Article by Solomon Israel, Leaf News
It’s Saturday evening at a Winnipeg weed store.
Shoppers come in quick waves on the way home from work, on their way out for the night or while making their way through a list of errands.
And buying a pre-rolled joint — the smokable symbol of a groundbreaking government effort to replace illegal marijuana trade with a regulated, controlled sector — is an utterly mundane transaction.
To a loitering reporter, nothing seems terribly newsworthy in this little corner of cannabis capitalism. It bears no resemblance to a year ago, when national and international media were on hand to document long lineups of curious shoppers as Canada’s first handful of government-licensed cannabis stores opened for business.
Shopper James Burton embodies the transformation of legal cannabis from hype to predictability in just 12 months.
“It makes life easy,” says Burton, the drummer in a local thrash-metal band, as he waits for a helpful Delta 9 Cannabis employee to transform his just-purchased bud into some joints.
Burton appreciates the sheer convenience of the stores, along with the added benefit of getting it without breaking the law.
“I don’t have to worry about calling somebody at 10 at night. I just know when I can get my weed, and it’s during regular hours.”
Legalization’s debut on Oct. 17 fulfilled a 2015 election campaign pledge from Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal government overhauled the criminal law surrounding the drug and took on the enormous responsibility of regulating non-medical cannabis production. All 13 provincial and territorial governments created their own sales regimes and laws within the federal framework, resulting in 13 different flavours of legalization across Canada.
At this Delta 9 store, there are shoppers who don’t share Burton’s sense of satisfaction. Some still hold a place in their heart for the trappings of prohibition.
“I guarantee you, I could find another guy, and he would be cheaper than this,” customer Paul Bergvall declares.
Bergvall stayed away from marijuana stores at first, having mixed feelings about the way legalization was achieved. The shifting of fortunes from black marketeers to legal corporations reminds him of Pioneers Who Got Scalped, a 2000 album by subversive synth-pop band Devo.
“These (dealers) had it all taken away from them and given to somebody else to look after,” he says.
Bergvall eventually tried some of the shops, but was turned off by the boutique atmosphere and unimpressed with the initial quality of the product on offer. Then again, the weed from his guy wasn’t fantastic, either, and Bergvall noticed the legal stuff getting better over time — so now he’s here, buying government-regulated marijuana, taxes and all.
But he doesn’t believe Ottawa has made good on its promises.
“What I hope is, that they actually do what it said and it drives the prices down. I don’t care if it’s a business or not, to me it wasn’t supposed to be that,” he says. “It was supposed to be something to kill this other market, to save kids, to keep the money out of the bikers’ hands, and all the illegal guys.”
Trudeau’s objectives were lofty, indeed. And after a year of legalization that’s been rolled out unevenly across the country, the work is just getting started.
Eliminating Canada’s deep-rooted illegal weed supply line wasn’t going to happen overnight. Black-market production was worth $4.6 billion in 2017, Statistics Canada estimated before legalization.
Illegal sales of any product are difficult to measure, of course, but since legalization the agency can track retail activity the same way it watches sales of alcohol, furniture or car parts. The latest data shows monthly cannabis retail sales have grown steadily, from about $41 million last October to more than $104 million in July. It’s an upward trend, despite a temporary dip in legal sales during the first two months of 2019.
“If it were any industry except cannabis we’d be saying it’s fantastic, because we’re talking about sales increases per month that most industries would be happy to get per year,” says Michael Armstrong, an associate business professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who analyzes weed market data.
Armstrong suspects Statistics Canada’s $104 million figure in July is actually an under-estimate, citing his own calculations based on data from provincial cannabis agencies.
But no matter how much market share Canada’s marijuana industry has captured so far, there’s plenty more to go; Statistics Canada’s latest quarterly survey of cannabis users found that 48 per cent of current users sourced at least some of their supply from a legal provider during the second quarter of 2019, and 42 per cent bought at least some from illegal sources. About 29 per cent of current users purchased exclusively from legal sources.
“We’ve got the first chunk of the black market,” Armstrong says.