Article by Kelsey Adams, NOW Toronto
Vivianne Wilson wants to bring weed back to its holistic roots.
Wilson is Jamaican and her earliest understanding of cannabis was that it was used for its healing properties. Her grandparents would steep the leaves to make pain-relieving tea.
As the first woman of colour to own a cannabis company in Canada – her dispensary, GreenPort, opened in Little Italy last fall – representation and re-education about the plant are integral to her business.
“Our first goal is not to sell you products. Our first goal is to make you feel like you’re a part of something,” Wilson says over the phone.
GreenPort has prioritized community outreach and destigmatizing weed consumption. On the opening day in October, DJs played outside. Wilson says she wanted to ease the neighbourhood into the idea of another dispensary. Mindful of COVID safety, they used Eventbrite registrations to control crowd flow.
Wilson says she wants people of all ages, from grandmothers to granddaughters, to come into the store and feel comfortable.
They have regulars who swing by for curbside pick-up and she’s noticed a repartee between staff and customers which she hopes to see grow as COVID restrictions loosen and storefront retail is allowed to re-open.
One of the downers about opening during a pandemic, Wilson says, is not being able to engage more customers.
“We don’t know what operating this type of a business in a normal setting is and that’s really the downside to this entire process.”
With that in mind, GreenPort has set up an e-commerce website designed to mimic the service you might get in-store, and guide you through products or the activities you may be interested in trying. It’s aimed at beginners who aren’t sure exactly what they’re looking for but who have an idea of how they want to feel.
The GreenPort back story
Wilson had a license from the federal government to sell medical marijuana but felt a shift happen and decided to explore the recreational side. It was a timely premonition.
“We’re still not in an ideal situation, to say the least, but it’s good to have this storefront to be able to do what we’re doing.”
Wilson also uses her platform to speak out about the double standard in the way corporate cannabis companies and everyday citizens who consume weed, especially in racialized communities, are policed.
Wilson says that part of cannabis history is part of a re-education she has had to undergo herself to unlearn harmful stereotypes about weed and the people who use it.
She felt the huge stigma associated with being Jamaican and weed shortly after moving to Toronto as a young person. She says her relationship with weed was “broken and frayed” because of the need she felt to distance herself from something that she understood to be natural because of Canadian perceptions of it.
While famous cannabis advocate Bob Marley’s music was celebrated at school assemblies, misinformation about weed abounded and Wilson says she felt exasperated by the stereotypes she would hear about Jamaican immigrants.
“The reality is, most kids that were smoking weed didn’t look like me and yet we had to deal with the stereotype.”
Wilson uses oils and tinctures to help her with pain relief. She’s allergic to over-the-counter medication. Yet, for years, she says, she was suffering in silence as no doctors were able to suggest an alternative.
GreenPort has an extensive list of THC, CBD and hybrid oils and concentrates but their top sellers are not-surprisingly edibles and flowers. Wilson says that almost 90 per cent of her customers want products with low THC and high CBD. They aren’t as interested in intense highs.
The bigger picture
Wilson is hyper-aware of the saturation of dispensaries in some neighbourhoods in Toronto. Not all of them will survive. But she says that customers come by and let her know when another one is popping up in the neighbourhood and she empathizes with their frustration.
“During the pandemic, a lot of small businesses that had been open for over 20 years have shut their doors, and now they’re replaced by dispensaries. That sense of community is now being reduced to a bunch of weed shops.”