Article by Elianna Lev, Leafly
Abi Roach lives her life on the edge of the law. As the founder of Toronto’s popular cannabis lounge the Hot Box Café (tagline: “Serving potheads since ah…we forgot”), she’s become exceptionally familiar with the grey zones of current marijuana legislation.
“I’ve lived my life and operated this business by the white-grey line of the law,” Roach tells Leafly. “Whatever they throw at me, I’ll figure it out. Nothing I’ve ever done has been legal and nothing I’ve ever done has been illegal. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
The cannabis advocate and business owner spends a lot of time talking to local politicians and lobbying for the rights of cannabis users. It’s a role she stepped into out of necessity nearly two decades ago when she opened her first head shop.
Now, Roach runs a mini empire that includes Hot Box, a hydroponic store she co-runs next door, Spliff magazine, and a bud-and-breakfast and tour company in Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, she’s also a member of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association. And as Canada moves towards the legalization of cannabis, Roach suspects her overflowing plate will only get fuller.
From Street Fairs to a Kensington Storefront
Roach’s introduction to the world of cannabis started with hemp jewelry. Originally from Israel, Roach moved to Canada with her family as a tween, after her dad was offered a job in computer engineering. While attempting to assimilate to Canadian culture, she changed her name to Abi, which rhymed with her real name, and was partially inspired by the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. (The Roach part, also not her real name, came later.) Though she knew little English upon arriving in her new country, Roach says she picked it up in a matter of months, and now has no trace of an accent.
As a teenager, she grew bored of her remote neighbourhood, so on weekends she’d head to Queen Street, which was a hub of stylish independent boutiques and popular bistros. There, she met a group of rogue vendors who’d illegally sell their wares on the corner of Queen and Soho. It didn’t take long for Roach to discover her entrepreneurial spirit, setting up a blanket on the street corner and hawking handmade jewelry. She soon learned about hemp, through other vendors who used the material to macramé necklaces and bracelets. Roach quickly cottoned on to the fiber’s other uses, thanks to a vendor named Robin Ellins, who now owns the Friendly Stranger head shop.
“I used to vend beside him and learned from him all about the informational side of cannabis,” she says.
After regularly getting busted by the cops for illegally hawking her wares, Roach became a roaming kiosk. She’d show up at concerts, raves, and events with her jewelry, and often cannabis, to sell or barter. Sometimes, she’d swap her goods for an interesting story.
“It helped me perfect my retailing art over the years,” she says.
After years of unconventional hustle, Roach eventually went to art school, followed by a stint studying audio engineering. As the only women in her class, Roach felt isolated and decided it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow.