Toronto

On the eve of legalization, here's what smokers are celebrating this 420

Today is 420 — a day that cannabis activists associate with the aroma of protest and lighting up in defiance of the law. But on this last April 20 before prohibition is lifted in Canada, many say it's a day to celebrate.

A day that's come to symbolize protesting prohibition has taken a joyful turn this year

Alan Gertner, CEO of Hiku Brands, which owns the Tokyo Smoke chain of coffee shops and pot paraphernalia stores. His dad Lorne Gertner is co-founder and a longtime pot pioneer. He was involved with the company that acquired the first Health Canada contract to supply legal medical cannabis grown in a former mine in Flin Flon, Manitoba. (Daniel Kim)

Today is 420 — a day that cannabis activists associate with the aroma of protest and lighting up in defiance of the law, but on this last April 20 before prohibition is lifted in Canada, many say it's a day to celebrate.

"We're the first G20 country to have a legal recreational cannabis market. It's a moment for Canada to be proud of what's to come," says Josh Lyon, vice-president of marketing at Hiku Brands, which not only owns licensed cannabis producers, but the Tokyo Smoke chain of cannabis lifestyle stores.

"It's been very tough for people who've been trying to access their medicine for years and years and haven't been able to or people who've consumed in the shadows and not been able to have these conversations," says Lyon from the company's store on Queen Street West.

"Now people are feeling more comfortable, coming in and learning and talking,"

Hiku is Canada's first cannabis brand that's involved in both production and retail. In advance of legalization, which is expected some time this summer, it is holding information sessions at its Tokyo Smoke stores in Calgary and Toronto.

Josh Lyon, vice president of marketing at Hiku Brands. Locations in Toronto and Calgary are holding information sessions for the public in advance of legalization this summer. (Kayla Rocca)

"We're trying to establish that baseline where we can explain the terminology and explain how to safely experiment with cannabis to get the effects desired," said Lyon. "We wanted to create a safe place for people to ask questions."

Ljubica Kostovic, a cannabis educator hired by Tokyo Smoke to run the "Higher Learning" classes in Toronto, is hoping to demystify a lot of the language in the pot community that confuses many people.

With fanciful strain names, such as Sour Diesel, OG Kush and Girl Scout Cookie, Kostovic advises a go-slow approach.

"The licensed producers today have added their own nomenclature as well, so that's why you see a lot of new names popping up along with the strange names that have been around under prohibition," she said. 

Kostovic says the first thing people need to know is that the effects of cannabis vary from person to person.

"Two people could respond differently to a single strain. There's no one-to-one mapping exactly between this strain and the effects you are going to get," she said.

"It is an art. It's the art of healing, I would say."

Ljubica Kostovic, a cannabis educator, is hoping to demystify the fanciful strain names, such as Sour Diesel, OG Kush and Girl Scout Cookie. Kostovic advises a go-slow approach for those new to cannabis. (Kayla Rocca)

She advises that people keep a journal to track the different effects of different strains to fine-tune what they are looking for, which also depends on how whether you smoke, vaporize or eat it.
 
Kostovic says the reason for so much guesswork is a lack of clinical research on cannabis due to prohibition.

"There was no funding going into research and the majority or research that happened under prohibition was with the intent to prove that cannabis was in some way harmful," she said.

Isabelle Boileau, a clinical research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says as the end of prohibition looms there has been more money available for cannabis research.

"There is an increasing need with the changes coming. The state of funding is getting better, but always the same complaint. It's just not enough," she said.

Boileau's research involves brain imaging to study what happens when it is under the influence of cannabis.  

Isabelle Boileau, a clinical research scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, says the end of prohibition should mean more money available for cannabis research. (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health )

"Oddly enough, this is a real basic science question, but there's really no answer how cannabis really affects the living human brain," Boileau said.

CAMH is using a radioactive probe that can measure enzymes and fatty acids in the brain that metabolize cannabis.

Boileau says variability from person to person of this enzyme could explain why different people react differently to the same strain of cannabis.

"There is of course anecdotal evidence that different strains of cannabis have different effects — a head buzz versus a body buzz," Boileau noted.

She says research into cannabis is in its early days and more coordinated research will be needed into the health benefits as well as the potential risks to more accurately determine who can benefit, and who may have adverse reactions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

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