No Stopping Now

Nicholas takes a look back at 2021 up until today and how cannabis legislation has progressed throughout the world.

2021 saw many developments in the reform of cannabis legislation across multiple countries.  We observed as America flourished in the wake of numerous states legalising cannabis and watched as Canada cultivated their regulated cannabis industry into one of the biggest revenue sources for the country.  Now, we are starting to see change across the world. Most recently in Malta. While the Netherlands is famous for its coffee shops where cannabis can be openly sold and consumed, Malta will be the first country in the E.U to legalise cannabis, at least in small amounts.

It is a debate that has persisted for decades, is cannabis a harmless recreational substance, certainly no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco or is it a gateway drug that can have long term damaging effects, particularly on the young? For the lawmakers in Malta, the answer seems to be the former as they have voted to legalize cannabis, allowing adults to carry up to seven grams and grow up to four plants at home. The decision has afforded Malta to curb drug trafficking by making sure that people who use cannabis now have safe and regulated access to the plant.

Supporters of the reform celebrated amongst Malta’s Equality Minister, Owen Bonnici who promoted the legislation, stating the country has chosen a harm reduction approach to tackle its drug abuse and it will stop the criminalisation of otherwise law-abiding people. MPs in Malta voted 36 to 27 votes in parliament to make it legal for anyone 18 and over to possess up to seven grams of cannabis and to cultivate up to four plants while consuming in public and in the presence of minors remains illegal. New regulations will allow for the setting up of non-profit clubs that can distribute cannabis and cannabis plant seeds among their members.  This has resulted in Malta being the first European country to allow limited cultivation and possession of cannabis. Luxembourg which announced similar plans last October has yet to green light proposals and in Germany, the new coalition government says it plans to legalize cannabis for recreational use. The main opposition party opposed the plan, warning it would normalize and increase drug abuse but where Malta leads others may follow. Luxembourg and Germany are also promising changes in the law. [i]

Germany legalised medicinal cannabis in 2017 which was an important step forward for Europe and now countries like the UK, Poland, Italy, and France are looking into developing their own medicinal programs.  On the recreational side, Luxemburg is looking to legalize cannabis for personal use in the near future, and in Germany, many of the political parties have legalisation included in their campaigns. Currently, the European medicinal market is around €300 million to €400 million which is relatively small but considering the market started four years ago, it’s already scalable and the projections are that the market is going to grow to €3 billion.  With additional recreational markets, projections would be tenfold of what it currently stands. [ii]

Italy will also be looking to reform as cannabis advocates have already gathered enough signatures to hold a referendum to legalize marijuana next year.  A victory will turn Italy’s restrictive system into one of the most liberal in Europe resulting in multiple economic benefits as recent reforms have shown. The Italian market for recreational use is worth in the ballpark of €80 billion which Mafia gangs currently benefit from but once legalized and taxed no differently like cigarettes, it will add €6 million a year to the state.[iii]

The east is also going green as Thailand became the first country in Asia to decriminalise the production and use of cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2020 and this year saw them approve a “de facto” decriminalisation of cannabis.  Thailand’s Narcotics Control Board approved the dropping of the plant from its controlled drugs list following the exclusion of cannabis and hemp from the list of illegal drugs under Thailand’s Narcotic Law.  While recreational use is currently in a grey area of related laws making the legal status of recreational use unclear.  Health Minister Anutin Chanvirakul has been campaigning since 2019 for the legalisation of cannabis production to aid the farmers of the country with the latest progression seen to stimulate recreational cannabis use as a major industry.

Anutin noted that the FDA’s delisting “responds to the government’s urgent policy in developing marijuana and hemp for medical and health care benefits, developing technology and creating income for the public.”[iv]

The future looks hopeful with these recent events as we move towards cannabis legislation creeping ever closer to home.  With the E.U capitalising on the societal benefits of cannabis decriminalisation and medical benefits of its medicinal qualities, we may see Ireland follow in the footsteps of the most progressive countries a lot sooner than later.


References

[i] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-59660856

[ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/ceciliarodriguez/2021/12/27/germany-moves-to-legalize-cannabis-second-country-after-malta-in-europe/

[iii] https://www.reuters.com/breakingviews/italy-will-be-first-light-up-europes-weed-biz-2021-09-22/

[iv] https://time.com/6142360/thailand-decriminalizes-marijuana/

Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction | Review

Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist focused on neuroscience, addiction and drug policy. She has written for the likes of High Times, VICE, The New York Times and The Guardian. Her newest book, Undoing Drugs, provides a comprehensive history of North American harm reduction movements, which arose as a response to the frightening AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. It details the harm reduction movement’s evolution from the late ’70s onwards. Groups like ADAPT (The Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment) and ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and later, organisations like the DPA (Drug Policy Alliance) and the NHRC (National Harm Reduction Coalition) are explored. Undoing Drugs covers a range of topics across drug policy; the devastation of AIDS, the fight for supervised injection facilities, overdose prevention via Naloxone, compassionate changes to addiction and pain treatment and the emergence of national drug reform organisations.

The book is a tribute to ‘The Goddess of Harm Reduction’, Edith Springer, who is credited with introducing the harm reduction concept to America, thanks to a meeting with Allan Parry. Parry ran a successful harm reduction programme with Doctor John Marks in Liverpool, England. At one time, they were legally prescribing unadulterated, safe doses of heroin and cocaine to drug users. They also ran a needle exchange programme where they’d provide sterile needles in exchange for used ones, which they would safely dispose of. Clean needle programmes weren’t something that had been successfully organised yet in the States. Initially, they focused on educating injecting drug users on how to clean needles out with bleach and water, before re-using or sharing them. The book credits an exhaustive list of players in the harm reduction movement, from those mentioned above, to people like Yolanda Serrano, Jon Parker, Michelle Alexander, Dan Bigg, Stephanie Comer and Dave Purchase. All made valuable contributions to harm reduction in different periods, but tragically, not all of the groundbreaking and inspiring figures in this movement would survive to now, due to overdoses or illnesses.

Szalavitz experienced a major shock in 1990, when she first learned of the link between shared needles and HIV. She describes the ‘utter hell’ of waiting on HIV test results for two long weeks, before receiving the welcomed news that she hadn’t contracted it. It was at this point in her life that she decided that educating people about harm reduction and helping to introduce public harm reduction measures was precisely what she would devote herself to doing. Like Doctor Carl Hart, Szalavitz examines the racist origins of the war on drugs. She tells that even alcohol prohibition in the US had racist reasoning behind it: ‘..many white Protestants felt their power was threatened by rising numbers of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy, as well as Eastern European Jews. Prohibition was seen as a way to take back control.‘ She touches on the precedent set by The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and explains how in 1930, Harry Anslinger, as the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, fought for a strict federal ban on cannabis on the premise that weed ‘would seduce white women and lead to widespread insanity among previously pure white youth‘.

He ignored 29 of the 30 Doctors he interviewed about cannabis, who said that it wasn’t harmful enough to ban. This reckless anti-drug attitude would continue later, most notably with Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Szalavitz outlines the public mindset, from the ’60s onwards, as follows: ‘..illegal drugs had been firmly linked in the American mind with poor, Black, and brown criminals — and the stereotype of the “addict” as a lazy, devious, and violent sociopath mapped perfectly on to the racist stereotypes many whites held about those groups. With a compliant media, it was easy to blame violence and poverty on drugs — and not the socioeconomic circumstances that actually do lead people to problematic relationships with substances. It was also easy to spike fear that the evil drugs used by poor Black and brown people would soon be coming for innocent white babes.‘ Elsewhere, she quotes a lawyer, who said the following about crack cocaine in a New York Times op-ed in 1986: ‘If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years.

It’s apparent from these descriptions of the anti-drugs rhetoric of US authorities that the narrative on drugs has long been manipulated by those in power, to avoid taking responsibility for the neglect of various social issues and as a means of scapegoating ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. The narratives of traditional and dominant twelve-step recovery programmes are challenged, such as those found at Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, where their only measure of success for an addict is total abstinence from intoxicating substances. Addiction is viewed as a ‘progressive disease’, such that if someone changed from buying crack every weekend to smoking a joint once or twice in a month, that person would be labelled ‘still using’ and ‘not in recovery’. This is because ‘progression of the disease’ is seen as inevitable, meaning that in their view, such an instance of seemingly controlled cannabis use ‘will ultimately spiral back to chaotic crack addiction’.

Szalavitz also covers the Housing Works organisation, which was founded to combat homelessness and addiction through the provision of free housing. The organisation was based on the ‘Housing First’ premise that it’s ‘highly unlikely that someone living in an unstable setting or entirely without shelter will be able to quit alcohol or other drugs while still on the street.‘ Along with the likes of Stand Up Harlem, they were shown to have tremendous success in reducing chronic homelessness and by extension, addiction rates. They stood in stark contrast with housing provision programmes that demanded the near-impossible from drug users – that they be entirely ‘clean of drugs’ before granting them accommodation. Root causes for many people who end up in damaging life scenarios are mentioned by the author, where she states: ‘Virtually everyone who ends up homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and HIV positive has a long history of childhood trauma, typically compounded by the experience of racism and the extreme distress and social rejection that comes with living on the street or being incarcerated.

Although Undoing Drugs is often heartbreakingly tragic, it is a vitally important book that highlights the success of applied harm reduction and the contrasting failure of continued ignorance and stonewalling. It considers the countless people who take drugs who are routinely stigmatised, marginalised, and de-humanised due to conservative, hardline drug policies. The key message throughout is an urgent need for the powers that be to adopt a more humane and effective approach for drug policy. Emphasis is placed on the importance of protecting human lives above all else. Maia Szalavitz‘ book is full of data that proves the success of initiatives which treat drug users with respect and dignity, helping them to stabilise themselves and restructure their lives enough to feel ready to quit the drugs that they were disrupting their lives with in the first place. Perhaps by now, world leaders should be sitting up and listening keenly to the likes of Ms. Szalavitz, instead of ‘being tough on drugs’.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Hachette Books for providing us with a review copy of this book.

Laura | 15.06.2021

Laura suffers with chronic depression, anxiety, insomnia and back pain, which she was prescribed Valium for ten years ago. She says she hasn’t ‘popped’ a Valium since a few years ago, when she lived in Canada and had access to medical cannabis.

Twitter / Instagram: @ucancallmelola

Can you please outline your relationship with alcohol in the past and why it was that you decided to stop?

I used to think of my relationship with alcohol as pretty typical, but now I can see it was more sinister than that. It started with the ‘normal’ teenage experience of being around fourteen years old and scheming ways to get cans of cider or a naggin of vodka in a park on the weekends, but it grew into something somewhat crippling socially. I felt as though I needed it to be social, genuinely like it was some sort of armour to put on before going out or some magic drink that made me care less about things and pretend to be ‘grand’. Now, with the benefit of age and objectivity, I can see that I was self-medicating my well-established mental health issues in the only way I knew how – the same way generations before us did, which has been culturally normalised for us. I was definitely abusing it. I was regularly drinking alone in the evenings while at home watching TV. A bottle of wine after work at (the age of) nineteen was about standard. Even before then, I used to secretly take a few shots of rum or vodka before going out to my friends as a teen. Not that I told anyone. It was a problem. I stopped drinking at about 26, four years ago.

You once compared the damage alcohol can do to how harmless cannabis is in comparison. You said: “No one smokes themselves into requiring their stomach pumped at Beaumont (hospital) on a Saturday. No one smokes a joint and starts a fight at a party. But “social drinkers” clog up A&E when bars and pubs are open as normal.” Why do you think this cognitive dissonance persists in Ireland about alcohol?

I think that we have been passing down broken ideas and unrealistic rules between our generations. Our cultural and social norms are super influential, of course, but we model ourselves on what has been modelled to us at home first and we internalise our caregivers’ behaviours before we even know we’re doing this. I believe that our previous generations lived in eras of shame and mortification over any (social acknowledgements of) mental health problems, illnesses, addictions and disorders. These generations also lived in times of suppression of information and emotional control under a corrupt church and a conservative government, intent on parroting the 1USA’s War on Drugs propaganda. In short, they lived in the dark and are now terrified of this new information and distrustful of it all. It’s come as a total shock in comparison to the information of the world that they grew up with. All they know is ‘booze is okay and everyone does it’ and no one calls it a drug, so its damaging effects are ignored. 

I’m extremely hopeful that this is a statement on Ireland’s dissolving cognitive dissonance, however. I don’t believe that we face the same set of challenges that they faced. Our access to fast, good information is not something that was available to previous generations. We watched 9/11 on our TV screens as it happened; a different country, a news event in real time. When my father was the age I was in 2001, his house in Castleknock burned down…and that made the newspapers, the next day. Kids can Google for their own information now, but forty years ago, you might need to go to the local library and hope they had an encyclopedia that would answer your kids’ question… either that or guess, and likely pass along faulty advice or answers. We have so much more information that I don’t believe we can continue to hold such contradicting beliefs about a person’s right to drink, smoke, consume substances or the right to alter one’s consciousness.

You said that cannabis was a “huge help with chronic depression & anxiety” and that it has helped your back pain more effectively than your long term Valium prescription. It has also helped you to combat issues with food & insomnia. What beneficial effects do you get from weed?

For me, weed functions as a muscle relaxant for my back pain, an anti-anxiety support and to help with the symptoms of panic attacks if or when they occur, to help me to eat when my nausea is in flare up, to help me sleep when my insomnia is active. All of these effects are instrumental to my being able to cope with and heal my mental health issues and deal with past traumas. It’s such a huge help and it doesn’t have the side effects that I was getting from my antidepressants or Valium prescriptions. 

When you first started using cannabis, did you wean yourself off Valium or stop all together? 

Well, I didn’t use the Valium often enough to require weaning off it. There’s a genetic history of addiction in my family and so I was too scared to take the prescription regularly enough to become in any way reliant on it. Instead, I self medicated by drinking most nights to help me with pain, sleep and to dissociate from it all. Of course, I couldn’t see at the time that instead of avoiding a substance abuse situation like I thought I was doing, I was just doubling up the speed of my alcohol abuse. So when I received my first batch of medical cannabis, it was like opening up the cover of a new book. I don’t feel like I’ve lost or given up anything. I felt like I upgraded the efficiency of my medication. Same with the drink. All of a sudden, I had absolutely no desire for it any more. Now all I miss is the variety of flavours alcohol comes in. I’m pretty sick of Coke or Club Orange as my only beverage options most places, but that is honestly the biggest personal drawback for me in the change over.

Have you experienced any side effects since switching from Diazepam to cannabis?

Other than the above mentioned, before smoking any weed I was suffering in a number of ways. When I began smoking, first it was for my back pain, but soon I noticed a sizeable shift in my mental and emotional strength and ability to look internally at things clearly where I had never been able to before. I was suddenly becoming more aware of myself, my traumas, my triggers and it calmed my chaotic, anxiety-ridden thoughts so that I was finally able to admit to myself that I was unwell, had been unwell for quite a while and desperately needed the help of a mental health practitioner to get back to a healthy place. It sounds hokey and woo woo, but it facilitated the mental and emotional processing I needed to see clearly and care about myself enough to get help. Diazepam made me spaced out, guilty and ashamed, drained and headache-y for two days after use, and unable to drive or operate heavy machinery. I guess the heavy machinery thing is the only unchanged side effect.

Would you recommend those similar to you to make the switch, or do you feel it’s a personal decision to make? 

I think that it’s definitely a personal decision regardless, and that someone should be as informed and comfortable as possible. I do think it should be an option for everyone to try, but that everyone’s reactions are a little different and based solely on the individual. Cannabis won’t work perfectly for everyone, just like every antidepressant won’t work for everyone or why some people can’t drink certain drinks without getting aggressive or blacking out. Our individual body chemistry obviously plays a huge part. I do think that a natural option is a good one to have on the list of options that should be available for adults to explore and for mental health professionals with the correct information and experience to recommend. The best thing anyone can do is be as informed as possible.

How were your experiences with cannabis in Canada and how did they compare with using cannabis in Ireland?

Night and day. There is no comparison. Trying to buy some dried flower buds in a little sandwich bag shouldn’t feel like an arms deal with the ‘Ra, but unfortunately it does. We like to order CBD products from 2Little Collins dispensary instead, and also have some friends who grow their own plants and will send some love our way when they have spare.

When did you first become interested in cannabis?

Just before moving to Canada. They had recently legalised, so I wanted to be informed before arriving there and not be completely ignorant of the situation.

Do you know a lot of people who use cannabis?

More than I could count for you. It’s not uncommon, just semi unspoken.

What are your thoughts on Irish prohibition laws surrounding cannabis and other drugs?

Completely and utterly embarrassing and very transparently put in place to ‘look the part’ and follow suit with other very vocal nations, but comprised of very little fact and backed by zero research. They have created a thriving black market selling dangerous product and profiting criminals. 

When do you see the Irish government reforming our cannabis laws?

Do you see those who are in power at the moment making these reforms?

I’m torn. My hopeful, optimistic side sees legalisation and regulation of weed in the next three to seven years, if our leaders are smart enough to look to the 3Canadian model and the amount of revenue that was created there from nothing. It would also make some farmers unions happy as they have been lobbying for similar rights to grow hemp and related products and it would create a brand new industry full of jobs and additional international trade. My more cynical and pessimistic side agrees with the hot take from 4Blindboy, where he says that the Irish government will likely wait and wait until the USA legalises on a federal level, starts looking internationally and comes sniffing around our tax-light shores for a place to set up shop. Either way, it will be the money that sways them. That’s the only language they speak.

If you had an audience with Frank Feighan, Stephen Donnelly and co, what would be your message to them?

Catch up or move aside. We’re done with leaders who lead us nowhere. Be part of the solution to the problem or be left behind, but you won’t be able to hold up progress forever.

References

1 We highly recommend that you read Doctor Carl Hart’s book on this topic, reviewed here –

https://greenlensblog.com/2021/05/13/drug-use-for-grown-ups-review/

2 Check out the Little Collins CBD site at this link – https://littlecollinscbd.com/

3 To learn more about cannabis in Canada, check out my interview with Farrell Miller of

 NORML Canada here – https://greenlensblog.com/2020/12/09/farrell-miller-toronto-canada-21-11-2020/

4 Watch this recent Newstalk interview with Blindboy about cannabis in Ireland –

https://youtu.be/gXtJqwSLkiQ

You Get What You Pay For

Nicholas looks into the issues that occur in the regulated market which will serve as a blueprint for what we need to avoid down the road when Ireland joins the discussion of cannabis reform.

As we gradually move towards the legalisation of cannabis, we must acknowledge such regulation would incur several differences not normally experienced in the black market.  While the obvious will be the restriction of sale to anyone under the state-appointed age, patrons will also have the ability to choose the strain and strength of the weed they’re purchasing from a safe and reliable source.  The reality is the cost that many smokers in this country currently have to pay will change drastically, which many fear will be for the worst.

In the series of interviews Richard has carried out since the inception of this blog, the primary response from interviewees regarding the safety of purchasing from the black market is universally negative.  The worst experiences coming from women who fear for their welfare whenever purchasing cannabis on the streets.  Currently, smokers have to do business with drug dealers who package cannabis in Ziplock bags, storing them under kitchen counters or garden sheds for the sale to anyone of any age.  In most cases, the marijuana isn’t even cured before it’s put on the market, making for a weak and less cost-effective purchase.   

It’s time to take cannabis out of the hands of the black market and put it in the safe, accessible, and reliable hands of specialists who can aid the customer in the type of strain and strength of the cannabis they’re buying.  The questions we must ask ourselves are, are we willing to spend more for the safety that comes with a regulated market?  Will we continue to feed the black market for our individual benefit in the wake of a legalised environment?  I fear this will be the case, as seen since the pandemic, people are prone to selfish acts in a very Irish cultural mentality of “but what do I get out of it?”.

This has become a topic of discussion going forward since Canada legalised cannabis in October 2018.  An area of concern has occurred, where the black market, which hasn’t suffered in sales since dispensaries opened, has left many to question what has brought this on.  The closing of legal cultivation greenhouses by Canopy Growth, the biggest firm in the cannabis sector, has come about due to the loss of revenue to the black market as the recreational market has “developed slower than anticipated”.  The consensus on this issue is the fact that the legal market is struggling to draw people to their products due to the higher cost and lower strength the market has on offer. 

This issue is a result of the Canadian government fumbling the landscape of selling cannabis as the government doesn’t advertise the type of cannabis you’re buying, leaving the customer more uninformed than those buying in the black market.  The quality and timeframe in accessing the drug has also left a lot to be desired.  The legal price of cannabis is driven up by taxes and those in power of regulating it have also aided in the problem by restricting suppliers from developing brands.  The strict rules around advertising cannabis have left the legal market with very little brand identity leading to little confidence in a purchase for the customer.  This is compounded by companies that struggle to open stores due to the protests of local authorities that don’t want cannabis sold in their communities. 

The issues seen in Canada are a result of a market that got ahead of itself and created a bubble by “drinking their own Kool-Aid” as said by Anthony Dutton, a co-founder and former Chief Executive of Cannex – a US-focused marijuana firm that is listed in Canada. 

“So, what we’re seeing now, thankfully, is a lot of the companies that probably should never have been financed – and probably should never have gone public in the first place – are slowly withering on the vine and they’ll just disappear.  Now there will be a consolidation around half a dozen strong operating companies, including 4Front, and those will be the companies that will take it into the next cycle. It’s just like in the dotcom boom. Oracle, Microsoft, and other big companies were all around then, and they were profitable. And when the little companies began to fail, Microsoft and Oracle and the others picked up the ones they wanted, and the others they just let die.” – Anthony Dutton [1]

Then there is of course the grey market which can be seen in California, as the red tape of acquiring a licence to sell has put off companies from following the stringent rules the regulated market enforces.  This has resulted in another competitor for the legal market due to companies refusing to abide by the intricate regulations that encompass everything about the procurement and selling of cannabis. From security to product testing, the grey market can undersell their law-abiding competitors by up to 50% as noted by Bryce Berryessa, the president of the licensed California cannabis company La Vida Verde.[2] 

Unlike the black market, the grey market operates in plain sight and doesn’t advertise to customers whether the store is legal or not.  However, like the black market, the grey market stocks counterfeit products that imitate known legal brands.  There have been measures to combat unlicensed dispensaries in the form of guard troops deployed into northern California’s cannabis cultivation regions to crack down on the grey market but still, it isn’t enough. [3]

As cannabis legislation is in its infant stages, it will be some time before legalisation becomes more widespread and corporatised, eventually causing the black and grey markets to wane, though many legal businesses won’t last before this happens.  Weed shortages are a big proprietor to the black market flourishing, as the lack of availability forces people to find different sources.  The shortages also cause the legal market to increase prices further, leading to cynicism about purchasing legally.  This is also seen in Illinois, where illegal sales of marijuana are expected to outpace legal sales at least through 2024, according to data from cannabis industry research firm BDS Analytics.[4]

These problems and the solutions we will come to see in future years should be the blueprint for how we approach cannabis legislation in this country.  The strength and availability of cannabis should be considered as to not make the same mistakes seen in Canada.  Limiting smokers to specific strains, while charging twice what is standard in the black market is a pothole that can be easily avoided by acknowledging what is happening now, so it doesn’t have to occur here in the future.  Obviously, this is easier said than done. We can only assume how the government will take on such an ambitious venture – whether Ireland will grow its own supply, or similar to our fishing industries, will we sell our new-found potential to a neighbouring country, allowing them to profit from an industry we can seize for ourselves?  Only time will tell.


References:

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/18/cannabis-canada-legal-recreational-business

[2] https://www.record-bee.com/2018/12/01/legalizing-marijuana-was-supposed-to-slow-illegal-activity-in-california-it-hasnt/

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/17/legal-weed-black-market-california-gavin-newsom

[4] https://wgme.com/news/marijuana-in-maine/it-may-be-legal-but-high-prices-inconvenience-may-drive-black-market-marijuana-for-years


Matthew O’Brien of FOUR PM | 23.04.2021

Matthew O’Brien is a young Irishman who moved to Canada in 2017. Having started his career in the cannabis industry as a Budtender, Matthew has since gone on to manage multiple retail locations and processing facilities, overseeing supply chains and developing software & lead marketing for cannabis companies as a Consultant. 

How would you describe FOUR PM?

1Four PM is a weekly newsletter for cannabis professionals, born out of my desire to have access to relevant information that would allow me to make advancements in the cannabis industry. 

When did you launch FOUR PM and what inspired you to start it?

I launched Four PM just shy of six months ago. Four PM is the most selfish, selfless thing I do on a daily basis. By writing a newsletter, I afford myself the opportunity to research subjects that are of interest to me, while at the same time providing just short of 2,000 cannabis professionals with access to what I view as the most relevant information every cannabis professional should be consuming. 

How effective do you think newsletters are in disseminating information about cannabis compared to other methods?

Surprisingly very effective, and extremely under-utilised. As we all know, social media companies have a strong tendency to censor cannabis content, and email is one of the very few channels which is censorship-resistant. With FOUR PM, I can say anything I want without having to alter what I would otherwise like to say, for fear of my content being flagged and a ban issued.

Do you think distributing leaflets about cannabis is too intrusive for getting the message out, or do you feel the information is something people should seek out for themselves?

That’s a good question. I would say it depends on the demographic you are seeking to reach with your message. For older people, I would imagine that this would be an effective content distribution strategy. However, for someone such as myself who is a digital native, I wouldn’t pay much attention to this medium of communication.

What important lessons have you learned by managing cannabis processing facilities and stores?

As a Manager, you work for your staff, not the other way around. A common tendency when people become Managers is that they feel the need to demonstrate their authority over the staff they manage. Personally, I took the opposite approach. Ensuring you are setting your staff up for success each and every day is a necessity for them to succeed, and inadvertently for you to succeed. 

What have been your most rewarding, enjoyable areas of work in cannabis until now? 

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would once again work as a Budtender. Although it’s a difficult role with shit compensation, there is nothing quite like the relationships you can build with the customers you serve when working as a Budtender.

What for you have been the most exciting developments in the cannabis industry of the past few years?

Mexico legalising cannabis is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons. First of all, Mexico will become the largest cannabis market in the world and it will also create a situation whereby both of the countries that border the United States have legalised cannabis at a federal level, thus increasing the pressure on politicians in the U.S. to make the same amendments to their own legislation, to allow every adult to purchase cannabis. 

Do you plan to develop FOUR PM as a brand outside of the newsletter? Have you got other projects you hope to pursue in the cannabis industry?

As things stand today, I plan on launching a podcast in the coming weeks such that I can provide additional value to those who take the time to consume the content I create. My North Star for FOUR PM is making cannabis professional lives easier, so there’s certainly a number of other low hanging fruits which I will pursue when the time is right. A major issue in the cannabis industry is the lack of transparency surrounding compensation. This is a problem I would like to solve in time. 

Would you mind expanding on why there is a lack of transparency with regards compensation in the cannabis industry?

This is very much a growing pain of this new legal industry which has suddenly come into existence. As a result of building this plane as we fly it, it’s all too easy for us to lose track of what matters, which in my humble opinion is ensuring that the individuals who are contributing to this industry are being treated just as they would in any other industry. 

Without naming any offenders, can you provide a more specific example of how this lack of compensation occurs?

Using myself and my past experiences as an example, while working as a Store Manager in Vancouver – I should have been receiving around double the compensation I was at the time, based upon what Store Managers commonly receive. If not for the fact that I was simply there for the experience and not the compensation, I would have never taken the job in the first place. This happens a lot more than it should, whereby people who are very passionate about working with this plant are willing to compromise on their compensation such that they gain employment in this industry, and I personally don’t see any reason why it has to be one or the other. Why shouldn’t you be able to receive a fair compensation package, while simultaneously getting to work in the cannabis industry?

How big of an aspect is disproving misinformation when increasing awareness for cannabis?

It’s a huge challenge. As an industry, we have effectively been provided with a blank canvas by which to educate consumers. The question is how we choose to use this. Personally, I would love to see a greater emphasis placed on leading with the information that we know to be true, as opposed to leading with assumptions which will likely be disproven in the coming years.

When do you see cannabis being fully legalised in Ireland? Do you think the current Irish government will reform their cannabis laws significantly?

I have to believe this will occur within the next four years. The reality is that the prohibition of cannabis was never about protecting public health, rather it was a means to imprison people from minority communities in the United States who in turn used their influence to force other nations to adopt the same policies. Ireland has so much to gain from legalising cannabis. Imagine the amount of employment that would be created, the taxation revenue that would be generated. Are we to believe that it’s within our best interest to allow gangs to continue to profit off this plant by virtue of the sheer ignorance politicians on the island of Ireland have when it comes to this amazing plant?

Would we need to see cannabis reform in the UK before our government considers legislation?

It’s certainly a possibility, however, Ireland should have a willingness to take the lead on this issue. Should the UK legalise cannabis, which is a question of when not if, it would certainly serve as a catalyst for Ireland doing the same. 

Where in the world do you see a lot of potential for the cannabis industry within the next five years?

I foresee both the United States, and a majority of nations in the European Union legalising cannabis for adult use purposes as soon as they accept that the war on drugs was a complete failure, and amend their legislation to reflect this. We will see a wave of nations making moves to legalise cannabis.

Is there a cannabis company who you see as having particularly exciting potential, in Canada or elsewhere?

I’m a really big fan of two. 2Truss Beverages, who are pioneering cannabis beverages as a category. 3GTEC Cannabis Co is another company who I admire – although there’s a huge surplus of cannabis being produced in Canada, they continue to demonstrate that taking the time to understand the needs of consumers and creating the products that will service these needs is a winning strategy. They were the first Canadian producer to list products’ terpene profiles on their packaging which was a huge milestone for the industry, as we slowly moved away from presenting cannabis products to consumers based on an Indica vs Sativa dichotomy.

What’s your own relationship with cannabis like and when did you first become interested in it?

I would consider my usage of cannabis for wellness purposes. Consuming cannabis allows me to become a better version of myself – someone who is more thoughtful, creative and empathetic to others. I didn’t consume cannabis until I was nineteen, when I was working in Ontario. My decision to not consume was simply due to my ignorance up until this point as to the bounty of benefits cannabinoids have to offer. 

What are your preferences with cannabis and how do you normally use it?

As much as I’m aware that smoking dried flowers is probably not the optimal way to consume cannabis, there is something very therapeutic about rolling joints and smoking dried cannabis. I’m also a big fan of cannabis beverages, which I can see being VERY popular in Ireland. The days are numbered until Guinness releases a cannabis beverage. 

You’ve been living in Canada since 2017, what do you miss the most about home?

Ireland is one of the most beautiful nations on earth. I grew up on a very small island called Cruit [translation: ‘Harp’], which is off the coast of Donegal. And although there are many stunning parts of Canada – nothing compares to Cruit. All going according to plan, I will be able to move back to Cruit, pending the legalisation of cannabis in Ireland. 

What do you NOT miss about being back home?

Having tried out the cannabis available in Ireland, I seriously don’t envy my fellow Irishmen & women, who only have access to this cannabis. One of the perks of calling Vancouver home is my ability to walk down the street with a joint in my mouth and walk past a police officer without even thinking twice about it. 

Thanks so much for your time Matthew, all the best!

References:

1 You can find out more about FOUR PM at this URL: https://www.fourpm.co 

2 Here’s a recent FOUR PM interview with Melanie Smith, the Innovation Lead for Truss Beverages:

https://www.fourpm.co/p/leading-innovation-at-the-highly

3For more information about GTEC Cannabis Co, see this link: https://www.gtec.co/company/

Farrell Miller | Toronto, Canada | 21.11.2020

Farrell Miller is the COO of Erbn Green, a female-founded company that wants to help you “discover how cannabis fits into your modern life and how it can help you fuel creativity”. She is also a board member of NORML Canada and has a JD in Law from the University of British Columbia. Twitter: @FeralMiller

When did you first develop an interest in cannabis? So, I first delved into cannabis when I began managing an accessories store in the mountains as a second job while I was teaching snowboarding, out west in the Rocky Mountains. And while I was working there, I met a fellow who had told me he was interested in opening the first medical access clinic in Kelowna, which is when the early medical access regimes were in place. The Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, which allowed patients to purchase cannabis from the government with a prescription. So that was something that interested me and that sparked my initial delve into the cannabis world. So it started off in Western Canada. The Okanagan region has been a leader on that front for some time now, so I was fortunate to be there in the sweet spot.

How long have you been involved with NORML [National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] Canada? I first heard about them when I was doing small advocacy efforts out West and I made it a point of meeting the lawyers who were at the time on the board of 1NORML Canada; Kurt Tousaw, Paul Ewin, Jack Lloyd. And they were doing some really, really interesting work for patients. And they were fighting their legal battles, writing to the government and promoting regulatory change in that respect to allow patients to access better cannabis from the government, grow their own cannabis. Which is what led to the next level of medical access system, the ACMPR [Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations], which is what directly preceded legalisation. This allowed patients to both produce their own and purchase from the government. So there were some developments in the law that I was following. And I started doing my volunteer work with NORML Canada while I was in law school, so about 2015. And I really, really took a lot of initiative there and now I’m on the board. So it’s been quite a ride. Yeah, sounds like it! 

As a former law student at UBC [University of British Columbia], what is your overall opinion on the Cannabis Act of 2018? Are there any areas of Canadian cannabis legislation you’d like to see improved? Yes, so I’ll just go through the ten recommendations of NORML Canada. We decided to make these recommendations now that the cannabis act is gonna be up for review in 2021. Okay. Number one being to increase the public possession limit. So right now it’s only legal to possess up to thirty grams, which means that retailers.. And I’m the owner of a cannabis retail store in Ontario.. We have a limit of thirty grams, which means that we cannot sell a person more than thirty grams at one time. And that’s a lot of cannabis. But when you translate that into equivalency limits in the extra category, and beverages in particular, you see that a gram of cannabis is equivalent to five plus grams of beverage. Meaning that if you have more than five beverages, you’re over the legal limit. Making a six pack of cannabis beverages illegal. Farrell laughs Okay, I can imagine that getting pretty ridiculous. Absolutely! So, if you’re picking up beverages for a dinner party, you legally cannot pick up more than five at a time.

We can’t sell more than five and it’s absurd, so that’s number one. And number two is permitting the combination of cannabis products. There are some individuals who are advocating for the ability to put keef or hash inside joints, for example. And that is right now not permitted by Health Canada, but that is something that consumers have indicated that they want. And NORML Canada mostly being a consumer advocacy organisation, we really advocate for loosening the laws that really make it better for the consumer, ultimately. Number three is a little bit focused on medical patients, while we don’t focus exclusively on medical patients. We recognise and respect that the whole recreational legal framework was built on the legal challenges that patients had to fight to get to a regulatory space that made a little bit of sense to offer recreational.

Right now though, medical patients are kind of suffering because there is no store front opportunity for medical cannabis. And as someone who owns a retail recreational store, I get customers all the time who come in and want medical cannabis, they want medical advice. And my staff and myself, we’re not Doctors, we’re not authorised to give medical advice. And so that’s kind of just a hole in the legal regulatory landscape, where the medical patients have sort of been left out. They can order online from anywhere in the country, that’s one of the things that medical cannabis users can do that recreational users cannot.

They can order delivery. However some people really want to have that in-person interaction and talk about the cannabis a bit more. And so allowing medical sales licence holders for example to establish storefronts and act kind of like pharmacies for medical patients is something we’d be interested in seeing. So I suppose the next one from that is opening up a channel for natural health products that contain cannabis. So taking CBD out of the strict control of the Cannabis Act, which is where it is now. And if you compare Canada to somewhere like California, while Canada is federally legal right now, we’re very restrictive on who can grow (and) who can sell. We include every cannabinoid in the definition of cannabis and we include CBD in that.

In California, with the passing of the Farm Bill federally, hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC is considered just an agricultural product in the US. And so, especially in States that have legalised on the State level, you’re seeing these CBD tinctures, dietary supplements on the shelves of Whole Foods and traditional retailers, not just cannabis licenced retail stores. So, California is an example where both are able to thrive. You can sell wellness products outside of the restrictive framework of the cannabis licensing regime and there are those cannabis stores that are authorised to sell cannabis as well but that also are able to do well in that kind of mixed framework so… There’s minimal risk with consuming CBD, so we just kind of want the regulations to accurately reflect the risk value.

And we see the risk is relatively low, so we think the regulations on CBD right now are a little bit overkill in Canada. Sounds like it. Yeah. And I could keep going, but those are the main ones that I would like to see changed. There’s a few more and we have them on the NORML Canada website. But those first few are super important. How does your recently-opened 2Erbn Green store differentiate itself from the competition in Ontario? When the cannabis licensing regime first opened up, basically the only way of saying it is, there weren’t enough people working at the licensing office to process all the interest, right? So we had to restrict it to a lottery system.

You had to express your interest and you got entered into a draw and if you were fortunate you could win the chance to apply for a licensed retail store. And so in the early days, two years ago, those opportunities to get a licence were so coveted and so valuable that people who won this lottery, and I was not one of them, were offered major incentives from large organisations in cannabis. Both retail and organisations maybe loosely connected to producers that are out there, offered large amounts of money to basically fly under their banner in franchise-esque agreements. And so you started seeing a lot of that. A lot of franchise models.

Big organisations trying to purchase these licenses from these people who were fortunate enough to win the opportunity to do so. And it started to create a little bit of a monopoly, from my perspective at least, so it was important to me to be an independent cannabis store that is not operating under a big corporate banner that already has interests in other areas in cannabis. And we’re female-owned. So that’s another thing that was important to me, that overall perhaps, there was not enough participation from women in executive roles in cannabis and so that is something that I think makes us stand out a little too.   

You say on your Twitter bio that you are part 3Métis. Are there any interesting traditions among Métis cultures involving cannabis or other psychedelics? So I actually researched this a while ago, because I was really interested in the indigenous right to self-governance and their ability to create their own structure on their own territories. My heritage goes way back on my mother’s side. I am a 4Red River Cree, partially, and it’s very diluted, which makes me Métis. And when I looked into it and I spoke to my aunt on that side, she’s lived on some reserves in Alberta. She’s been somewhat of my teacher when it comes to discovering my own indigenous heritage and learning those traditions.

And between my research and my discussions with her, I determined that actually, cannabis had very little to do with indigenous cultures, in North America anyway, until colonisation. It was really brought here to us. But we did have a lot of traditions around psychedelics and tobacco as well. So tobacco ceremonies and spirit journeys, when it came to psychedelics. Have you noticed changes in the public perception of weed in the wake of the federal cannabis act? Slowly but surely. People are becoming more comfortable with the idea of walking into a cannabis store the same way they walk into the liquor store. However, there still are people who will not even work with us as a legal cannabis entity. We’re a licenced legal store. Anywhere from contractors to landlords you approach.

They do not want to deal with cannabis businesses. And I think that that comes from the stigma of being underground and elicit. And I think we’re still carrying the weight of criminalisation on our shoulders in that sense. So we’re just slowly trying to change the face of cannabis a little bit and show people that it is part of a modern way of living. And you can include cannabis in your life in a way that makes you comfortable. You don’t have to step outside of your comfort zone to experience cannabis. Recently disrupted global travel aside, have you noticed a significant increase in cannabis tourism since 2018? I suppose I would say a little bit. When I spoke about the early days of licensing a handful of those stores that were first open…

I think one of the first stores were out in Ottawa and I had a lot of people who drove out from Toronto to go check that out. It’s all been pretty close to home, relatively. Unless you work in the industry. Myself and other people in the industry that I know who are national sales representatives, who are going from Western Canada to here to tour facilities, check out retailers and see how things are done in other Provinces. So it’s really big within the industry right now. And I just think the regulations need to catch up to being a little bit more visible to the consumer. It’s very restrictive right now because of the promotions regulations. We really aren’t allowed to communicate the few opportunities that are out there, when it comes to cannabis.

So you reckon it just needs to be streamlined a bit better to give it more of a mainstream appeal, essentially? Yeah and then the licenced producers, the people who are growing and processing the cannabis, will be able to get their Farmgate stores up and running. They’re something that the government permitted; licenced entities that are able to process cannabis to open a facility on-site to sell their cannabis. Kind of like, a farmer’s market rather.. Farrell giggles Yeah. When those start popping up we’re gonna start seeing a lot more cannabis tourism. Excellent, hopefully I’ll get over there myself eventually. Yeah. 

Do you think the recent level of reform in the U.S is at least partially influenced by the benefits seen across Canada? I think so, maybe. But at the same time, what I mentioned earlier with the States really looking a lot better than Canada right now… I think they’re just looking in the mirror. They’re looking at California, they’re looking at Colorado and they’re seeing the success there. Let’s remember that the population of California is bigger than all of Canada. It’s easy to forget! Exactly! So while I want to believe we’re having an influence… I know that Canada, we’re full of all this expertise that we’re willing to offer and all of that, but we did take a lot of notes from Colorado too when we first created our licensing regime up here.

In Ireland, we’re still in the Stone Age when it comes to legalisation of cannabis, so we’re just looking across the pond in general to you and to America, hoping that any day now our government will make a little bit more effort with that, you know? Farrell giggles Yeah. What do you think the regulated market can do to improve its stakeholding in the industry and to diminish the gains the black market has generated? So, referring to those changes that we recommended on the NORML Canada website and also adding in… maybe loosening up the promotions regulations, bringing them a little bit more in line with the alcohol industry, so that we can stand a chance. Because right now with Covid and everything, it’s really difficult to communicate what makes your business different.

To communicate anything really special about it. It’s all limited to age-gated environments. Any places where legally minors are not permitted. So anywhere like… the back of a bar bathroom. But even then, if the bar is operational and open to families at all, you can’t advertise there. So you could really only advertise on the inside of cannabis stores, once people have passed beyond that age check, the age gate. Whether it’s in-person or online. There are some online environments as well with that age gate that you can advertise on, but that’s usually limited to adults’ sites, whether it’s cannabis sites, porn sites, you can advertise there. But it’s not a great way of capturing everybody. Of course not, you’re limited in what you can achieve there.

Do you think the price or quality of legal weed has influenced some consumers to seek out the black market to make purchases, or are there other external factors at play? Yeah, so that I guess ties into the previous question too. I’ve had people come into my store and say: “I buy my hash from an illegal retailer, an illegal dispensary.” And there’s one in particular in Toronto that’s just notorious. They’ve been busted tonnes of times and they just keep popping up. And I really cannot blame the consumers. I am on the board of NORML, which is a consumer advocacy organisation, and you can’t argue with logic. If people want to save money and they feel like they’re getting better value for a cheaper price at an illegal dispensary, it’s common sense.

They’re going to go there. So unless the government can amend the regulations and allow legal operators like myself to compete a little bit better… For example, I cannot open up a container of hash and show this person what it looks like. But he can go to the café and they have it right on display for him and he can touch it, he can feel it. I mean it’s maybe not Covid friendly, but he likes that experience a lot more. And with the legal space, everything is sealed, shut, contained, locked, child-proofed. So some people just don’t enjoy that experience as much. 

Do you have any interesting stats through NORML Canada perhaps, of the rates of people who buy it illegally versus people who buy it legally at dispensaries? I don’t have any hard statistics off the top of my head, but I will tell you that the number is shrinking. We’re getting closer to being able to win those consumers over and I’ve witnessed it myself. I’ve had a customer come in and say: “My shipment comes in tomorrow, but I’m here to have some tonight.” Farrell laughs And I saw the same guy in my store a second time. So maybe the convenience of being able to come to a store instead of waiting for his package might eventually win him over and I hope it does.

And I guess one observation I made when it comes to sales trends is that the sales at recreational stores like mine are much higher and are doing much better in smaller towns. I’m not sure if it takes longer to get packages there maybe, than it does in cities? Have any noticeable challenges emerged for people in the wake of cannabis legislation? Yeah. A big challenge right now is being able to compete with other retailers that are offering discounts. I’m biased from the retail perspective, because I am a retailer. So something that I’m running into right now is that our regulator on the provincial level has told us that discounts are permitted. However, the federal level has issued a bulletin saying that all discounts count as illegal inducements

So, I’m literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Having a law degree, I don’t know whether I should be permitting this. I see other retailers giving discounts. I want to be competitive, I wanna compete with that, but I would also rather they get their hands caught first before me, so… I guess it’s a kind of an ongoing battle between federal and provincial laws. Yeah, exactly. Farrell giggles So long as common sense wins out, I suppose that’s the main goal at the end of the day. Yeah, 100%. All the best with Erbn Green and with all of your efforts. And thank you so much for devoting a little of your time to this interview. All the best moving forward. Thank you so much, cheers!

References:

1 NORML Canada website: https://www.normlcanada.org/home 

2 Erbn Green website: https://erbngreen.com/ 

3 Wikipedia information on Métis people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Métis 

4 Wikipedia information on the Little Red River Cree:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_River_Cree_Nation