A year after pot legalization in Canada, it’s a slow roll

A year after pot legalization in Canada, it’s a slow roll

It’s one year into Canada’s experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened

The weed is expensive, the selection is limited, the black market persists, and licensed stores are scarce.

It’s one year into Canada’s experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened. While many residents remain proud of Canada for bucking prohibition, a lot still buy cannabis on the sly, because taxes and other issues mean high-quality bud can cost nearly twice what it did before legalization.

Much of the drug’s production and distribution over the years has been controlled by outlaw groups, including the Hells Angels, and replacing such criminality with safe, regulated sales is a key goal of legalization.

Yet legal sales in the first year are expected to total just $1 billion, an amount dwarfed by an illegal market still estimated at $5 billion to $7 billion.

“One customer told me, ‘I love you and I want to support you, but I can’t buy all my cannabis here. It’s too expensive,’” said Jeremy Jacob, co-owner of Village Bloomery, a Vancouver pot store that feels more like a museum gift shop, with its high ceilings, graceful lighting, tidy wooden shelves and locked white cabinets hiding packages of marijuana. “The black-market producers are being well rewarded by legalization.”

The nation has seen no sign of increases in impaired driving or underage use since it joined Uruguay as the only countries to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults — those over 19 in most Canadian provinces. Delegations from other countries, including Mexico, have visited Canada as they explore the possibility of rewriting their own marijuana laws.

But officials promised legalization would be a process, not an event, and they weren’t wrong. Kinks abound, from what many consider wasteful packaging requirements and uneven quality to the slow pace of licensing stores and growers across most of the country.

Canada allowed provinces to shape their own laws within a federal framework, including setting the minimum age and deciding whether to distribute through state-run or private retail outlets. Some have done better than others.

READ MORE: Free pardons now available for Canadians convicted of simple cannabis possession

ALSO READ: 10 things still illegal in the new age of recreational cannabis

The result: There now are more than 560 licensed stores across Canada, but more than half are in Alberta, the fourth-largest province.

Ontario and Quebec, which together make up two-thirds of Canada’s population, have only about 45 shops between them. In Newfoundland, Canada’s easternmost province, pot shop owner Tom Clarke said he’s about to hit $1.5 million in sales but isn’t making any money, thanks to rules that limit him to just an 8% commission.

Online sales, designed to ensure far-flung communities can access the market even if they don’t have a licensed shop, have been underwhelming, at least partly because consumers are reluctant to pay with a credit card if that transaction might come to the attention of U.S.-based banks or border guards, said Megan McCrae, board chair of the Cannabis Council of Canada industry group.

Nowhere are the challenges of legalization more pronounced than British Columbia, which has had a flourishing cannabis culture since U.S. military draft-dodgers settled there during the Vietnam War era. They grew what became known as “B.C. Bud,” high quality marijuana cherished by American consumers.

In Vancouver, which has 2.2 million residents and is Canada’s third-largest city, there was tacit approval of marijuana even before legalization. Though storefront distribution of medical marijuana never was allowed by law, about 100 dispensaries operated in the city before legalization arrived.

Around the province, authorities have visited 165 illegal dispensaries in the past year and warned them to get licensed or shut down. Despite some raids, the government has been reluctant to close them all before more licensed shops open.

Licensing has been glacial, though, thanks to a change in power in the provincial government and cities being slow to approve zoning and other requirements, partly because the province has no tax-revenue-sharing agreement with local jurisdictions. Regulatory hurdles have also made it tough for B.C.’s many small growers to be licensed; instead, production is dominated by large corporations churning out pot by the ton from massive greenhouses.

Regulators hoped to have 250 legal shops operating in British Columbia by now; instead, they have only about 80 private stores and seven government-run shops. Through July, legal sales in B.C. were a meagre $25 million. Alberta, with a smaller population, hit $145 million.

WATCH: B.C.’s biggest city celebrates cannabis without a legal store

“Everybody still uses their neighbours and their back yards,” said Susan Chappelle of the British Columbia Independent Cannabis Association.

Nevertheless, the legal market has fans. Vancouver resident Sarah Frank, who used to grow her own marijuana plants, loves that she can walk into a clean, welcoming, legal shop and walk out with a few grams of her favourite cannabis, actor Seth Rogen’s Houseplant Sativa brand.

“You don’t feel like a criminal,” said Frank, 41. “I have friends who can’t travel to the States because 20 years ago they got busted with a joint.”

Some who want to get into the legal business are still waiting. With legalization looming last year, Chris Clay shut down his gray-market pot shop on Vancouver Island for what he thought would be a few months, eager to apply for a license and reopen. A year later, he’s still waiting.

Some of his workers went on unemployment and eventually found jobs elsewhere. He’s barely avoided bankruptcy, and though local officials have finally started handling applications, he says it will likely be another three to six months before he’s back in business.

PROVINCIAL POT: Growing B.C. bud in the era of legalization

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “Tourists have been driving up and down the island all summer, saying, ‘Where can we go? Where can we go?’”

For Mike Babins, who runs Evergreen Cannabis, the Vancouver shop where Frank buys her Seth Rogen-brand weed, it’s just fine that legalization is developing slowly.

“Everyone’s watching us,” he said. “If anything goes wrong here, we’re screwing it up for the whole world.”

TOUR: Inside a medical cannabis growing facility

Gene Johnson, Elaine Thompson And Rob Gillies, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Ocean Wise’s cetacean photogrammetry research program uses aerial images collected by boat-launched drones to measure the body condition of whales. (Ocean Wise Marine Mammal License MML-18 photo)
LNG Canada commits $750K to whale research, conservation initiative

Ocean Wise education team will work alongside educational and Indigenous leaders in the area

The Sam Lindsay Aquatic Centre will be closed from June 28 until September 13 for annual facility maintenance as well as teach pool and decking repairs. (Black Press photo)
Sam Lindsay Aquatic Centre closed: June 28 – September 13

The aquatic centre will be closed for annual facility maintenance

Shoes are being left at the viewpoint on Haisla Blvd in response to the 215 bodies discovered at the Kamloops Residential School. (Jacob Lubberts photo)
Haisla Nation responds to 215 Indigenous children found buried at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School

“Many Haisla children were sent far away, to places such as Port Alberni, and to Coqualeetza”

Susan Jay hosted a plant and garage sale on May 25 and donated all of her proceeds to the Kitimat General Hospital Foundation to help with the purchase of a new bus for residents at Mountain View Lodge, Delta King and the new Kitimat Valley Housing Society dementia home. (Barbara Campbell photo)
KGHF thanks Susan Jay for her help to purchase a new bus for seniors in multi-level care

Susan donated all proceeds to KGHF, her efforts netted the hospital foundation a total of $1,760

An example of what a mural would look like on the back wall on Ron’s Bait and Tackle Store which faces the courtyard and sidewall. The mural photos shown here are mock-ups of existing artwork on walls of interest in the downtown core to build anticipation within the community about the concept of murals. The KPAA will not necessarily be using these locations or this artwork for the actual murals. (KPAA photo)
Kitimat Public Art Alliance mural funding request denied

D’Andrea suggested she will come back to the council at a later date with a more concrete plan

The border crossing on Highway 11 in Abbotsford heading south (file)
VIDEO: Western premiers call for clarity, timelines on international travel, reopening rules

Trudeau has called Thursday meeting, premiers say they expect to leave that meeting with a plan

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

B.C. Premier John Horgan listens as Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents the province’s latest budget, April 20, 2021. The budget projects $19 billion in deficits over three years. (Hansard TV)
B.C. government budget balloons, beyond COVID-19 response

Provincial payroll up 104,000 positions, $10 billion since 2017

Ocean debris is shown on Long Beach in Tofino, B.C. on April, 18, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Shoreline cleanup finds COVID-related trash increased during height of the pandemic

Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reports litter from single-use food packaging nearly doubled

Doctor David Vallejo and his fiancee Doctor Mavelin Bonilla hold photos of themselves working, as they kiss at their home in Quito, Ecuador, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Doctor Vallejo and Doctor Bonilla suspended their wedding in order to tend to COVID-19 patients and in the process Vallejo got sick himself with the disease, ending up in an ICU for several days. (AP Photo/Dolores Ochoa)
Love, sacrifice and surviving COVID-19: one couple’s story

COVID hits Ecuadorian doctors who delayed wedding to treat sick

St. Joseph's Mission site is located about six kilometres from Williams Lake First Nation. (Photo submitted)
Williams Lake First Nation to search residential school site for unmarked graves

St. Joseph’s Mission Indian Residential School operated from 1886 to 1981

Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Tuesday’s Lotto Max draw went unclaimed. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lotto Max jackpot goes unclaimed again

42 of the 64 Maxmillion prizes of $1 million were won, the majority were sold in Ontario

FILE - This July 6, 2017 file photo shows prescription drugs in a glass flask at the state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Contaminants in generic drugs may cause long-term harm to DNA: B.C. researcher

Scientist says findings suggest high volume overseas facilities require strict regulation

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Labour shortages, closed borders major obstacles to B.C. restaurant, tourism restarts

Industry expert says it won’t start to recover until international travellers can visit

Most Read