Canada set to become largest country with legal pot sales

DELTA, British Columbia (AP) — Mat Beren and his friends used to drive by the vast greenhouses of southern British Columbia and joke about how much weed they could grow there.

Years later, it's no joke. The tomato and pepper plants that once filled some of those greenhouses have been replaced with a new cash crop: marijuana. Beren and other formerly illicit growers are helping cultivate it. The buyers no longer are unlawful dealers or dubious medical dispensaries; it's the Canadian government.

On Oct. 17, Canada becomes the second and largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace. Uruguay launched legal sales last year, after several years of planning.

It's a profound social shift promised by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and fueled by a desire to bring the black market into a regulated, taxed system after nearly a century of prohibition.

It also stands in contrast to the United States, where the federal government outlaws marijuana while most states allow medical or recreational use for people 21 and older. Canada's national approach has allowed for unfettered industry banking, inter-province shipments of cannabis, online ordering, postal delivery and billions of dollars in investment; national prohibition in the U.S. has stifled greater industry expansion there.

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Legal recreational marijuana sold in California
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Legal recreational marijuana sold in California
Customers buy recreational marijuana at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Marijuana is displayed for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A customer browses marijuana products for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Customers queue for recreational marijuana outside the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A customer browses screens displaying recreational marijuana products for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
A woman holds marijuana for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Marijuana edibles are displayed for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Eron Silverstein, 51, (R) shops for marijuana at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Marijuana products are displayed for sale at the MedMen store in West Hollywood, California U.S. January 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Customers purchase marijuana at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensary dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
People wait in line at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
A customer waits at the counter to purchase marijuana as others wait in line at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Andrew DeAngelo (L) and his brother Steve DeAngelo (R), co-founders of Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, celebrate after a ceremonial ribbon cutting on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
An employee hugs a customer as others wait in line at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
An employee finds marijuana for a customer at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Employees wait behind the counter at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, as a large clock counts down to the store's official opening at 6am on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S. January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Different strains of marijuana are seen for sale at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
A couple poses behind a cardboard Instagram frame while waiting in line at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Employees prepare to open at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Steve DeAngelo (C) makes the first legal recreational marijuana sale to Henry Wykowski at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S. January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Michael Sherman purchases marijuana at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
A customer peers at different marijuana strains in a glass case at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Marijuana is seen for sale at Harborside, one of California's largest and oldest dispensaries of medical marijuana, on the first day of legalized recreational marijuana sales in Oakland, California, U.S., January 1, 2018. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
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Hannah Hetzer, who tracks international marijuana policy for the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, called Canada's move "extremely significant," given that about 25 countries have already legalized the medical use of marijuana or decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug. A few, including Mexico, have expressed an interest in regulating recreational use.

"It's going to change the global debate on drug policy," she said. "There's no other country immediately considering legalizing the nonmedical use of cannabis, but I think Canada will provide almost the permission for other countries to move forward."

At least 109 legal pot shops are expected to open across the nation of 37 million people next Wednesday, with many more to come, according to an Associated Press survey of the provinces. For now, they'll offer dried flower, capsules, tinctures and seeds, with sales of marijuana-infused foods and concentrates expected to begin next year.

The provinces are tasked with overseeing marijuana distribution. For some, including British Columbia and Alberta, that means buying cannabis from licensed producers, storing it in warehouses and then shipping it to retail shops and online customers. Others, like Newfoundland, are having growers ship directly to stores or through the mail.

Federal taxes will total $1 per gram or 10 percent, whichever is more. The feds will keep one-fourth of that and return the rest to the provinces, which can add their own markups. Consumers also will pay local sales taxes.

Some provinces have chosen to operate their own stores, like state-run liquor stores in the U.S., while others have OK'd private outlets. Most are letting residents grow up to four plants at home.

Canada's most populous province, Ontario, won't have any stores open until next April, after the new conservative government scrapped a plan for state-owned stores in favor of privately run shops. Until then, the only legal option for Ontario residents will be mail delivery — a prospect that didn't sit well with longtime pot fan Ryan Bose, 48, a Lyft driver.

"Potheads are notoriously very impatient. When they want their weed, they want their weed," he said after buying a half-ounce at an illicit medical marijuana dispensary in Toronto. "Waiting one or two three days for it by mail, I'm not sure how many will want to do that."

British Columbia, home of the "B.C. Bud" long cherished by American pot connoisseurs, has had a prevalent marijuana culture since the 1970s, after U.S. draft-dodgers from the Vietnam War settled on Vancouver Island and in the province's southeastern mountains. But a change in government last year slowed cannabis distribution plans there, too, and it will have just one store ready next Wednesday: a state-run shop in Kamloops, a few hours' drive northeast of Vancouver. By contrast, Alberta expects to open 17 next week and 250 within a year.

There is no immediate crackdown expected for the dozens of illicit-but-tolerated medical marijuana dispensaries operating in British Columbia, though officials eventually plan to close any without a license. Many are expected to apply for private retail licenses, and some have sued, saying they have a right to remain open.

British Columbia's ministry of public safety is forming a team of 44 inspectors to root out unlawful operations, seize product and issue fines. They'll have responsibility for a province of 4.7 million people and an area twice as large as California, where the black market still dwarfs the legal market that arrived in January.

Chris Clay, a longtime Canadian medical marijuana activist, runs Warmland Centre dispensary in an old shopping mall in Mill Bay, on Vancouver Island. He is closing the store Monday until he gets a license; he feared continuing to operate post-legalization would jeopardize his chances. Some of his eight staff members will likely have to file for unemployment benefits in the meantime.

"That will be frustrating, but overall I'm thrilled," Clay said. "I've been waiting decades for this."

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Hawaii's pot growers
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Hawaii's pot growers
Mark Clawson, 64, attempts to walk to his home on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A lava flow blocks a road on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, attempts to walk to his home on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, (L), and Tom McCarroll, 68, look at a lava flow near their homes outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Cows stand in a road in an evacuated community on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, mows his macadamia nut orchard beneath trees sickened by volcanic gases on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, rests while watching a lava flow from a neighbor's roof on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
Heavy rain causes steam to rise from lava flows on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
In a long-exposure photograph, lava flows on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Dale Altman, 66, tends his marijuana plants on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, rubs his eyes with exhaustion before evacuating his house on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Dale Altman, 66, mends one of his greenhouses on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
A 'Caution' sign stands in a lava flow on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester SEARCH "SYLVESTER STAYERS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
Mark Clawson, 64, sits on his porch on the outskirts of Pahoa above recent lava flows during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester 
Clouds of laze, composed of steam, acid and volcanic glass, rise from lava flowing into the Pacific Ocean in the Kapoho area, on the outskirts of Pahoa, during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester 
Cows stand in a road in an evacuated community on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
Heavy rain causes steam to rise from lava flows on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester 
Lava erupts from Fissure Number 8 in Leilani Estates during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester
With a plume of volcanic emissions, or laze (a term combining lava and haze) rising above him, Josh Doran, 22, repairs one of his family's greenhouses on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester 
With a plume of volcanic emissions, or laze (a term combining lava and haze), rising above him, Josh Doran, 22, repairs one of his family's greenhouses on the outskirts of Pahoa during ongoing eruptions of the Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, U.S., June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Terray Sylvester 
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The federal government has licensed 120 growers, some of them enormous. Canopy Growth, which recently received an investment of $4 billion from Constellation Brands, whose holdings include Corona beer, Robert Mondavi wines and Black Velvet whiskey, is approved for 5.6 million square feet (520,000 square meters) of production space across Canada. Its two biggest greenhouses are near the U.S. border in British Columbia.

Beren, a 23-year cannabis grower, is a Canopy consultant.

"We used to joke around all the time when we'd go to Vancouver and drive by the big greenhouses on the highway," he said. "Like, 'Oh man, someday. It'd be so awesome if we could grow cannabis in one of these greenhouses.' We drive by now and we're like, 'Oh, we're here.'"

Next to Canopy's greenhouse in Delta is another huge facility, Pure Sunfarms, a joint venture between a longtime tomato grower, Village Farms International, and a licensed medical marijuana producer, Emerald Health Therapeutics. Workers pulled out the remaining tomato plants last winter and got to work renovating the greenhouse as a marijuana farm, installing equipment that includes lights and accordion-shaped charcoal vents to control the plant's odor. By 2020, the venture expects to move more than 165,000 pounds (75,000 kg) of bud per year.

Some longtime illegal growers who operate on a much smaller scale worry they won't get licensed or will get steamrolled by much larger producers. Provinces can issue "micro-producer" licenses, but in British Columbia, where small-time pot growers helped sustain rural economies as the mining and forestry industries cratered, the application period hasn't opened yet.

Sarah Campbell of the Craft Cannabis Association of BC said many small operators envision a day when they can host visitors who can tour their operations and sample the product, as wineries do.

Officials say they intend to accommodate craft growers but first need to ensure there is enough cannabis to meet demand when legalization arrives. Hiccups are inevitable, they say, and tweaks will be needed.

"Leaving it to each province to decide what's best for their communities and their citizens is something that's good," said Gene Makowsky, the Saskatchewan minister who oversees the province's Liquor and Gaming Authority. "We'll be able to see if each law is successful or where we can do better in certain areas."

British Columbia safety minister Mike Farnworth said he learned two primary lessons by visiting Oregon and Washington, U.S. states with recreational marijuana. One was not to look at the industry as an immediate cash cow, as it will take time to displace the black market. The other was to start with relatively strict regulations and then loosen them as needed, because it's much harder to tighten them after the fact.

Legalization will be a process more than a date, Farnworth said.

"Oct. 17th is actually not going to look much different than it does today," he said.

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Rob Gillies reported from Toronto. Gene Johnson is a member of AP's marijuana beat team. Follow him at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle. Find complete AP marijuana coverage at http://apnews.com/tag/LegalMarijuana.

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