By William Knight
It is a bright Friday afternoon in a Vancouver cannabis lounge. It is busy after lunch and all the coffee tables are occupied by people vaporizing or otherwise imbibing various strains of cannabis. Pink Kush. Sour Diesel. Lemon Haze. The lounge replicates, my guide explains, the Amsterdam model for recreational use: you come to a café, order cannabis off a menu, and consume it on the premises. In this lounge, no one needs a medical authorization, a requirement for legal marijuana purchase. This puts the lounge (and similar ones opening in other Canadian cities) on the frontier, if not beyond it, of the rapidly changing terrain of cannabis in Canada.
I recently visited British Columbia on a multi-purpose curatorial trip: as curator of agriculture and fisheries with the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp., I was on the west coast to study closed-containment aquaculture. But an opportunity to visit a licensed medical-marijuana grower snowballed into a tour of Vancouver’s cannabis scene. This was a quick orientation to an old yet new agricultural industry, and a chance to collect some of its material culture.
Vancouver is a nexus for cannabis advocacy, production, and consumption in Canada. It is a zone of détente: police do not prioritize the enforcement of federal criminal laws (growing, possessing and selling are still crimes), while city officials regulate cannabis dispensaries—which are technically illegal—through municipal zoning by-laws. The cannabis supply chain is also complicated. Licensed producers may only sell cannabis to registered users with prescriptions via mail-order. Dispensaries, in contrast, obtain cannabis from unlicensed growers and sell to walk-in customers who obtain a “prescription” from the dispensary itself.
Cannabis production and consumption thus occurs in a grey zone where legal and extra-legal markets intersect and overlap. With an established and legal medical-marijuana system, and the federal government promising legalization, the Canadian cannabis industry is now preparing for the opening of a recreational market. But large questions remain: who will be allowed to grow and sell marijuana for this sector?
That the industry and community are preparing for legalization is evident on the streets of Vancouver, where the material culture of cannabis is highly visible and variable. The lounge, noted above, is way out in front, waiting for the law to catch up. The dispensaries take different approaches that blur the lines between medical and recreational use. One dispensary I visited on east Broadway resembled a chic bakery or health-food store. Kitted out with white bead-board panelling and the day’s bud menu chalked up on old-school slates, the dispensary has already staked out its retail identity.
Other dispensaries are less focused on marketing. One dispensary looks like a sterilized head-shop: a wild variety of pipes, vaporizers, and cannabis consumables are available, but awkwardly displayed in glass cases. And a third is consciously positioned against the “retailization” of pot: it prides itself on its compassion-club origins and history of cannabis activism. It offers a range of books and publications for customers to browse, and documents the history of cannabis with posters, art, and artifacts, including old tincture bottles.
This dispensary poses a philosophical and material contrast to the licensed cannabis producer I visited the day before. The facility, situated in a business park, is a professionally run horticultural operation. Security is high, in accordance with federal regulations, and the site has the look and feel of a scientific lab. And the crop is impressive: the cannabis plants are lush and well-fed, heavy and aromatic with flower buds.
Producers like this one are expecting a retail market, indeed seem predicated on that future, especially given the capital required to launch a legal growing operation. Their cannabis is branded with images and descriptive prose about flavour profiles and effects. One can imagine such products on drugstore shelves, or at least behind the pharmacist’s counter.
Retail imperatives are also driving producers to establish consumer branding through endorsements and by drawing on cannabis’s rich cultural history. An American company has licensed Bob Marley’s name as a marque for its cannabis lines, while a Canadian producer, Tweed in Smith Fall’s, Ontario, has secured Snoop Dogg to publicize its products.
New developments in Canada’s regulatory environment seem to occur weekly: since my visit in early February, the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of personal cultivation of medical marijuana. And Vancouver instituted new licensing requirements for cannabis dispensaries, an attempt to stem their proliferation. At least one of the dispensaries I visited failed to renew its business license and must close.
A friend, and observer of the cannabis scene, summed up the sense of excitement about a fully legalized cannabis market, medical and recreational. “We’re in the phase now,” he said, “where the advocates are talking it up like it’s a religious elixir and venture capitalists are drooling over future profits.” Who will share in those profits and benefits remains to be seen as we approach the end of cannabis prohibition.
William Knight is a curator of food, agriculture and fisheries at the Canada Science & Technology Museum in Ottawa.
 As Mark Kelly showed in a 2015 episode of CBC’s The Fifth Estate, a dispensary “prescription” can be easy to get: http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2014-2015/marijuana-in-canada-pot-fiction
 The states of Colorado and Washington legalized personal cannabis use in 2012. Retail and wholesale businesses have now become established in both states.