Frustration and pride in Canada after a year of legal pot

Frustration and pride in Canada after a year of legal pot

It’s one year into Canada’s experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened

The weed is expensive, the selection is limited, the black market persists, and licensed stores are scarce.

It’s one year into Canada’s experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened. While many residents remain proud of Canada for bucking prohibition, a lot still buy cannabis on the sly, because taxes and other issues mean high-quality bud can cost nearly twice what it did before legalization.

ALSO READ: A year after pot legalization in Canada, it’s a slow roll

Much of the drug’s production and distribution over the years has been controlled by outlaw groups, including the Hells Angels, and replacing such criminality with safe, regulated sales is a key goal of legalization.

Yet legal sales in the first year are expected to total just $1 billion, an amount dwarfed by an illegal market still estimated at $5 billion to $7 billion.

“One customer told me, ‘I love you and I want to support you, but I can’t buy all my cannabis here. It’s too expensive,’” said Jeremy Jacob, co-owner of Village Bloomery, a Vancouver pot store that feels more like a museum gift shop, with its high ceilings, graceful lighting, tidy wooden shelves and locked white cabinets hiding packages of marijuana. “The black-market producers are being well rewarded by legalization.”

The nation has seen no sign of increases in impaired driving or underage use since it joined Uruguay as the only countries to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults — those over 19 in most Canadian provinces. Delegations from other countries, including Mexico, have visited Canada as they explore the possibility of rewriting their own marijuana laws.

But officials promised legalization would be a process, not an event, and they weren’t wrong. Kinks abound, from what many consider wasteful packaging requirements and uneven quality to the slow pace of licensing stores and growers across most of the country.

Canada allowed provinces to shape their own laws within a federal framework, including setting the minimum age and deciding whether to distribute through state-run or private retail outlets. Some have done better than others.

The result: There now are more than 560 licensed stores across Canada, but more than half are in Alberta, the fourth-largest province.

Ontario and Quebec, which together make up two-thirds of Canada’s population, have only about 45 shops between them. In Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province, pot shop owner Tom Clarke said he’s about to hit $1.5 million in sales but isn’t making any money, thanks to rules that limit him to just an 8 per cent commission.

Online sales, designed to ensure far-flung communities can access the market even if they don’t have a licensed shop, have been underwhelming, at least partly because consumers are reluctant to pay with a credit card if that transaction might come to the attention of U.S.-based banks or border guards, said Megan McCrae, board chair of the Cannabis Council of Canada industry group.

Nowhere are the challenges of legalization more pronounced than British Columbia, which has had a flourishing cannabis culture since U.S. military draft-dodgers settled there during the Vietnam War era. They grew what became known as “B.C. Bud,” high quality marijuana cherished by American consumers.

In Vancouver, which has 2.2 million residents and is Canada’s third-largest city, there was tacit approval of marijuana even before legalization. Though storefront distribution of medical marijuana never was allowed by law, about 100 dispensaries operated in the city before legalization arrived.

Around the province, authorities have visited 165 illegal dispensaries in the past year and warned them to get licensed or shut down. Despite some raids, the government has been reluctant to close them all before more licensed shops open.

Licensing has been glacial, though, thanks to a change in power in the provincial government and cities being slow to approve zoning and other requirements, partly because the province has no tax-revenue-sharing agreement with local jurisdictions. Regulatory hurdles have also made it tough for B.C.’s many small growers to be licensed; instead, production is dominated by large corporations churning out pot by the ton from massive greenhouses.

Regulators hoped to have 250 legal shops operating in British Columbia by now; instead, they have only about 80 private stores and seven government-run shops. Through July, legal sales in B.C. were a meagre $25 million. Alberta, with a smaller population, hit $145 million.

“Everybody still uses their neighbours and their backyards,” said Susan Chappelle of the British Columbia Independent Cannabis Association.

Nevertheless, the legal market has fans. Vancouver resident Sarah Frank, who used to grow her own marijuana plants, loves that she can walk into a clean, welcoming, legal shop and walk out with a few grams of her favourite cannabis, actor Seth Rogen’s Houseplant Sativa brand.

“You don’t feel like a criminal,” said Frank, 41. “I have friends who can’t travel to the States because 20 years ago they got busted with a joint.”

Some who want to get into the legal business are still waiting. With legalization looming last year, Chris Clay shut down his gray-market pot shop on Vancouver Island for what he thought would be a few months, eager to apply for a license and reopen. A year later, he’s still waiting.

Some of his workers went on unemployment and eventually found jobs elsewhere. He’s barely avoided bankruptcy, and though local officials have finally started handling applications, he says it will likely be another three to six months before he’s back in business.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “Tourists have been driving up and down the island all summer, saying, ‘Where can we go? Where can we go?’”

For Mike Babins, who runs Evergreen Cannabis, the Vancouver shop where Frank buys her Seth Rogen-brand weed, it’s just fine that legalization is developing slowly.

“Everyone’s watching us,” he said. “If anything goes wrong here, we’re screwing it up for the whole world.”

Gene Johnson, Elaine Thompson And Rob Gillies, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

(File photo)
Poverty reduction survey identifies 10 poverty themes

Poverty reduction plan will be finalized in July 2021

Nanaimo-Ladysmith MP Paul Manly says he has no intentions of leaving the Green Party. (House of Commons image)
Island Green MPs have “no intention” of leaving the party after ‘heartbreaking’ departure

Manly, May only remaining Green MPs after Jenica Atwin left for the Liberals over internal disputes

New COVID-19 cases on Vancouver Island by local health area for the week of May 30-June 5. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control image)
COVID-19 cases drop again almost everywhere on Vancouver Island

Nanaimo had four new cases last week, down from 22 the week before

Justine Keefer’s Cedar Elementary School Grade 6/7 class put together a student paper, as part of a school project. Pictured here Andrew Gregory, left, Felix Leduc, Addison Armstrong, Lucia Walker and Anise Dick. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)
Cedar Elementary School students create their own newspaper

Grade 6/7 class publishes Wolf Pack News as part of language arts and social studies

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

Gabriola Island artist Sheila Norgate is promoting the Digital Innovation Group’s art impact survey. (File photo)
Vancouver Island artists get behind regional arts impact study

Artists urged to use their stature to help put arts and culture super-region on the map

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)
Neighbours on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

Most Read