Quebec's underground cannabis market isn't all 'bikers and Mafia,' grower says

Observers are watching closely to see how legalization affects the province’s well-established black market, from street dealers peddling dime bags outside Metro stations to the high-end growers who deliver a range of strains directly to your door.

'Luke,' who maintains a grow-op in Montreal, says there's a 'mom and pop' element to the scene

There are scores of small-time cannabis grow-ops like this one in Montreal whose products will remain illegal after marijuana becomes legal on Oct. 17. (Submitted )

Inside a loft not far from downtown Montreal, silver ventilation tubes snake across the ceiling of a long, narrow room where blooming cannabis plants reach for powerful lights.

"Luke," an experienced grower, has a valid medical licence to treat an existing condition. But he also sells illegally to a half-dozen clients, many of whom he says rely on the drug to treat conditions of their own.

He estimates there are more than 100 small operations like his own, hidden in plain sight in businesses and homes around the city.

"There's a big conception that it's all bikers and Mafia," Luke said of the city's illegal cannabis market.

"There's a 'mom and pop' element to it, as well."

CBC News has agreed not to identify Luke by his real name because he fears legal repercussions.

Although cannabis will be legal and available for purchase across Canada as of Wednesday, Luke — like many who grow and sell cannabis outside the legal framework — has no plans to stop growing and selling his own product.

Luke is passionate about the plant's medicinal applications and believes the quality of his own offerings far exceeds that of what will be sold through the province's government-run Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC).

He wants to expand his reach and hopes, ultimately, to be able to do that legally.

"We're not trying to get rich," he says.

"I think a lot of people think they have been let down by the established medical system."

As it stands now, however, Luke will remain a black-market supplier. The federal legislation, he says, is "heavy handed and dismissive of the community that brought cannabis to the place it is today."

Will legalization stamp out black market?

Observers are watching closely to see how legalization affects the province's well-established black market, from street dealers peddling dime bags outside Metro stations to the high-end growers who deliver a range of strains directly to their customers' door.

Under legalization, some activities that fall outside the legal framework will remain subject to criminal or penal offences, such as production, possession for the purpose of trafficking, selling on the black market, as well as importing and exporting cannabis.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has argued against the incoming Quebec government's plan to raise the legal age for smoking cannabis from 18 to 21, suggesting organized crime will step in to fill a void.

It's difficult to say, however, to what extent organized crime is behind the production and sale of illegal marijuana.

As recently as last year, Quebec was the second-largest producer of cannabis in the country, after British Columbia.

Just how big is that? Statistics Canada estimated that, in 2014, Quebec's cannabis industry was slightly larger than Quebec's forestry and logging industry.

The Hells Angels, however, has moved on to harder drugs, such as cocaine and opiates, ceding the production and export of cannabis to Asian street gangs, police sources told Radio-Canada.

At the same time, the emergence of hydroponics and other technologies has made it easier for regular folks to grow cannabis indoors on a smaller scale.

Philippe Paul, a retired Montreal police officer, is skeptical that legalization and what advocates call the "democratization" of cannabis production will stamp out the presence of organized crime altogether.

"Organized crime will always find a way to make money with it," he said.

"It's very simple: they can play with prices. They can play with quality. They can play with ease of distribution."

(Roberto Rocha/CBC)

Opportunity for 'micro growers'

Lawyer Alan Young, a veteran marijuana legalization proponent and professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School, believes that the legal framework is "overly restrictive" but will likely "evolve and change."

"It will be an up-and-down battle for years between what the government calls the black market and the regulated market," said Young, who has represented a number of cannabis growers.

Alan Young, a professor emeritus at Osgoode Hall Law School and longtime proponent of legalized marijuana, says the legal framework is 'overly restrictive' but will likely evolve over time. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Young said he's encouraged that Ottawa recently announced a plan to open up production to "micro growers."

In the meantime, the people who have been using cannabis for a decade or more are unlikely to end their relationship with their dealer any time soon.

He said the price and quality of the government's products will need to improve substantially for the government-run suppliers to compete with the black market.

However, the Quebec provincial police is not throwing in the towel and accepting a continued role for black market pot.  In a recent news release, the Sûreté du Québec said it would continue "its fight against the illegal production and sale of cannabis."

Last month, it announced the formation of a new unit to fight illegal cannabis, modelled on programs that already exist to combat alcohol smuggling and illegal tobacco products.

The unit will include 54 new members from provincial and municipal forces across the province who will combat illegal production of cannabis — including online smuggling.

The SQ offered a glimpse of its new approach last week, when it raided eight unauthorized cannabis dispensaries around the province.

Do you have questions about how cannabis legislation is going to work in Quebec? The CBC's Benjamin Shingler has the answers. Join us live on Wednesday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m. on the CBC Montreal Facebook page for our Q&A on cannabis.


Benjamin Shingler is a senior writer based in Montreal, covering climate policy, health and social issues. He previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal.