Grow Industry

Marijuana prohibition is destined to end. Who will become the Seagrams of weed?

Photograph by Grant Harder
Photograph by Grant Harder

A few years ago, the man from First Quality Bags noticed something puzzling in his sales figures. His family’s brand of heavy-duty oven bags—perfect for “roasting, steaming, boiling, or freezing meat and vegetables”—seemed to be selling unexpectedly well in one specific market at one specific time of year: northern California in the fall.

The First Quality Bags man isn’t a radical. He is a middle-aged salesman who wears golf shirts neatly tucked into pleated khakis. So when he learned that Californian pot growers were buying his bags by the hundred to store and transport large quantities of marijuana during the fall harvest, it gave him pause. Then he did what any warm-blooded businessman would do in troubled economic times: he embraced the new market with open arms.

When I met him last May, he was hawking his wares at the Treating Yourself Expo, a world-renowned medical marijuana trade show held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The smell of pot was in the air, drifting over from the “world’s largest vapour lounge” in the corner, and wafting out of the Mason jars of high-quality medical marijuana on display at the various booths. “We just make an excellent bag,” he said modestly, while a convention-goer holding a newly purchased vaporizer examined his sales materials.

Along with the dozens of vendors like the man from First Quality Bags—workaday entrepreneurs selling fertilizers, grow lights, industrial trimming machines, and other products on the margins of the booming marijuana industry—the expo had attracted a who’s who of the international cannabis community. There was the Dutch contingent, including the owner of the Green House, a café where celebrities like Bon Jovi and Rihanna reportedly hang out when they’re in Amsterdam. There were the Californians from DNA Genetics, the company that helped bring West Coast marijuana strains to the world. And, of course, there were Canadian notables like Vancouver activist Jodie Emery, whose husband Marc Emery, a.k.a. the Prince of Pot, was famously extradited to the United States for selling cannabis seeds.

The fact that they were all mingling in the same studiedly corporate environment that welcomed G20 delegates a few years earlier reflects the strange juncture the Canadian pot industry is at. Marijuana has been a major component of the economy for years now, creeping into polite society even while the laws have lagged behind. Despite the Conservative government’s new mandatory minimum penalties for possession, the gap between the letter of the law and what enforcement will tolerate has never been wider. Meanwhile, the evolution of the medical marijuana system has brought some small measure of legitimacy to the entire industry. South of the border, where anti-drug rhetoric has traditionally been fiercer, recreational pot use is now legal in two states, and initiatives are under way in many others. With legalization or decriminalization already in the platforms of both the Liberals and the NDP, a simple change of government could abruptly spell the end of Canada’s nine-decade marijuana prohibition.

As was the case when the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s was repealed and rum-runners stepped out of the shadows and into respectable wealth, when this era comes to a close billionaires will be made. The people at the Treating Yourself Expo are all keenly aware of this past. They know they are experiencing the rarest of opportunities: the chance to capitalize on a popular product as it makes its once-in-a-lifetime transition from the back alleys to the marketplace. The question everyone is grappling with is how. How do you turn your grey market operation into a legitimate company? How do you build the strong foundations of a business now, when the rules keep changing? And, no mere afterthought, how do you stay out of jail in the meantime?

Last November, after a trans-Canada flight, a nauseating Greyhound bus ride, and a drive through the orchards and lakes of the Okanagan, I found myself sitting in a Tim Hortons in a town I promised not to identify, waiting for a man who asked me not to use his last name.

I had met Matt at the Treating Yourself Expo, where he was promoting his company, BC Bud Depot, producers of medical marijuana and marijuana seeds. He had entered a few new strains in the cannabis competition: Sweet Island Skunk and Optimus Prime, and Shiatsu Kush, which he had picked up from underground growers in Japan who claimed it “worked all the shiatsu regions of the body.” As with any new product, successfully releasing a new strain of pot requires considerable buzz, and winning a couple of prestigious trophies was a good place to start.

Matt was dressed in a black hoodie with a pattern of gold marijuana leaves. He is thirty-six years old and balding, soft spoken, with just a hint of the stereotypical stoner’s nasal drawl. When I asked if we could chat somewhere quiet, he grabbed a beer from his booth, poured it into a paper coffee cup, and joined me at a table away from the crowds.

BC Bud Depot is one of Canada’s most successful seed companies—perhaps the most successful, though in an industry not known for meticulous bookkeeping it’s difficult to judge. Matt estimates that he sells about 65,000 seeds a year, in a process best described as quasi-legal. BCBD cultivates its seeds in facilities across British Columbia, ships them to the Netherlands, and then sells them through its online catalogue from a houseboat in Amsterdam. For $90, an amateur horticulturalist anywhere in the world can go online and buy a packet of twelve seeds of BC God Bud, the company’s most popular strain.

Matt has more or less conquered the grey market by pushing his company to the edge of what the law will allow. Did he think about what would happen to him when pot became legal? “What happened to Seagrams when Prohibition ended? ” he asked, grinning. “It did pretty well, I think.”

There are certainly parallels. Like the marijuana ban today, the prohibition against alcohol—much stricter in the US than in Canada—did not eliminate the drug. It just created a grey market with shortcuts and loopholes, easily exploited if you were someone like Samuel Bronfman, a canny Canadian businessman who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. The Bronfmans were hustlers, Russian Jewish immigrants who set up a string of “boozariums” along the Saskatchewan–North Dakota border, ferried alcohol across the Detroit River, and shipped it into the US aboard schooners. In 1928, they expanded their empire by purchasing Seagrams, the Montreal-based maker of such popular brands as Seven Crown. When Prohibition ended, they were in the perfect position to solidify their hold on the market, and Seagrams became the largest distilling business in the world.

For today’s pot producers, the Bronfmans’ hustler-to-tycoon story holds obvious appeal. Like so many of the industry people I spoke to, Matt was convinced he could become the Seagrams of weed. He laid it out for me: with less regulation, he would bring his operation home from Amsterdam, open more facilities, and apply his years of experience to a lucrative new market. “BC Bud Depot’s already a household name,” he said, perhaps a touch optimistically. “It’s worldwide. When the government finally decides to legalize it, they’re gonna need the expertise we can provide.”

An event organizer interrupted us with the results of the competition. Sweet Island Skunk had come in a disappointing third in its category, and Shiatsu Kush had not even placed. Matt accepted the news with equanimity. There were other shows, other strains. Business was good. He finished his beer. “You should come down to my place,” he said. “Check out one of the grows.”

Photograph by Grant Harder
Blunt objective Matt sells 65,000 pot seeds a year, quasi-legally. He competes in the Super Bowl of pot.

The day I flew into Vancouver, the local pot community was in a stir. Colorado and Washington State had just voted to legalize marijuana—the biggest breakthrough yet in the anti-prohibition movement. For many Canadian activists, it felt like a landmark victory that would push the cause inexorably forward. Jodie Emery, who had worked hard to get the law passed in Washington, had saved a copy of the Seattle Times announcing the decision. “When I saw the headline ‘Pot’s Legal,’ I cried,” she told me.

For others, though, the news was bittersweet. The same week Coloradans were officially allowed to possess up to six marijuana plants, Stephen Harper’s mandatory minimums came into effect, meaning that a Canadian with the same haul could expect six months of jail time.

It felt like a strange reversal of the natural order. In the ’60s, American draft dodgers settled in the Kootenays, bringing with them a countercultural attitude and a whole bunch of weed. By the early ’90s, guys like Matt, the rebellious son of a Vancouver lawyer, were cultivating plants in ramshackle operations. For small-time growers, ventilation was poor, fertilizing systems were experimental, and electrical set-ups were haphazard. “You could set fire to your house if you weren’t careful,” Matt remembers. But as the market became more sophisticated, so did he and his friends. They developed a loose collective of pot growers, trading clones among themselves, passing along particularly good strains, and working to breed and refine others. “Our network grew, and the next thing you knew we were supplying growers all over BC,” he says.

When American news outlets began warning of a powerful new strain called BC Bud—supposedly more potent than Mexican varieties—Matt took advantage of the branding opportunity. BC Bud Depot launched in 2003 with a splashy ad in High Times, the industry’s flagship magazine, and a website welcoming buyers to purchase seeds. A year later, Matt wrapped his favourite strain, God Bud, in plastic wrap, stashed the bundle in some computer speakers, and hopped on a plane for Amsterdam, where he entered it in the Cannabis Cup, the Super Bowl of pot. His unexpected win there (alongside fellow Canadian unknown “Reeferman” Charles Scott) caused quite a stir. “You had a lot of Dutch seed companies that were long established as the old guard there,” says David Bienenstock, an editor with High Times. “And then some Canadians came in and took top prizes.” BC weed had arrived.

Meanwhile, medical patients had maintained for years that marijuana helped treat sleeplessness, pain, weight loss from illness, and other symptoms, and a Toronto man named Terry Parker finally won his legal battle to use it in his treatment for epilepsy. The ruling forced the government to create a medical marijuana program, which as it stands allows patients with a proper licence to grow pot for themselves, buy it from the government (cultivated in an abandoned mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba, it is notoriously awful), or assign a designated grower. In theory, the designated grower system lets an elderly cancer patient have her nephew help to grow her medicine. In practice, it also opens the door for people like Matt to collect enough licences to legally grow a warehouse full of pot.

Today sanctioned medical growers mix with entrepreneurs like Matt and pure black market drug dealers to create a confusing mishmash of businesses that, legal or not, form a vital part of many local economies. A recent study by the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University estimated that the retail value of marijuana sold solely to British Columbians was between $443 million and $564 million a year. And pot growers don’t sit on their money; they buy houses and cars, play golf, and eat in local restaurants. Four Okanagan mayors have now signed a letter urging the province to legalize the drug, a sign of just how accepted it has become. At the Budget car rental, when I explained that I was in town to research the marijuana industry, the man behind the desk flashed a smile: “It’s booming!”

Matt certainly didn’t seem too concerned about keeping a low profile, pulling up to the Tim Hortons in a bright yellow Hummer before waving for me to follow in my car. When we stopped outside a restaurant in a suburban plaza, he jumped down from the driver’s seat, greeted me with a “Hey, buddy,” then introduced me to his companions: Shane, just back from working at BC Bud Depot’s Amsterdam operation, and Matt’s wife, Soosha, a pale Russian woman with enormous cartoon eyes. She was pregnant and wanted something to eat, but she didn’t look particularly happy to be dragged along to what turned out to be a staff meeting. Inside, a half-dozen of BCBD’s employees, young guys in jeans and hoodies, munched on burgers, while a tall, heavy-set man with a clean-shaven head, named James, held court.

“And your magazine, The Walrus, I understand it’s about overweight girls? ” he said, glancing around the table, clocking the chuckles. “I’m joking, I’m joking,” he said. “I’ve never heard of your magazine.”

James introduced himself as a part owner of BCBD and then leaned in: “You want to know about the future of marijuana? The future is here.” He launched into a confusing monologue about his prognosis for an upcoming election, the likelihood of a change in marijuana policy, and the future of the Liberal Party. He told me the secret of Justin Trudeau’s appeal (“The girls think he’s dreamy, and the dads remember his father”). He claimed responsibility for the sponsorship scandal. It was hard to keep up.

Some skepticism must have registered on my face, because suddenly he wasn’t smiling. “Look, I know what I’m talking about,” he said. “I could get a meeting with Stephen Harper like that.” He snapped his fingers.

Outside, Matt clarified. James was not a part owner, more of a “consultant.” He was the man who understood politics and media and the law—the person who is helping Matt and BC Bud Depot take the final steps in transforming what was once just a collection of pot-growing friends into a major, legitimate business. We left James inside, mid-lecture, and drove off to see one of BCBD’s industrial grow ops.

“The War Room” is an unremarkable grey warehouse across from a tire dealership and a BC Hydro building. Inside, a maze of plywood corridors and catwalks leads to numbered doors; a sign on the wall reads “A Clean Plant Is a Healthy Plant.” Open a door, and you’re overwhelmed by a blast of light, humidity, the skunky aroma of budding marijuana, and the sound of soft jazz or Peruvian pan pipes—the Spa Channel from Shaw on Demand, which Matt and his crew swear helps the plants grow.

Whether it’s the music or the infinitely detailed fertilization, lighting, and watering schedules, they have turned pot production into a science, whittling down the entire process—from tiny clone to a 1.5-metre plant that won’t produce any more bud—to just five months. With some 1,500 plants in the building, the allotment for fifteen licensed patients, they can churn out pound after pound of Purple Kush. Matt supplies his licensed clients, and then sells the overage to dispensaries, or “compassion clubs,” unregulated but accepted retail facilities. And he has seven more warehouses in the Okanagan (a stretch he calls “the Green Mile”) and another two on Vancouver Island, as well as some old-style residential grow ops scattered around the province.

What I saw of the operation was clean, safe, orderly, and incredibly audacious. “The police know how professional we are, just the amount we’re producing, the number of patients we’re helping,” Matt said. “I don’t think there are many people that can compete.” He seemed entirely certain things were only going to get bigger and better, though he admitted to having a $100,000 rainy day legal fund, just in case.

Back in Vancouver, I googled James, curious about the bald man with the conspiracy theories whom Matt seemed to trust so implicitly. The first result that caught my eye was a Maclean’s article, “A Day with a Spy,” about a former US secret agent, James Leigh, allegedly hired by Stockwell Day in 2001 to get the goods on Jean Chrétien. There were other outrageous (sometimes murkily sourced) biographical details: James had been undercover in sixty-five countries; he had deep ties to motorcycle gangs. The last time he popped into public view was in 2006, when he returned to Canada with three bullet wounds he had sustained doing “clandestine security work” on the Pakistan–Afghanistan border. Exactly how this spook and mercenary had found himself deep in the Okanagan working with one of the country’s most prominent marijuana businesses was a mystery to me, but the big talk about political connections suddenly didn’t seem quite so far-fetched.

Medical marijuana has always been problematic for the government. How do you continue to demonize a particular plant when society has begun to acknowledge some of its benefits? How do you use taxpayers’ money to fund a medical program for a drug you officially condemn?

Alan Young is an Osgoode Hall law professor, at York University in Toronto, who has fought prohibition for decades. When he first raised the medical issue with legislators fifteen years ago, they were naturally suspicious. “They accused me of using the thin edge of the wedge, and I said no fucking way,” he told me. “And I was lying. Because the truth is, I had no interest in the medical issue. I actually thought it was a sham, but I could see that I could get a lot more support and sympathy talking about someone who’s medicating himself than someone who’s getting high.”

It was clear to both Young and the government where a medical program could lead. In 1919, when the Americans instituted Prohibition, they left an exemption for medical alcohol, prompting some 15,000 physicians to immediately line up for permits. Doctors freely prescribed “medicinal whisky,” while “drugstores” did a brisk business selling spirits in their old familiar bottles, with labels revised to announce that the booze was now “Unexcelled for Medicinal Purposes.” In Canada, the Bronfmans made a mutually beneficial deal with local physicians: doctors would receive a $2 bonus for every liquor prescription filled at a Bronfman establishment.

Canada’s medical marijuana program has likewise ballooned from just 500 users to 26,000, overwhelming Health Canada. Designated growers are expected to adhere to a four-licence limit, but with just eighty inspectors in charge of overseeing all drugs and pharmaceuticals in Canada the rules are completely unenforceable. A recent investigation by CBC found no record of Health Canada inspectors ever visiting a single medical marijuana grow op.

“By 2010, I was becoming very aware of enormous pressure on the government to get rid of the system, and for good reason,” Young said. “It had become a bit of a joke.” In June of that year, he helped to set up a meeting between Cathy Sabiston, director general of Health Canada’s Controlled Substances and Tobacco Directorate, and members of eastern Canada’s medical marijuana establishment. “It was the usual cast of characters,” Young said: pro-pot doctors, activists such as Montrealer Marc-Boris St-Maurice, and compassion club owners like Toronto’s Dom Cramer and Neev Tapiero. That meeting marked the beginning of consultations that took place quietly across the country.

Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer who represents cannabis activists and entrepreneurs in western Canada, sat in on one of these consultations. It was clear to him that the government wanted to get out of the pot business. There was talk of shutting down the Flin Flon facility, and of suspending the program that lets patients grow their own weed or designate a second-party grower. Instead, the government was considering a system of licensed commercial producers, with strict health and security standards. Patients would order their medicine from whatever company most appealed to them and then receive it by registered mail. In other words, the government was nudging medical marijuana into the free market.

The proposed system would close the loophole that growers like Matt use to produce marijuana, but it would also open up enormous business possibilities for any company that could snag one of those precious licences. “There will be economic opportunities there,” Tousaw said. More than just selling to Canada’s medical users, a licensed medical marijuana business—with advertising, a brand name, a customer base, and a sense of legitimacy—would be in the perfect position to step in once pot becomes legal. “There’s no doubt that many of my clients see the writing on the wall,” he said.

“It’s the same thing Seagrams did,” Young told me. “They were sitting in Prohibition, pushing the envelope, pushing the envelope, and as soon as the US laws changed—boom, they were in.” The question for pot entrepreneurs who had been closely following the consultation process was: Who will get the licences? What is the government looking for? Matt told me he was pushing for one and didn’t see why he wouldn’t be a top contender. After all, he had been supplying clients with an enormous supply of premium marijuana for years. But it was hard to imagine Health Canada publicly shaking hands with someone like him, especially with a new kind of entrepreneur going after the same prize.

Photograph by Grant Harder
Joint venture Penn Batanov, Ivan Miliovski, and Daniel Petrov at MedPotNow, their Vancouver storefront.

When the medical marijuana consultation process reached Vancouver in September 2011, one of the people in the room, carefully taking notes, was thirty-two-year-old serial entrepreneur Daniel Petrov. Since studying at the University of Alberta, he had owned a car shop, an online real estate company, a laser hair removal clinic, and a restaurant lounge. He was making good money buying and selling properties in Edmonton when the real estate market sputtered, and he decided it was time for a change. One of his friends was moving to BC to break in to the medical marijuana business. Petrov was intrigued.

I met him at his Vancouver dispensary, MedPotNow, last fall. The clean-cut businessman has a lantern jaw, dark hair he keeps carefully slicked back in place, and the professional demeanour of a young investment banker. He doesn’t smoke pot—doesn’t like getting high and feeling out of control—but he knows a chance to make money when he sees it. “I’m an entrepreneur, so I don’t really care what industry I’m in,” he said. “The medical marijuana field is one of the greatest opportunities available right now. It’s a huge market.”

He spent several months scouting local dispensaries before he met his future partners, Bulgarian-born master growers Ivan Miliovski and Penn Batanov. The latter, a white-haired forty-four-year-old, jumped ship in Halifax years ago; the baby-faced Miliovski dreamt of playing pro football and got as far as the varsity team at Simon Fraser before a leg injury ended his career in second year. They met while working at Advanced Nutrients, a lucrative marijuana fertilizer business charged in 2001 with conspiracy to export large quantities of pot across the border (the charges were eventually dropped). When Advanced Nutrients ended its growing operations, Batanov and Miliovski struck out on their own, attempting to carve out a corner of the increasingly crowded marketplace.

The day of my interview with the MedPotNow partners, I waited alone in a sparse reception area, its walls decorated with artwork by clients. In an adjoining room, a friendly “budtender” with a handlebar moustache sat in front of a whiteboard that listed the day’s fare: VIP Purple Kush, Cannatonic, Kali Mist, all $10 a gram; Electric Kush Bubble hash for $40; plus various cannabis edibles, such as cookies, chocolate bars, and popcorn.

But the modest storefront was part of a larger business plan. Petrov hoped Health Canada would regulate dispensaries in its new medical marijuana program, and to that end he was trying to make the business as attractive as possible to the government. Whereas his competitors buy marijuana from various producers, MedPotNow controls its business from production (Miliovski and Batanov’s department) right through to distribution. And instead of indiscriminately growing its membership, MedPotNow is careful to only accept legitimate patients. “This dispensary has to be documented down to how many toilet rolls we go through,” said Petrov.

He had been combing government documents and then double-checking with representatives from Health Canada, in an effort to meet whatever the government might expect from potential licensees. He assured me that they were working with scientists from the University of Alberta who could help them analyze the product’s chemical properties. They had also installed the best security systems at each of their grow ops. They are not the biggest company, but they have years of growing experience, plus the business acumen to succeed. “I think we have a great chance of getting a licence,” Petrov said.

He knew they didn’t have much time. Pharmaceutical companies have been tinkering for years with artificial products that mimic the active chemicals in marijuana. Many believe the tobacco industry has considered the feasibility of entering the pot business. One persistent urban myth is that Marlboro has already trademarked the name Marleys. Tobacco companies have the land to grow pot, the infrastructure to process and roll it, and the distribution networks to get it out to the world. Most importantly, they have access to the kind of capital that could drown a business like MedPotNow or BC Bud Depot. The latter’s only advantage is industry-specific expertise and a willingness to build now, while the grey market still exists. “If we’re still a small company when this thing goes legal, we’re just going to get pushed out,” Petrov told me. “My job is to get this company where it needs to be so it can compete when things open up.”

After the interview, Batanov and Miliovski drove me out to one of their grow ops, a large home in Maple Ridge behind a serious-looking automatic gate. The interior was stripped bare, with the walls wrapped in white insulating plastic and all of the electrical work tidily installed. There were bikinied centrefolds from a pot magazine plastered across the door, and jugs of liquid fertilizer stacked on metal shelves. This particular facility has a limit of 450 plants, based on four licences, but Miliovski and Batanov keep ten to fifteen fewer, just to be safe. Soon after they got the operation up and running, there was an attempted robbery at the house, and they had to call the cops. “I was nervous about it,” Miliovski admitted. “I mean, to have the police walking into my grow op? That doesn’t happen every day.” He said the officers scoped the premises and complimented him on its neatness.

Like BC Bud Depot, MedPotNow is going industrial. We stopped next at Batanov and Miliovski’s latest project, a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Delta. It was a cavernous place, empty but for one small room in the corner, its grow lights humming. As we drove back to Vancouver, the partners talked eagerly about the future. Pot, they felt, should be organic. They were definitely working toward making the new facility 100 percent organic. With more resources they could also make their operations completely sterile, to eliminate any risk of mould. They were excited about a new aquaponics system, a sustainable production process in which farmed fish supply the nutrients for hydroponically grown plants. Most of all, they talked about the possibility of getting a government licence.

A licence would mean no more hassles with banks and PayPal and all of the other services required by a normal business. It would mean legitimacy. Miliovski, as physically imposing as he is, was particularly sensitive about how people saw him. He spoke sadly about his ex-wife’s objections to his work, about having to hide his job from his eleven-year-old son. A licence would change all of that.

Without one, though, MedPotNow’s residential grow ops, their huge new warehouse, the storefront, their big dreams—all of it could suddenly come to an end.

Miliovski eyed me in the rear-view mirror. “So, you’ve seen a lot of different grow ops now. How do you think ours compares? ”

I told him it was impressive, but he wasn’t satisfied: “Impressive in what way? ”

I thought for a moment that he was squeezing me for details about his competitors. It was only natural that he wanted a sense of where MedPotNow stood against its rivals. Then I realized he was doing something far simpler, just fishing for a compliment, looking for validation from an outsider.

“It’s a beautiful grow op,” I told him.

Moments later, Miliovski took out a slim joint of Strawberry Cheese, his current strain of choice. Both he and Batanov have medical marijuana licences and treat the drug nonchalantly. They passed the joint back and forth a few times before handing it back to me. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion, but it tasted, against all odds, like both strawberry and cheese. I inhaled deeply and rolled down the window to blow the thick white smoke out into the Vancouver night. We whizzed through the suburbs, the roads black and shimmery in the rain, and I sank back in my seat, feeling that strange mixture of pleasure, self-consciousness, and fuzzy-headed contemplation.

I could see how easy it was to dream out here. Imagine that you are the very best at what you do. You’ve been lauded at international competitions, praised by your peers. Here you are, doing the thing you love, producing the perfect specimen of a plant that brings pleasure to so many people around the world. You are an artist who has been forced underground, but now your work is so close to being truly and fully accepted. Becoming the Seagrams of weed isn’t just about money; it’s about respect. The end of prohibition would turn hustlers into more than tycoons. They could become philanthropists, friends to heads of state, companions of the Order of Canada. It was a beautiful dream…

In mid-December, weeks after I returned to Toronto, Health Canada officially announced the revamped medical marijuana program. As suspected, it would license commercial operations rather than individual patients. Details about the requirements were forthcoming, but it also looked as though the government had abandoned the idea of regulating dispensaries. Whether they would be allowed to operate as they do now, unregulated but out in the open, remained to be seen. Either way, it was a hitch in MedPotNow’s business plan. Early in the new year, Petrov was keeping his chin up. “With changes come opportunity,” he said. He continued to pursue a commercial licence, while reading the fine print of the proposed regulations. They suggest that pharmacies will be permitted to dispense marijuana to patients: “So, I mean, what is a pharmacy exactly? ” He sounded like someone searching for a new loophole.

Matt, too, was still after a licence, but he wasn’t worried about being denied. “I don’t think it’s going to fly,” he told me. “People have way too much invested. People have mortgaged their houses to grow their own medicine.” There have been calls for nationwide protests against the new regulations, and rumblings of litigation. “To us, it’s business as usual,” he said.

For Matt and Petrov, Miliovski and Batanov, there is a simple belief that reforms to the pot laws are inevitable. Like the booze sellers before them, they will adapt to new policies, profit from the grey market, and wait out the dying years of this prohibition. I admired their confidence. I was also bothered by a nagging thought: even if the government can’t stop the march of progress, it can certainly stop individual marijuana producers. When people talk about becoming the Seagrams of weed, they are imagining themselves as the heroes of one of the most dramatic transformation stories in Canadian history. What they don’t think about are the dozens of once-mighty bootleggers who got overrun by regulations or the police, or were simply shunted aside by the Darwinian forces of capitalism. They don’t think of Emilio Picariello, the powerful Canadian bootlegger once known as the Bottle King, who shot a police officer after a liquor run went bad and was hanged in 1923. They don’t like to think about all of the ambitious businessmen, staking out claims and building world-beating empires, who one day overreached a little or just got unlucky, and then—poof!—watched it all go up in smoke.

This appeared in the April 2013 issue.

Nicholas Hune-Brown
Nicholas Hune-Brown (@nickhunebrown) has written for Toronto Life, Hazlitt, and The Believer.