Article by Amanda Siebert, Forbes
When cannabis was legalized in Canada back in 2018, one province dug in its heels. In the face of public opposition, Quebec opted to enact a ban on the sale of any and all products bearing words or images associated with cannabis (except for cannabis itself, which can only be sold by the provincial retailer.) One longstanding chain of headshops has spent the better part of three years speaking out against it, and is currently representing all licensed smoking accessory retailers in the province in a legal challenge.
Christopher Mennillo, co-owner of Montreal-based retailer and lifestyle brand Prohibition Counter-Culture Club, has been vocal about the ban, which prevents private retail shops from selling anything with images, slogans, or words tied to marijuana. (Only accessories used explicitly for cannabis consumption, like bongs and pipes, can be sold.)
He says that while the federal government’s partial ban on cannabis promotion makes sense from a public health perspective, Quebec’s total ban “eliminates all possible references to cannabis,” including everything from books to clothing to candles, and infringes on certain freedoms.
“That’s essentially why we think this is a big deal: consumers don’t really realize that this is a breach of our freedom of expression, and it’s happening right under our noses.”
Quebec: Not Exactly Cannabis Friendly
The first iteration of Prohibition was opened by Mennillo’s father as a stall in a Montreal flea market in 1984. Today, it operates 25 stores across the province of Quebec. Mennillo says that when cannabis was legalized in 2018, he wasn’t expecting to have to revaluate Prohibition’s entire inventory and pull products off the shelves.
While cannabis is legal Canada, he says in Quebec, it feels like prohibition is not over.
“Outside of hurting the culture of cannabis itself, I think it’s also stifling the education on cannabis and cannabis consumption,” he says. “If someone of age wanted to casually stroll into a Prohibition location and buy a book to inform themselves on the various applications of cannabis, they would be unable to do that. That’s where we start to recognize the danger in all of this.”
Most Canadians would agree that Quebec is among the least cannabis-friendly provinces in the country. While the federal government legalized weed in 2018, the francophone province was successful in 2019 in tightening its own regulations around cannabis, banning its use in public spaces and even raising the minimum age for purchase and consumption from 18 to 21.
It doesn’t stop there: in most other provinces, residents are able to grow up to four plants at home, but according to the Quebec government, personal cultivation and even the mere possession of a plant are prohibited, despite a ruling by a Quebec court in 2019 that found those laws to be unconstitutional. And while the provincial retailer has a monopoly on cannabis sales, it has opened just 68 stores in a province that is home to one quarter of the country’s population.
“Cannabis might be legal,” Mennillo says, “but 35 years ago when it was illegal, we were selling books and t-shirts. Now that it’s legal, all of a sudden we can’t sell these things. It’s a step in the wrong direction.”
The Impact On Business
Mennillo says the regulations are hurting independent retailers in Quebec, and adds that smaller headshops are being hit the hardest, with some struggling to stay open. He also notes that enforcement of the law isn’t being applied equally.
“The other day I was in the pharmacy and found a bottle of Old Spice shampoo made with hemp oil, and it had cannabis leaves on it,” he says. Selling it is theoretically illegal in Quebec, but big box stores seem to be flying under the radar while shops like his are regularly visited by officials.