Cutting Through the Haze - A Frank Talk about Cannabis in Canada

04/21/2017 06:57 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2017

It was the kind of conversation that would have been unimaginable only five years ago. On the 16th floor of a gleaming office tower in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in a meeting room at one of Canada’s most respected public affairs firms, a mixture of millennials and grey haired boomers gathered over wine and canapés to listen to a thoughtful discussion about smoking marijuana.

The event, Up in Smoke-Marijuana: The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain, could not have been more topical. It came only days after the federal government unveiled its legislation to legalize cannabis. The changing landscape is sparking the growth of a new industry, one that Deloitte estimates could be worth $22 billion. But it is also raising a multitude of questions about how Canadian society will adapt.

Up in Smoke was part of a series of events sponsored by Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) under our Millennial Minds™ program. The goal is to send a message that brain health is not only something that older people should be thinking about—it is just as important for millennials to consider as well.

The discussion was hosted by public affairs firm Navigator, which has been at the forefront of the debate, offering both counsel and analysis on the marijuana file to a variety of clients. Managing Partner Will Stewart acted as MC, noting that he is getting calls all the time asking whether the folks at Navigator are smoking up in the office. And he is regularly teased.

“Willy’s the weed guy,” he said, to titters from the audience.

But it was a serious and enlightening evening, featuring commentary from experts in medicine, the law and the emerging cannabis industry.

Dr. Mark Ware of McGill University is a renowned researcher in medical marijuana and was the co-chair of the recent task force on cannabis, whose report was influential in the drafting of the new legislation. He told the audience that he believes that legalization will make it easier for researchers to explore new therapeutic uses for cannabinoids—the chemicals that are unique to cannabis.

The best-known use for medical marijuana is pain relief, for which it has been legally prescribed for years, but Dr. Ware said we are only beginning to understand other possible benefits, such as the treatment of some of the most disturbing symptoms of dementia.

“Pain is the way in but there are a huge number of potential therapies,” he said.

He also pointed out that marijuana seems to affect men and women differently—women have been shown to be more susceptible to the effects whereas men are more likely to develop dependencies

Dr. Ware expressed the hope that amid the many millions of dollars currently being invested in the commercial exploitation of cannabis that some money might be set aside to support research.

Although cannabis is an ancient product that has already been studied extensively, there was a consensus on the panel that the Canadian public needs to know much more about it—in effect to become more knowledgeable consumers.

That is the role that a new firm called Lift hopes to play. It describes itself as “the meeting place for cannabis in Canada.”

Lift CEO Matei Olaru was an Up in Smoke panelist, saying: “there’s not a lack of information (about marijuana) but an overabundance of misinformation.”

He said there is a huge need for education for the new, legal “recreation market”.

“Lift hopes to fill the gap…we are all about empowering consumers.”

In fact, as I learned during the discussion, there are dozens of different forms of cannabis, which can have wildly varying effects on the user. Here is where the product differs from beer, wine or spirits.

But Alison Gordon, VP of Marketing and Communications for Delshen Therapeutics (which is in the medical marijuana sphere), said that the government’s proposed restrictions on advertising will make it harder for buyers to educate themselves.

“Marketing and branding is how people can make informed decisions. If we don’t allow licensed producers to create brands and market themselves, it’ll be harder to eliminate the black market because people want to know what they’re buying,” she said.

During the question and answer portion of the event, a mother raised concerns about potential harmful effects, having seen one of her children experience a psychotic episode after using marijuana.

Dr. Ware responded that he has heard many of these kinds of stories and warned that the cannabis industry ignores them at its peril. He believes legalization can help.

“The problem is that you have the black market waiting to prey on 18-25 year olds (the largest group of users). If we make it illegal, they’ll get it anyway. But if we can educate them to use lower THC products, then at least they’ll know what they’re using,” he said.

Up in Smoke covered a vast amount of ground over the evening. Employment lawyer Shelley Brown predicted that employers will need to develop policies to cover cannabis-related issues in the workplace. Aaron Salz, the CEO of the Stoic Advisory, a consultancy that specializes in financial issues for the new industry, observed that where once it was difficult for marijuana startups to raise money, investment is now pouring in.

We heard about the retail experience from Alan Gertner, the CEO of Tokyo Smoke, which already has two outlets in Toronto and plans to open more across the country.

He said customers come from out of town to his store “so they can buy from someone they can trust, in a safe place.”

I must thank both Navigator and Brain Canada for their generous sponsorship of Up in Smoke. A central element of WBHI’s mandate is knowledge dissemination and I believe we all learned a great deal. It was so encouraging to see so many millennials in attendance—clearly this is a subject of great relevance for them, as it is for those of us from an older generation.

The legalization of cannabis is already sparking an important national conversation. I hope WBHI and our partners in staging Up in Smoke played a small role in shedding light on the many and varied implications of this new era.

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