Article by Chris Chafin, Rolling Stone
Walk down Queen Street West, one of Toronto’s cooler shopping districts, and you’ll find something new amid the designer boutiques and H&Ms: stores selling marijuana. The quality of these places varies widely, from unfinished rooms where weed is sold from folding tables, to chic storefronts with the sleek modernity of an Apple store. Whether they advertise themselves as medicinal or recreational, these shops all have one thing in common: as of now, they’re completely illegal.
On a recent afternoon, a polite young woman who answered the phone at one Toronto dispensary told Rolling Stone that no prescription was needed to come in and purchase marijuana. When asked if this was legal, she gave a long, regretful “No,” before explaining that shops like hers were “peacefully breaking the law.” When asked if she wanted to discuss further in a formal interview, she hung up the phone.
Visiting the dispensaries open now in Toronto, Canada’s most populous city, can be confusing for everyone involved. One Canadian who asked to remain anonymous said that before being allowed to actually buy pot, he was given a form to fill out which asked for his personal information, medical need for cannabis, and a signature. After completing it, he watched it get fed it directly into a paper shredder. Another Canadian visited a recently opened dispensary with a well-built friend who vaguely looked like a cop. When they asked if they could buy marijuana and then left without actually purchasing anything, the spooked staffers shut down for the rest of the day.
The rise of illicit marijuana dispensaries around the country is one of many side effects of the confusing legal status of pot in Canada today. Its legalization was a major campaign issue of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the general election of 2016. In April 2017, Trudeau announced in that marijuana would become legal in July 2018. While the federal government has set some rules, much of the on-the-ground implementation is falling to local governments. After speaking with officials from around the country, a picture emerges of lawmakers with different priorities, different views of the value of marijuana and a general reluctance toward legalization. Yet they’re all scrambling to figure out a way to regulate the growth, distribution and sale of marijuana in barely a year – and the often very strict rules they’re creating are building a paradoxical system where legalizing pot may lead to even more arrests than today.
Canada has a strange relationship with intoxicants. For most of the Twentieth Century, the distribution and sale of alcohol was totally controlled by government agencies in each of the country’s ten provinces. These bodies set strict rules on what alcohol could be sold where, with several provinces making government-owned stores the only businesses that could legally sell. Today, most provinces have a patchwork system where government-owned stores sell all types of alcohol, and some private shops sell a limited selection of beer and wine. These rules have relaxed at different paces around the county. Ontario didn’t begin allowing beer and wine in private grocery stores until 2015.
“It was very much like a shaming, trying to go there,” says Tyler James, a Torontonian and the director of community outreach at cannabis dispensary Eden. “You’d have to get a piece of paper and a card, write down what you wanted on the card, and give it to an attendant, who walks into the back and brings you the bottle.”
The majority of provinces are actively exploring a similar retail model for marijuana. Though most are still researching and consulting with citizens and have yet to make a decision, Ontario has formally proposed that weed only be sold through government-owned retail storefronts. It has said it will establish 150 locations by 2020; Colorado, which has less than half of Ontario’s population, currently has more than 800. According to draft legislation, companies selling marijuana outside this system will be subject to fines of up to $250,000, and individuals of up to $100,000 and one year in jail.
Generally, marijuana enforcement is not the priority in Canada that it is in the United States. In 2015, the US had roughly three times more pot arrests per capita than Canada, according to a report from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.
Still, Canada’s slow legalization of cannabis has been as cautious as its approach to alcohol. While medical marijuana was legalized in 2001, patients were required to grow their own or designate another individual to grow it for them. After a legal challenge in 2013, this was broadened to create a system that included federally licensed industrial-scale producers. This system, called Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, or MMPR, was again challenged in 2016. The ruling in that case, commonly referred to as Allard, scrapped the MMPR system on the grounds that it unreasonably limited access and increased costs, and gave Canada six months to make a new one. While it didn’t explicitly call for the creation of dispensaries, it did say that “dispensaries are at the heart of cannabis access.”