention centre, passing—always to the left—the source of the rich smell that hangs in the air. Inside, only business cards and cannabis-related products are exchanged, not the drug itself. But out here, you can get whatever you want—no paperwork required. There are no licensed producers here.

A dozen or so vendors have set up tents along the sidewalk, offering different strains by the gram, pre-rolled joints, edibles or, what likely represents the most herpetic risk in the vicinity, glass rigs at $2 a pop for “dabbing” (a method of vaporizing concentrated cannabis that involves a blowtorch and at least two hours of free time afterwards). Far from the polished professionals inside, these folk represent Old Weed—these are the risk takers, the true, dirty pioneers who grew cannabis in the basement and sold it on the streets, answering the cries of the bud-starved masses long before dispensaries started popping up and swiping credit cards on every corner. Here, sweaters are baggy and worn, signs are handwritten and the baggies all come from the dollar store.

Having dispensed the requisite hugs to a group of peers outside, Gordon lights a joint, a sativa-dominant blend of Sunkiss CBD mixed with Aura’s in-house strain, Electric Kush. Not surprisingly for someone with his base level of positive energy, he prefers the uplifting effects of sativa. As the doobie travels counter-clockwise, followed by several more, the group’s attention is drawn to the foot of the impromptu market, where a man with an unkempt beard and wild eyes has begun a spirited, if poorly enunciated, proselytization, waving a bag of weed the size of a stack of Bibles over his head. His message is almost unintelligible—“Marijuana something something! Legalization or death something something!”—but somehow familiar, too. It seems to be a classic sermon of Old Weed. He’s preaching about freedom and resistance, with a note of anger and something else in his voice. Paranoia? He might want to consider going inside, where the air is free of smoke and full of optimism. He might cool down.

Inside, New Weed reigns, making the future of cannabis feel imminent and rife with promise and profit and hugs. Out here, the shouting continues.

In December of last year, The Georgia Straight, one of Vancouver’s more resilient free alternative weeklies, published a story highlighting several cannabis shops to which the writer (presumably a millennial) would feel comfortable sending her mother (presumably a baby boomer). Listed as the most mom-friendly dispensary in the area was Aura (Gordon’s latest project), located in the Cedar Cottage neighbourhood on Kingsway Street, between a printing shop and a hair and nail salon, both of which have Korean characters on their signs.

It’s a warm and contemporary environment that Gordon likens to an Apple store, hesitating only slightly with the comparison. In the store, locally sourced products, like bath bombs to relieve your stress and hemp dog treats to relieve your best friend’s, are professionally packaged and thoughtfully arranged on the shelves. The sounds and smells have been selected, with Aura’s core demographics of working professionals, active seniors and pet owners in mind.

“One thing I always bring to the shops I work in is a diffuser,” says Gordon. “When you have a working professional or a senior in the environment and it reeks of bud, you alienate them pretty quickly, but when they come in and they don’t smell bud, they’re open and receptive. They’re already attuned to the idea that you’re doing something different, so they appreciate that.”

As the country inches toward legalization, businesses are becoming more competitive, finally able to tap into the capitalist competition that ultimately drives a better consumer experience. For decades, those in need of weed were forced to take whatever they could get, which often meant buying from strangers from Craigslist, meeting up with a friend of a friend in a public place with $80 cash or shopping from a dispensary that looked more like a stoner’s dorm room than a place of  business.

At Aura, the products are arranged in a modern, minimalist fashion at the back, and there’s a large space for seating and community events like yoga in the front. Of course, this layout will change with the forthcoming renovations. In fact, much change is coming to the single-location dispensary. With the capital and corporate structure in place and a game plan in execution, Aura is poised to grow from one store to 20 within the coming six months.

But not all dispensaries are so built to scale, ready to hit the ground running once the anticipated legislation changes occur. A glimpse at the maps available on the Vancouver city website reveals just how many dispensaries are simply operating on the principle of getting in while the getting’s good; of the 99 currently in the Vancouver area, 18 have attained the $30,000-a-year business licence, 21 have filed for it and 60, represented by red dots on the map, are non-compliant operations.

One of the most famous of those red dots is Cannabis Culture, the Vancouver institution founded by Canadian Marc Emery, “the Prince of Pot.” With eight locations across the country—including its headquarters at Victory Square in Vancouver’s Gastown district, which remains the undeniable heart of cannabis in Canada—Cannabis Culture has taken heat from lawmakers in multiple provinces for selling pot to pretty much anyone over the age of 19, culminating in the closure of multiple locations in Montreal and the arrest and expulsion of Emery and his partner from the business in early 2017.

“Their evolution into the dispensary sector really accelerated that intensity around enforcement,” says Gordon. By ignoring the faint regulatory lines being drawn by the government in what Emery referred to as an act of “peaceful civil disobedience,” they contributed to an erosion of credibility for the industry. “All that social licence that we’d accumulated in that year and a half or whatever just went ‘shwooop,’ right out the window.”

Still, for now, Cannabis Culture’s five Vancouver stores continue to turn a profit, even without the $30,000 piece of paper that Gordon has framed and hung on display in his shop. In most of the locations, the look and feel of Old Weed remains—where Aura is bright and modern, with local art hung on the walls, Cannabis Culture is dark and crowded, with stickers bearing phrases like “Work Free Drug Place,” and where Aura’s staff offer informed opinions on the efficacy of its products, Cannabis Culture’s seem happy just to be stoned at work.

“That’s not their point, that’s not their mission, that’s not their fight,” says Gordon. “Just because it doesn’t align with me, I can’t judge them. But what I can say is ‘You’re sharing this sector with us, so be considerate of the other stakeholders whose image and profile are reflected by your activities. Please! Because it takes a lot to get where we are. I run a 100-per cent-illegal business with a business licence, and that took a lot of work. And now, you coming in and doing this activity really changes the community and the conversation around this issue.’”

There are, of course, those who would say that New Weed is an erosion of a once proud community of outliers. They are the purveyors at the pop-up weed market held outside the expo, the unlicensed growers and the operators of all those red dots on that city map. The day they buy their weed from a government-run establishment will be the day they stop smoking. And that’s not going to happen. Some, like the Old Weed preacher, are absolute in their defiance, smoke inhaled and ready to be blown into the face of anyone who dares to tell them how to use this, their sacred plant.

To Gordon, it’s not just access or about creating a clean, modern space where people feel welcome. It’s also about respect—respect for the regulators, respect for the consumers and respect for the communities in which they operate. Sometimes that means a handshake. Sometimes it means a hug.

“I want to see a change, but we have to change, too—to come into alignment,” he says. “Because it’s give-and-take and it’s balance, and if we don’t figure out a way to break out of that old mould and create a new opportunity that’s going to be responsive to the community interests, then we’re missing the point.”

And, ultimately, some will miss that opportunity. If the red dots on the Vancouver city map are any indication, most will miss it. When The Law finally rides into the Wild Weed West later this summer, change will follow. Those who have done the work will adapt and welcome the future of cannabis consumerism. Others will be caught off guard and kicked back to the streets. Only, this time, their cries for legalization or death will be moot.

Photos: Grady Mitchell