Cannabis retail is in a strange hiatus in Canada’s top city. Legalisation is a month away, although retail outlets, other than dispensaries, are not formally allowed to open until April 2019.
Across the city, licensed and unlicensed dispensaries are operating in a grey area. Money is not the primary motivation as they cautiously open their doors to non-medical customers. The owners are learning how the market might possibly operate once it is fully legal.
In a swanky area of town, next to Barchef, a fabulously expensive cocktail bar, is Zen Zoo, one of the more legitimate outlets. The public walk in, wanting to buy weed, hash or fresh concentrates which have just oozed out of a plant in the form of oil or wax, and been placed straight into a refrigerated display cabinet. They walk through a display of electronic vapes at $300 a pop, Bongs for anything between $30 and $3,000, rolling papers and all the other paraphenalia. In the muuch larger store next door there are literally thousands of bongs in ranks, some of them 5 feet tall. There was not a single customer the entire hour I was there.
This section of the store feels like a throwback to the hippy era – outdated and soon to be abandoned as cannabis goes mass market. A young woman wanders in. “Do you have any pipes for around three bucks?” she asks. “I do a delivery service and I like to put in a little free gift with the supplies.” She may be the only customer this section of the store will have all day. The store staff were unable to help her. Their smallest pipe retailed at $7.
A nervous looking young man with a scraggly beard sits at a desk in back of the store, the entrance to the locked special section, proffering a pseudo bureaucratic process both to stay within the law and to keep visitors confident. A form is quickly filled in, picture ID is shown. He presses a button, and “You are good to go, my man.”
Through the door into an area about the size of small classroom, a counter along the left side, and remarkably few products on display. Something like a wine list is available on the counter with prices next to names like Purple Kush, Afghani, Strawberry Fields and Durban Poison. Four men and one female are on hand with advice and assistance. A pair of gay Asian men are asking for something “really relaxing, but I don’t want to go to sleep. Something that keeps your mind clear.”
The assistant reaches into a container with a black surgical glove on just one hand, and pulls out a sample – “This is the perfect wake-and-bake” she says, over-enunciating her words, as if talking to a simpleton. “Its called Chocolope, grown here in Ontario. The Chocolope strain is classified as Sativa, as distinct from Indica type experiences which are more relaxed and introspective.
The same conversations are going on all over Toronto, in a host of more or less legal outlets. Often there will be a bar nearby that has created a “safe space for medicinal use” – ie somewhere stoners can sit with their friends in public. In trendy Kensington Market area of Toronto, chic by jowl with the army suplus and vintage clothing stores is The Hotbox – purveyor of cannabis printed swimwear, with a small café in back – you can pay $5 per person to sit down and roll your own joint. It is quite busy the day I visit.
All this will disappear the day retail cannabis is fully legal. But what will replace it is anyone’s guess.