Recreational Pot Shops Are 'Blazing a Trail' in Canada

Toronto is getting a taste of what a recreational marijuana market could be as a new dispensary and lounge opens in the city's east end — even though it's still illegal.
January 12, 2016, 4:25pm
Photo by Anthony Tuccitto/VICE News

Toronto is getting a taste of what a recreational marijuana market could be as a new dispensary and lounge opens in the city's east end.

Goodweeds is the city's first vapor lounge that also sells dabs (high potency cannabis extracts), bong hits, and other marijuana products — and is one of only a few to do so in Canada, out in the open, despite being illegal. Like buying drinks at a bar, patrons can purchase their products and consume them there, or bring their own. Most dispensaries don't allow customers to use their cannabis on site and make people prove they have a valid medical prescription before they can buy it.

Things are more relaxed at the former pool hall and bar known for being the scene of many late night boozy fistfights. Anyone over 18 years old can enter for a $5 fee.

"We're blazing the trail for the future of recreational cannabis in Canada. This makes a good safe clean place for people to consume this product and it's for entertainment as well," said co-owner Don Briere who also owns Weeds, a chain of dozens of medical marijuana shops in Vancouver and Toronto.

"We elected a Liberal government that's moving toward legalizing recreational cannabis, and we take that announcement to mean that it's here now."

But that's not the case, and the government isn't expected to impose new rules around recreational weed for at least another year. Only companies with federal licenses from Health Canada can legally sell and distribute weed, and only to people with valid prescriptions. In spite of that, hundreds of medical marijuana shops have cropped up across the country — now at an even higher rate since Justin Trudeau became prime minister with a promise to "legalize, regulate, and restrict" access to marijuana.

Related: Do Pot and Booze Mix? There's a Turf War in Canada Over Where to Sell Weed

Police forces across the country are inconsistent when it comes to dealing with dispensaries. The City of Vancouver became the first city in Canada to license and regulate them this year, while federal police in other cities in BC have been raiding and shutting down local dispensaries. The Toronto police have said they won't be going after marijuana shops in the city unless there's a complaint about public safety. Goodwin says a local police officer came by last week to welcome them to the neighborhood.

To the chagrin of many marijuana advocates, the justice department tapped former Toronto police chief Bill Blair, now a Liberal member of parliament, to lead the government's legalization efforts.

Though the federal ministries in charge of bringing about legalization have yet to specify the chain of distribution for recreational cannabis and any restrictions on public consumption, Chris Goodwin, the other Goodweeds co-owner, says it's the right time to get in on the ground floor.

"Most people think the new frontier for legalization is the storefront that sells marijuana. Everyone understands that and that's old news," he said. "Something like this isn't something people are considering, though. How places like bars and lounges will incorporate cannabis use and we are part of the testing ground for that."

This move to establish recreational pot spaces in Canada is an attempt to get ahead of any future restrictions on public consumption, like those south of the border. Though it's legal to buy cannabis in Colorado, public and open consumption isn't. In Washington State, customers cannot consume cannabis in retail stores.

Provincial liquor boards across Canada and some licensed producers are urging the federal government to impose a tightly regulated recreational regime.

**Watch the VICE Canada Documentary, The Dark Grey Market: Canadian Cannabis: **

Ontario's premier has repeatedly said she would like to see legal weed sold alongside alcohol through the province's liquor control board, which she says is "very well-suited to putting in place the social responsibility aspects that would need to be in place" for the product. Unions for liquor stores in British Columbia also hope they'll be the ones to distribute recreational cannabis.

However, companies currently licensed with supplying and distributing medical marijuana to patients say their mail-order system would work for a the new recreational market, and could be rolled out by them immediately, before logistics are worked out with the provinces.

Until then, Goodwin and Briere say they have plans to roll out more Goodweeds in Toronto and Ottawa in the coming weeks.

"I hope that something like this gets incorporated into the new model. I hope this is a way for them to understand what we're about," Goodwin say. "We need social spaces and a setting like this. Without us doing it now, it might get overlooked in the future models."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne