British Columbia's cannabis industry is booming, but its future is uncertain
Sitting at a table in Commercial’s Bump and Grind Café, Mary Jean Dunsdon, a CapU alumni better known as Watermelon, used her hands to lay out Wreck Beach’s topography upon the tabletop. “So the cop arrests me here,” she said signalling to one end of the table, “and he’s got to walk me here,” she continued, moving her hand to the other end of the table, signalling the full length of the beach.
While this story may seem bleak, it’s actually Dunsdon’s fondest memory from the 20 plus years she spent selling THC infused cookies, better known as edibles, on Vancouver’s Wreck Beach.
Vancouver has long been known as the Cannabis capital of North America, if not the world. Due to the prevalence of the plant throughout the city and its culture, Vancouver has cultivated a strong industry based around cannabis and it’s products. While many prefer the classic method of combustion when it comes to ingesting their THC, edibles are another popular method of getting high.
Edibles are made when THC, which has been removed from the cannabis plant through a process called decarboxylation, is mixed into a recipe for any kind of food or beverage. Raw cannabis doesn’t naturally contain THC, but rather THCA, which is the THC chemical with an extra carbon component. Decarboxylation occurs when cannabis is heated up, which is why smoking and vaporizing releases the THC chemical as well. However, while smoking and vaporizing cannabis releases its THC, they don’t allow you to separate the THC from the plant to be used at a later time, which would be needed for baking edibles.
The simplest way of achieving this is by heating cannabis mixed with butter or oil in an oven. This process separates the THC and allows it to find a new home in the butter or oil, which can than be mixed into a recipe. Essentially, “the cannabis molecule has a carbon molecule on it and the heat knocks the carbon molecule off,” said Dunsdon, which allows it to be received by our cannabinoid receptor.
In terms of the differing effects derived from eating a THC edible compared to inhaling combusted or vaporized THC, Robyn Holliday, who works at the Lotusland Cannabis Club Dispensary in North Vancouver, tells customers it varies from person to person. In general, however, she said “the biggest difference between smoking and edibles is that the edibles are very much not in your head. When you smoke a joint your eyes are all red, you feel really high. With edibles it’s like that full body, you kind of feel sleepy and groggy but you’re not as much cerebrally high”
While dispensaries are a fairly new phenomenon, Dunsdon started selling edibles on Wreck beach in 1993, and has been selling the tantalizing treats ever since.
“In the past, edibles were not easy to come by; there wasn’t a lot,” she said. “There was another girl on the beach selling edibles, she called them happy cookies, I think, I called mine crazy cookies.”
Since then, Dunsdon, as her alter ego Watermelon, has built an edible empire. While she no longer bakes her edibles herself, she has her own Watermelon Bakery that produces around 4,000 units a month.
“We call them units,” she said. “So ginger snaps, that’s what I’m famous for, we make and bake 3,000 ginger snaps a month. But I would say units, units would be like – because we do rum balls, butter tarts, quinoa cupcakes, toffee, so we would call them units – we bake and sell around 4,000 units a month.”
These units go to a number of places. Although Dunsdon retired from her iconic role as a vendor on Wreck Beach last year, she still serves around 350 private clients, as well as supplying a number of Vancouver’s dispensaries and shipping units to customers via the mail.
“Every time I go I’m dropping 400, 500 cookies at a time for a dispensary,” she said.
Dunsdon believes her ginger snaps and rum balls are her premier items not just because they taste great, but also because they last.
“My ginger snaps and my rum balls are my best product because they’re long term products. They are products that were made when Canada Post was pulled by horse and carriage. So, if you think about Christmas recipes, they’re recipes that are designed to get better with age.”
However, Holliday believes that the best and most popular edibles available at Lotusland are their gummy bears.
“Gummies are probably our most popular because a lot of people, they don’t like the chocolate because there’s too much sugar in it, so they prefer the gummies,” she said. “Because you have to chew them more and they’re in your mouth a little bit more, I feel like they absorb into your bloodstream a little bit better.”
While there are no official figures on how many dispensaries are located in Vancouver, due to their quasi-legal status and the constant opening and closing of individual stores and locations, a quick Google search finds more than 50 pot shops within the Greater Vancouver Regional District alone – there are literally more dispensaries in downtown Vancouver than there are Tim Horton’s.
Although the cannabis industry is clearly booming in Vancouver, these are still uncertain times for those involved in the industry. Many fear that once legalized, large corporations will monopolize the marijuana market, with help from the government and its regulations.
While it is impossible to tell how much the cannabis industry is currently worth in British Columbia, estimates have it at around $400 million a year in cash flow. However, a 2015 <i>Financial Post<i> article hypothesized that legalization could turn it into a $5 billion a year industry, with other estimates reaching the $20 billion mark and above.
“If they choose to regulate the little person out, the mom and pop person out, then we all get to live the rest of our lives with corporate crap,” said Dunsdon. “We’ll be eating at McDonalds and shopping at London Drugs and they’re going to force that on you. But you know what, we have a long history of civil disobedience and I think the government can say whatever they want, but until we get what the people want, we’re going to keep rebelling and we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”
For now, however, the industry is still expanding. The location of Watermelon’s Bakery is secret, but Holliday said that all the edibles Lotusland sells are made on Vancouver Island.
Another issue facing the cannabis industry is the relative lack of research on the long-term effects of THC consumption. While there have been reports that link THC consumption during one’s youth to mental illness later in life, and the obvious effect of inhaling smoke into one’s lungs, there is still a relatively low amount of research done on the topic.
Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) Medical Health Officer for the North Shore, Dr. Mark Lysyshyn said that VCH has “two main concerns with edible cannabis.”
“First,” he said, “It’s difficult to tell how much is in a certain edible, or how long it will last for certain individuals. Our other main concern is unintentional poisoning.”
Lysyshyn explained that due to the fact that edibles often look like their THC-free inspirations, children or animals occasionally ingest them accidentally. He believes that making edibles that look like candy, cookies, or other treats, alongside the discreet packaging they often come in is the real danger.
“It’s not like we think it’s bad, obviously people like eating edibles,” he said. “We’re hoping that legalization will help many of the problems associated with cannabis.”
However, while Lysyshyn and VCH are supportive of legalization, they do still caution against the abuse of cannabis. While there is “no difference between smoking and an edible,” Lysyshyn mentioned that studies have shown use of cannabis by those under the age of 24 leads to a lower quality of life.
“What we see is that those who used a lot of cannabis when they were younger, tend to be less satisfied with their lives when they’re older,” he said.
Alternatively, Dunsdon sees the possible medicinal purposes of cannabis.
“If you’re isolated because you’re on opioids, and you’re at your home and you can’t get out because you’re constipated, they’re just treating the symptoms, they’re not helping you in your life. Cannabis can help you. Cannabis can help you get off bad drugs; it can help you find happiness.”
With the future of the marijuana industry in British Columbia being somewhat unclear, Dunsdon has begun to diversify her business. In addition to the edibles, she owns and runs a imported licorice store on Commercial Drive called the Commercial Drive Licorice Parlour and is about to release a new cannabis cooking show, after seeing success with precious productions. “I’m about to produce a new cooking show, we’re coming out with a really new and exciting cooking show in March,” she said.
While her future remains bright, Dunsdon will never forget her first arrest on Wreck Beach.
“The very first day I ever got arrested – I was on the beach, it was a busy Saturday, it was September 8, 2001,” she said.
“My boyfriend at the time was an American, it was actually Zach Galifianakis. Do you know Zach? He’s pretty famous. We dated for years; he loves pot food. I still send him pot food all the time.
“[I had] been on Wreck Beach eight years, giving everybody’s kids free watermelon, I’m about as sweet as they come. Your first arrest is terrifying; your whole body has adrenaline… it just doesn’t know what’s happening,” she recalled. “Once I sort of calm down I realize we’ve really got a long way to go. So maybe I’ll start telling people as we go. ‘This guy would like me to quietly come, well fuck you buddy.’ So I start telling people [I’m being arrested] and a crowd starts gathering.”
“There’s a lot of photos of this, about 300 people eventually stand up and surround this police officer. So now 300 people are screaming; in the photos you can even see the preverbal angry fist,” she said, raising her hand in the same manner.
“Then, 50 nudists followed me all the way up the steps and stood on the road and started screaming ‘We’re all naked on the road, arrest us and let her go.’
“So the reason I say that was one of the best days of my whole life is because as much as it was terrifying, my community loved me, they really really love me, and they stood up for me,” she said.
While her first arrest is her most memorable, Dunsdon has been cuffed two more times since her original run in with the law, being fully acquitted all three times. “You’ll notice that they don’t like to come for people like myself, Dana Larsen, all those weed activists [anymore],” she said, signifying a greater movement in BC’s cannabis industry. With legalization seeming imminent, the persecution of those involved in the industry has diminished, and the focus of all involved now seems to be on the transition to a legal business model.
In terms of her legacy, Dunsdon said, “I’ll just be the Betty Page of weed cooking; she was the first but not the best, and she lingers in everybody’s mind.” Adding, “I’ve been doing this for 20 [years], and I’m a tortoise, so I plan on being here for another 20.”
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