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      Pubdate: Sat, 9 Jun 2001


  Back To Canada’s Main Section Start Page

    Pubdate: Sat, 9 Jun 2001    Source: Vancouver Sun (CN BC)    Author: Ian Mulgrew    

Note: Ran with fact box entitled "What Happened When Other Areas Decriminalized Marijuana" which is appended to the end of the story Changes In The Law Could Help The Province’s Growers Cash In On Their Expertise NELSON — Those who live among the rugged canyons and valleys of southeastern British Columbia call it "the transition economy." With growing support for medical marijuana and a rising clamor for decriminalization, in the heart of B.C. Bud country they’re readying to cash in on their expertise growing, harvesting, processing and adding value to the staggeringly large and currently illegal provincial cannabis crop. Even the recently elected Liberal MLA, a tough-on-drugs prosecutor for eight years, boasts that he tried to orchestrate a bid for a federal contract to grow a national supply. "We had a nice secure building," Nelson-Creston MLA Blair Suffredine said. "We use cocaine and its derivatives for medicine, why in the world would we discount marijuana as a potential medicine?" Indeed, Health Minister Allan Rock’s medical marijuana initiative — which could be in place by August — has police wringing their hands while in these parts people rub theirs in anticipation of potential pot profits. The cops fear medical marijuana is a stalking horse for decriminalization. In Washington, D.C., where the just-say-no forces hold sway, the federal government went to the Supreme Court to establish its right to forbid states such as California from sanctioning medical marijuana.

 The U.S. administration argued, as police in Canada now maintain, medical marijuana spurs de facto decriminalization by making law enforcement impossible. Nevertheless, Rock is pressing ahead with regulations that will make marijuana a legal substance to grow, possess and consume if you are suffering from a range of ailments. In the backwoods and ranch country of the Kootenay Mountains, renowned for producing some of the finest pot on the planet, Rock’s proposal is being hailed not just as a bold compassionate gesture, but as a potential economic windfall. Growers hope to cash in on knowledge gleaned from years of planting, nurturing, cloning and cutting. They’re also pushing byproducts like keef, hashish, oil, and marijuana edibles such as cellophane-wrapped "turtles" laced with THC ( tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana ) that look as delicious and professionally made as anything from Purdy’s. – – After running as leader of the Marijuana party in the most recent provincial election, Brian Taylor is back at work in nearby Grand Forks manufacturing cabinets for sale as "personal grow units." "Up until now, around here growing marijuana was a mortgage helper," explained the 55-year-old ex-mayor who sports a cowboy hat over his long graying ponytail. 

"Once the regulations come into place and Rock says medical marijuana is okay, we’re expecting a real boom." Law enforcement agencies in North America peg the illicit provincial pot market at $8 billion, which is larger than the output of the logging and forest product industries. If it’s even only half that, at $4 billion it’s nearly double B.C.’s total agricultural production. And that’s an illicit market. Consider the size of the legitimate medical market if even a small percentage of those who suffer from AIDS, cancer, chronic pain, arthritis, premenstrual syndrome or degenerative diseases like multiple sclerosis seek relief from marijuana. "My sister has leukemia and she’s a user," Taylor said. "She’s had it for five years." His dad used it too, and maintained a personal grow unit in his seniors’ apartment up until he fell seriously ill several weeks ago and died. Taylor has converted a barn into a workshop where two carpenters produce the entertainment-center-sized grow units from Baltic birch. The units are designed to allow anyone to produce a half-pound of pot every eight to 10 weeks — about an ounce a week — with a minimum of fuss and attention. They are equipped with a single light bulb, a small bathroom fan and two tiny pumps — 

one for the air and the other for the hydroponics system that feeds the plants. "We’re building some that are completely wheelchair accessible," he said. "The only problem [with the standard grow unit] right now is the controls are too high." Taylor is optimistic about Rock’s proposals. "Once they give that power to the doctors and it starts to roll, the doctors will take control and it will be the slippery slide," he insists. "Because the first woman who comes in and says ‘I have menstrual cramps and I want marijuana right now!’ — the doctor’s going to go ‘okay’ and write up a prescription for that. It’s been used for a thousand years [as a folk remedy] for that kind of pain. It’s a perfect medicine for it. Are you going to stop that?" Taylor has a sophisticated vision of the future marijuana industry. "I would like to see it more like the wine industry where there are certain strains and varieties grown under specific conditions," he said pulling on a large spliff of a highly sought-after strain called Bumbleberry. "That would be the ideal situation. Your personal grow units would be like making wine at home, but like the local U Brew, you could have a U Grow." He exhaled a long gray stream of smoke. "This is very tasty, but there are lots of other varieties — Sweet Skunk, Black Mist, Gumby, Chemo, White Widow," Taylor said. "The sophistication is unbelievable. And the bankers say it’s one in two — 

50 per cent of the population is directly affected by the marijuana industry." If the police estimates of the harvest are even close to the mark, it’s entirely plausible. – – In a typical home in a Kootenays town, a handful of people who grow marijuana sit around a kitchen table smoking reefers and swapping tales, just like farmers everywhere. Marijuana is no different from any crop and, even if it were legal, growing it is no more risk-free than cultivating any other plant susceptible to blights, bugs and blackouts. Its illicit status adds cops and thieves to those myriad dangers. Even if you make it to harvest, you can’t sell it to just anyone without risking getting arrested, ripped off or cheated. These men are intimate with the anxieties. These are the mom-and-pop producers favored by compassion clubs who hope to benefit from the emerging market. They are all weathered middle-aged men who like gardening. I came to know them through Taylor and I would describe them all as ordinary middle-class citizens. One has a crop in the basement, another in a spare room, a third in an underground bunker. One has adolescent kids on the honor roll at school, one is just starting a young family, another is coasting towards retirement in his late 50s, the kids long grown and the wife moved on. I can’t tell you their names because the legal repercussions for growing, smoking or selling marijuana remain punitive. They are small-town marketers who sell to teachers, veterinarians and lawyers who need a cool place to score and can’t buy on the street where everyone knows your name. Their backgrounds are typical — one was born in the Kootenays, another on the coast. Peter, 47, originally came from Ontario, settling here with his wife and two children in 1995 because they liked the lifestyle. He is using one of Taylor’s units to grow a potent Nepalese strain of marijuana crossed with a Russian variety to induce it to flower faster. 

He’s happy to show and tell and leads the gang down into the basement where he keeps the grow unit. He opens the white cabinet to reveal an explosion of lush emerald plants and a rush of sweet, pungent air. If you can program your VCR, you’re way too technically sophisticated for this machine. Once the eight or so plants are in place, set the timer and turn it on. Henry, whom I have come to know as a veritable marijuana Mendel, known because of his wisdom about cloning, is impressed. He has been breeding cannabis plants for two years and developed about 30 unique strains — some that provide pain relief, others with tremendous mood enhancement properties. The soft-spoken 28-year-old said he was mentored by an older gardener who taught him about the plant and its idiosyncrasies. He’s hoping with the change in law, he can start a research and development company, 

The Clone Man, to market his genetic knowledge. Taylor has already offered Henry a job as an adviser to those who buy his personal grow units — envisioning him as a kind of traveling plant doctor. If the government proceeds, all of the men in the room would breathe easier and sleep better at night not worrying about being busted. And they would be able to start marketing the production processes they’ve developed and byproducts such as keef, hash and oil that until now have been enjoyed primarily by the cognoscenti and connected connoisseurs. Back upstairs in his kitchen, Peter displayed a one-liter plastic cylinder with a nozzle, fitted with a lid and a nipple on one end and a tube with a spigot at the bottom. He filled it with about eight ounces of ground marijuana, attached a pressurized can of butane to the nipple and filled the cylinder with the the liquefied gas. Later, he opened the spigot and released the murky dark brown stew. A glistening viscous liquid seeped through the tube and spilled into a bowl. At room temperature, the butane began bubbling, boiling and evaporating leaving behind a light brown, almost golden-colored oil. 

The half pound of shake, as the undesirable leaf material is called, produced about 15 grams of oil. You can buy the oil and the keef for about the same as pot, about $10 to $15 a gram. Peter, who like the others in the room has a full-time job, said he earns about $1,000 a month from marijuana sales — enough to pay the dental bills for the kids, an illicit mortgage helper. Jack, who is in his mid-50s, said few people appreciate the hard work needed to be a successful grower — and the modest profit margins. Jack and two partners for about a decade harvested 15 to 18 pounds from 200 plants three times a year from an underground bunker in an isolated hollow. He estimated that most years he was lucky to make $25,000. Still the economics are attractive. Setting aside the initial capital investment in a personal grow unit or equivalent equipment ( $1,800 ), a crop costs: – – $10-$50 for a clone depending on the strain ( or a packet of seeds can cost upwards of $200 for 10 ). – – About $10 for nutrients for the hydroponics system for the eight-to-10-week cycle. – – About $7 a week for hydro on a 12–hhours on, 12-hours off cycle. Taylor figures you should be able to harvest half a pound every two-to-three months. In return, local connoisseurs will pay $2,000 a pound for average weed and $2,500 a pound for triple A marijuana. In Vancouver, the same dope fetches a couple of hundred dollars more. Even if decriminalization occurs, Taylor said he doesn’t expect the price structure to change: "We in Vancouver pay the same as they pay in an Amsterdam coffee house — about $15 a gram," he noted. ( There are 28 grams to an ounce. ) "It’s decriminalized there, why would our experience be different? I think the prices will remain constant." – – Already there are booming spin-off cottage industries in products such as pipes and psychedelic arts and crafts. Up near the tiny town of Ymir, transplanted Torontonian Earle Nestmann has established 

Thunder Mountain Glassworks. He and his partner Chris Beaver are would-be cannabis-culture Chihulys. They have created a thriving business blowing multi-colored goblets, paperweights, pens, inkwells, Christmas ornaments, beads, jewelry and sculpture. "We can’t keep up with demand really," Nestmann said. Every month, the company ships across Canada and the U.S. hundreds of pipes, some featuring glass dioramas and vibrantly colored seascapes that cost upwards of $400. Beaver, 30, just moved to the area from Rhode Island to work with Nestmann who has begun training his neighbors in glassblowing to meet demand. Down the highway in Nelson, at the Holy Smoke head shop on Hendryx Street, the proprietors paint a similarly rosy picture of counterculture capitalism. Paul DeFelice, Dustin Cantwell and Alan Middlemiss founded the landmark paraphernalia dealership in 1996. They have since relocated to a larger location and hired a part-time sales clerk. "We started the store more as a political act rather than a business," DeFelice said. "But it began to support itself and surprised us. It took off and we moved from a basement on Front Street to this big pink house. It tripled our overhead, but sales keep increasing." – –

 The true intended beneficiaries of Allan Rock’s new policies, however, are people such as Justin Spalek, a 23-year-old who says he may have only three to six months to live. Sitting in his trailer-park home on the Salmo highway, skin jaundiced from Hepatitis C, gray sacks under his eyes, and rake thin, Spalek looks close to death as he tokes from an elaborate glass pipe. Some days he smokes as much as a quarter ounce of marijuana to deal with his migraines and stimulate his appetite. "I get sick in the morning, lot of pain in my abdomen and hands," said Spalek, who used to work as a mechanic. "I’ve been dealing with it for three or four years without knowing I had all this stuff, until it got so bad about six, seven months ago and I ended up in emergency. Now I can’t work no more." Like thousands of others across the province, Spalek relies on the local compassion club for his marijuana. Philip McMillan, director of the registered non-profit Nelson Compassion Club, supplies pot to about 100 people in the region who are ill and find it alleviates their suffering. His club, one of a handful across the province supplying marijuana to sick people, just began to meet its $2,000 a month overhead after running a deficit for a year. "We don’t have 1,400 members like Vancouver," he quipped. McMillan buys marijuana from mom-and-pop producers and sells it to his members with a 30-per-cent markup. "We are definitely into organics — being Nelson, of course," he said. "So we push or show favoritism to anyone who is into the organics and growing hydroponically. 

Our prices vary from $20 to $30 an eighth [of an ounce], as little as $100 to $200 an ounce. Of the money we generate, seven-eighths goes back to the growers, the way things cost now." When he opened the club, McMillan said he thought there would be more young people among his members. "My average age is probably about 50," the long-haired 26-year-old former social worker said. "The demographics have shocked me." If you are diagnosed with cancer, AIDS, hepatitis, MS, fibromyalgia, epilepsy or glaucoma, you automatically qualify for membership in the club. Otherwise, you need to provide a doctor’s note that says you have disclosed your marijuana use. A typical note, he said, would read: "John Smith has chronic pain due to a herniated disc and has advised me he uses cannabis to treat his condition — or has found benefits from the use of cannabis." "I’m very lenient when it comes to the prescription part of it," McMillan said. "The basic list for a [compassion] club is about seven illnesses — I have more than 100. And I’m also one of the only ones who will accept any mental health issues. I’ve taken notes from psychologists and psychiatrists for bipolar, manic-depressive and schizophrenic [disorders]." And, unlike the entrepreneurs, he’s not persuaded Rock’s regulations will work. He disagrees vehemently with an exemption and licensing process. "Somebody with no criminal record must be willing to grow and must be willing to come forward and basically expose themselves to the federal government," 

McMillan explained. "People who have sent in samples have been arrested, people that are waiting for exemption process — their names were leaked from Health Canada to the RCMP and they got busted. What makes them think a grower that actually made it this long growing without getting busted is going to go, ‘Oh, I grow, here I am! Here’s my name and number and address, come on down and bust me right now!’ "All the growers who have read the regulations — and they were all getting excited about these new regulations — but finally they are here and not one single person is willing to sign on to this." If his members required the maximum amount of marijuana allowed under the regulations — five grams a day or about four pounds a year — that’s about 400 pounds, he calculated. "We would need 100 growers and 33 locations," he complained. And he’s vehemently against the idea of the government or the bureaucracy deciding who should qualify for access to a medical treatment and who shouldn’t. "It’s up to you and your doctor," he said. "The new regulations are just 49 pages of crap." Yet he remains optimistic that change is on the horizon. "It’s an uphill battle — but it’s going to come," McMillan says passionately about the end of pot prohibition. "It’s just about the money and who is going to make it —

 the small independent producer or the giant pharmaceutical company," he said. "With most of the patients I talk to, do you think they want to smoke some government chemically grown pharmaceutical weed?" WHAT HAPPENED WHEN OTHER AREAS DECRIMINALIZED MARIJUANA: The defacto or outright decriminalization of marijuana for personal consumption, including medical purposes, has occurred elsewhere in the world. There is no evidence such legal and law enforcement tolerance triggered a general increase in rates of consumption of the drug. – –

 The Australian state of South Australia decriminalized marijuana in 1987. Two neighboring states didn’t change their laws and marijuana consumption in all three remained relatively stable. – – 

Similarly, in the 1970s, 11 American states decriminalized marijuana without significantly affecting rates of marijuana use compared with neighboring jurisdictions. When some of those states re-criminalized the drug, it did not reduce consumption. – – In much-talked about Holland, marijuana possession was made de facto legal in 1976 and, in 1980, regulated "coffee shops" were permitted to sell the drug. The Dutch rate of marijuana use continues to be one of the lowest in the western world. – – Some states and cities in Germany decriminalized or embraced de facto legalization in the early 1990s. Italy, Portugal and Spain are moving in the same direction.

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