Last week I made my way to Montreal, Quebec, Canada — just a two-hour drive from my home in upstate, New York — and, after having covered the nation’s federal cannabis legalization, I was excited to experience it for myself. I came back with the following takeaways.
Cannabis use is not ubiquitous
Of course, there were people smoking in public — and in the massive line to get into the government-run dispensary in downtown Montreal — but I saw more people drinking alcohol on the street than consuming cannabis. Even once the sun went down on the shore of the Mighty St. Lawrence River, the parks were mostly clear of cannabis odor.
Of course, this was not the case outside of the venue I was a patron of for a punk rock show — there was no shortage of concert-goers smoking joints on that street but the club’s security didn’t mind and those consuming largely did so nearer the street so as not to offend the people walking past the club.
There is also zero advertising, so you would barely notice that cannabis is legal if not for the “No Cannabis Smoking” signs pocked throughout the city. Even the dispensary had no outward signs it was a retail cannabis seller (except for the queue).
There is a need for social-use establishments
As a tourist, it didn’t feel right lighting up in public — I mean, I did and I often do wherever I go regardless of local laws. Throughout my three-day, 11-joint stay, I mostly smoked in alleys, sparsely populated public parks, and outside of the aforementioned music venue; just once smoking “legally” on the balcony of a friend’s apartment. Each time, though, it felt uncouth. I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble or anything but I felt like I was doing exactly what prohibitionists warn the public-at-large about — contributing to public nuisance despite going out of my way to be as incognito as possible.
It would have been ideal to have an indoor place to smoke a joint, have a soft drink, and relax, instead of ripping down a half-gram joint as quickly as possible in an alley or under a tree. The hotel I stayed at imposed a CAD$1,000 fine for smoking in the room, including cannabis — which falls under local no-smoking regulations just like tobacco. If the government and residents don’t want tourists and others to consume in public they need to establish and support social-use establishments.
The market needs edibles
In the absence of social-use establishments, edibles cannot come soon enough. I wouldn’t have even bought flower had edibles been an option — I like them better than smoking and could have consumed them anywhere I had visited. However, with smokeable (and vapeable) products as the only legally-available option, of course people, especially tourists, are going to be consuming in public — there’s no other viable option.
It’s not as expensive as you might think
Seriously, I bought nine joints legally — totaling 6 grams — and it cost me about what flower costs me in the upstate New York illegal market (less than US$60). Now, I realize for Canadians there is a bit of sticker shock, but for me (and the guy from Philly who was in the line next to me) the price was not at all a deterrent for purchasing legal products. I was given a gram by my friend (who still purchases outside of the legal shops), which prevented me from having to go back into the dispensary, but I would not have been dissuaded from making another run because of the price. More likely, it would have been the line.
The packaging is too much
I get the urge to use child-resistant packaging but with two of the pre-rolls I bought they were each in a cardboard box that held a sealed, plastic container for the joint itself — that’s a lot of waste for what, illegally, comes in one plastic bag (along with the rest of the purchase). The other joints came in hard plastic tubes with multiples per tube but still, far more waste than a sandwich bag.
And, sure, I would have received one plastic package had I just bought it by the gram and not pre-rolls, but it would have been much harder to consume as there are not a lot of places to openly roll a joint or use a pipe, and I wasn’t going to risk crossing the U.S. border with even a roach let alone leftovers or paraphernalia.
More shops need to open
The line at the dispensary I went to wrapped nearly around the block; however, it moved fairly quickly and I spent about 30 minutes from the time I lined up until the time I walked out. But the long line makes the buying experience a bit stressful, as you don’t want to be the one that holds it up so you sort of make your choices under self-imposed duress. Don’t take that to mean that the staff rushes you along — quite the opposite, actually; they were very friendly and patient but when you know you have 200 people behind you, it makes you want to hurry.
Of course, it’s been less than a year since legal sales commenced and had I wanted to drive I could have found a dispensary that might have had shorter lines, but it was apparent that there is a need for another dispensary or two at least in downtown Montreal.
The Candian model — at least the one I experienced in Montreal — is what I expect the industry to look like in states that legalize via the legislature: tested, packaged, products with no advertising and no places for non-residents to safely consume. For me, it was the first time I had bought cannabis at a dispensary (although I had made legal purchases at Michigan’s Cannabis Cup) and the experience was, mostly, everything I expected; although, I really did expect to see more people smoking on the streets and advertisements for delivery or a dispensary location services at least.
The next trip I make will likely be after edibles are legalized (the word is they’ll be available by Jan. 1, 2020) and I plan to look around for more cannabis-friendly accommodations and, while Canada’s system is not perfect — I do think they would be served by opening up dispensing to private companies — I didn’t have that fear of being fined or even arrested for the joints in my pocket. And as I walked out with my brown paper bag I uttered, “There is freedom in Canada.”