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Canada’s “Prince of Pot” Plans to Open Illegal Cannabis Shops in Montreal

Cannabis Culture’s newest locations will open for business this week, but for how long?

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While the Canadian government appears on track to keep its promise of introducing federal legislation to legalize recreational cannabis next spring, for some activists that’s not soon enough. Last week Cannabis Culture, a gray market-chain of marijuana dispensaries and accessory shops operated by Canadian ganja-preneurs/activists Marc and Jodie Emery, made a cryptic announcement informing its customers there were only nine days left until they would “See you in Montreal!” The company has since confirmed to national broadcaster CBC that it will open at least three outlets in Montreal on Thursday with possibly more to follow; all fully prohibited under current Canadian law. A politically appointed task force released its own recommendations Tuesday for how Canada should go about regulating recreational cannabis in 2017, but the rules at Cannabis Culture are much simpler: they’ll vend kush to anyone over the age of 19, as long as they present a photo ID. "If you're 19 and older, we don't need your sign-up information, you don't need to be sick, you don't need to lie. You can have access to cannabis just like a coffee shop," Emery told a CBC Radio program Tuesday, where she revealed that two of the shops will be located in Montreal’s Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, with a third situated in the neighboring Ville-Marie district.

Mrs. Emery told CBC earlier that "all adults should have access to cannabis in an open manner," adding that their dispensaries “will serve as an example of what Canada's legalization model should look like.” While cannabis activists elsewhere have focused on lobbying legislators or corralling voters to build momentum for marijuana reform, the Emerys have a long tradition of embracing direct action to advocate for full cannabis legalization; "We've always pushed the boundaries, we use civil disobedience,” said Mrs. Emery.  Her husband Marc, widely reputed as the “Prince of Pot,” has been arrested 28 times for marijuana-related charges, and was most recently released from U.S. prison in 2014 after serving five years for supplying cannabis seeds online. The Emerys and their franchisees have aggressively expanded Cannabis Culture from its hometown of Vancouver to twelve locations across British Columbia and Ontario, with most branches having endured raids by police. While medical marijuana dispensaries have recently proliferated in Canada, they too are illegal; as the country’s qualified medical patients are currently mandated to purchase their medicine by mail from a licensed cultivator. Some of the medical clubs have attempted to defend their legitimacy by requiring regular membership or a doctor’s prescription, but Cannabis Culture’s owners appear unafraid of the prospect of law enforcement—it’s company policy to provide a lawyer for any employee charged with drug crimes, as well as to reopen “the next day” after a raid. In September, after police came to the door of one of Cannabis Culture’s newly launched franchises in Toronto, Marc Emery live-streamed the encounter on Facebook, turning a bad day into major publicity. Mrs. Emery wants a “face-to-face meeting” with Montreal’s police before a potential conflict can unfold; “Hopefully we can engage with the local community and authorities to explain why these peaceful businesses should be allowed to operate," citing their benefit to local economies.

However others in Montreal aren’t so optimistic about the effect of the Emerys’ unregulated shops, especially now that the Trudeau administration has publicly committed itself to legalizing marijuana. Andrew Greenblatt, spokesperson for Tweed, a medicinal cannabis manufacturer, worries that the new stores in Montreal could incite a new “political backlash” against cannabis, adding, “There is indeed a real need, in terms of both public health and consumer demand, for retail cannabis distribution, but the proliferation of dispensaries in the absence of regulation is problematic. There is no transparency in the dispensary supply chain; nothing is properly tested or handled.” The editorial board of the Montreal Gazette agrees, writing Tuesday that “Emery is not doing himself, pot users or advocates for legalization any favors by jumping the gun. The federal task force has just laid out a careful framework for how to move forward, taking into account public health and safety concerns. By circumventing this process, Emery is showing disrespect for these very serious issues.”

Yet a counter-argument can be made that without the persistent and stubborn activism of those like the Emerys, after decades of equally obstinate governmental inaction worldwide on marijuana reform, cannabis users and cultivators wouldn’t be so close to achieving full legal protection and regulation for their plant of choice. As Marc Emery has reportedly grown more critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s strides towards legalizing cannabis since Trudeau promised to pursue it during his election campaign, perhaps the timing (and short notice) of these new stores’ debut with the release of the task force’s report isn’t coincidental. Marc-Boris St-Maurice, a long-time operator of a more conservative medical marijuana dispensary, said, “I’ve known [Emery] for some time, and when he says something, he means business.”