Pot Shots: Legalization stokes a cannabis culture clash

As a visit to a recent cannabis convention shows, what were once vices are now…the seven habits of highly effective people

Credit: Suharu Ogawa

As a visit to a recent cannabis convention shows, what were once vices are now…the seven habits of highly effective people

Walking the floor of the Lift & Co. Cannabis Expo, you can hardly see the reefer for the bongs. The sheer breadth of products and services being hawked is astounding: from production machinery (extractors, CO2 control systems, trimmers) to pest control, software, plant food formulas, THC testing, financial services, government-compliant packaging, recruitment and more. There’s also a wide array of “lifestyle products”—duffle bags, totes, grinders, vaporizers, rolling machines, pipes. It’s all part of a domestic industry that could be worth $7.17 billion in 2019, according to a recent analysis by Deloitte.

January’s Lift expo is the first major post-legalization cannabis convention held in Canada, drawing 268 exhibitors and roughly 18,000 curious consumers to the Vancouver Convention Centre for three days of excitement. Due to smoke-free bylaws, a strict no-toking policy is in effect, so today it’s the smell of money, not kush, that hangs in the air.

But as I drift from booth to booth, eavesdropping on conversations larded with “capital expenditures,” “scaling” and “maximized yields,” a cynical thought occurs: have any of these slick, fast-talking salespeople ever sparked a doobie?

For decades an underground marijuana culture thrived as a byproduct of cannabis’s illegal status. Careers were made on the back of the evil weed, from the 1936 film Reefer Madness, a story of pot addiction, murder and mayhem, to the comedic stylings of Cheech & Chong and underground comic book artists like B.C.’s own Rand Holmes, whose Harold Hedd comics were the Canadian counterpart to the made-in-America Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. (That you needed to be stoned to laugh was not incidental.)

Baked into that zeitgeist was the quest to legalize cannabis, a pipe dream not everyone bought. In his folksy 1974 DIY pot harvesting bible, Grow Yer Own Stone, author Alexander Sumach argued for decriminalization over legalization: somewhat presciently, he felt that commercialization and regulation of marijuana would drain it of its mojo, condemning the noble cannabis plant to being just another consumer product.

Which is where we find ourselves today, witnessing the displacement of an underground industry by its legal equivalent. But is this the whole truth? Starting at the end of last decade, according to reports from the National Post and CBC News, cheaper legally grown medical marijuana was chipping away at the black market, effectively driving prices downward.

Since legalization, though, the price of legal pot has gone up; combined with shortages of legally produced cannabis in some parts of the country, this bodes well for black marketeers, at least for now. Deloitte’s prediction that illicit sales will account for 40 percent of the 2019 trade speaks volumes.

The legal and illegal markets coexist and are still intertwined. Not so for the old marijuana culture and the new. At a booth on the eastern side of the convention floor is exhibitor Verne Andru. He’s a comic book artist whose original superhero character, Captain Cannabis, debuted in 1977, a time when righteous dealers dispensed good vibes along with your dime bag of Acapulco Gold—at least according to those who buy into the Rockwellian potstalgia of a bygone era. Andru is looking to finance a movie based on his updated comic book series. He’s a nice guy. Old skool.

“What do you think of all these players with their elevator pitches and respectable suits?” I ask him.

“Man,” he says, “don’t get me started.”

We shake hands, and I head toward a boisterous group of men and women. They sit at tables in a jam-packed area, the busiest section of the expo, gathered to celebrate the promise of a shiny new industry by using their drug of choice.

It’s a good time, but good times don’t come cheap. At the bar, a bottle of beer will set you back $9.95.