On the eve of legalization, Canada’s pot frontier goes ‘wild, wild west’
George Metropoulos grew tired of the ‘whack-a-mole’ pot scene in Toronto, where retail dispensaries selling illegal recreational marijuana have been sprouting up alongside regular businesses, only to be raided and shut down by drug squads before reopening again a short time later.
“We came to Windsor… to get away,” he said.
Originally from Windsor, Metropoulos said his Toronto pot shop was no “pop-up crap place,” but, rather, something nice, with a café and even a community church attached. “I wanted to stay around.”
Sure, it was illegal, but so too were several other pot dispensaries in the immediate Bloor West area, among an estimated more than 100 others across Toronto. Vancouver has already thrown in the towel, registering and handing out municipal development permits to 46 pot dispensaries or compassion clubs as of last month.
Even in Vancouver, however, there are almost twice as many such businesses operating illegally outside the city’s licensing regime, with millions of dollars in outstanding fines as city officials ticket them on a weekly basis.
When it came to finding a new place to chill, Metropoulos and his partner Yodite Woldeselassie chose his hometown of Windsor.
“We left Toronto for our peace of mind,” said Woldeselassie.
Their recently opened CBD Emporium at 469 Pelissier St. — advertised as “Windsor’s first CBD boutique shop” — still focuses entirely on cannabis-derived products, but this time, their downtown enterprise has nothing that will get you high.
All the health and beauty products on sale, including oils, creams, tinctures and capsules, contain CBD, or cannabidiol, as the active ingredient. Like THC, it interacts with a variety of different biological targets in the body, but CBD has no intoxicating effects like those caused by THC.
According to Health Canada, “CBD is a component of cannabis and is currently illegal unless authorized for medical purposes.”
Helping deal with arthritis, cancer, anxiety, depression and chronic pain are among a long list of ailments for which advocates tout the benefits of using CBD.
Working in the Toronto pot market, with clients seeking out the high of weed’s THC, Metropoulos said he was skeptical about using purely CBD products for his own nerve pain, but it worked, and his switch to natural CBD meant an end to doctor-prescribed opiates.
Customers who wanted the relief but not the high of THC were told to try CBD, and they would “talk about how much better they were feeling,” said Woldeselassie, who takes CBD for her own anxiety and depression.
“People were coming back in and hugging me,” said Metropoulos. “It blew our minds, the feedback,” said Woldeselassie.
In Canada, cannabis use for recreational purposes becomes legal for adults on Oct. 17. The pot market is expected to be huge, but in Ontario and elsewhere the rules remain unclear. Even the implications on impaired driving laws are a grey area when it comes to marijuana.
Earlier this month, Ontario Provincial Police raided a dispensary in downtown Essex that was openly selling recreational marijuana to anyone with ID showing they were 19 years of age or older. The operators vowed to reopen but that hasn’t happened — yet.
In Harrow, Kingsville and Leamington, new businesses have sprung up where adults with medical marijuana prescriptions can purchase products containing THC, a commercial activity that is illegal under current federal regulations.
“We’re operating in a bit of a grey area,” said Peter Nicol, one of the co-owners of E-Liberation in Kingsville.
After three years of operating the town’s only vape shop and helping smokers turn off their addictions to cigarettes, Nicol and Loire Taylor relocated their business to a Main Street location in July and expanded its offerings to include cannabis and other alternative health and wellness products. In its first 20 days, E-Liberation signed up more than 400 medical marijuana customers, all of whom must be 19 and over and sign a code of conduct form.
“There’s clearly a gap in terms of service, and we try to fill that gap, in the most responsible way possible,” said Nicol. Added Taylor: “This is medicine.”
As with the proprietors of CBD Emporium, the owners and employees at E-Liberation said they don’t dispense medical advice. Customers come in, and, if they don’t know what they’re looking for but have a medical marijuana prescription, Taylor said they’re told what has worked for others and what might work for them. In addition to a whole section for vapers, there are cannabis-infused bath balms, epsom salts, massage oils and edibles.
“It’s not just about the products but the awareness. So many people tell us, ‘You guys changed my life,’” said Nicol. “That’s what this is about — it’s been so gratifying,” said Taylor, adding that the community response to E-Liberation, which pays taxes like any other business, has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
Sabrina Ulch is convinced that cannabis oil would have saved her father if he’d only had access to it before skin cancer claimed his life. Last March, almost a year after her father’s death in Windsor, Ulch opened Sabrina’s Café and Wellness on Harrow’s King Street, with Essex Mayor Ron McDermott at the grand opening.
“It’s changing people’s lives,” Ulch said of her business, which also sells pot to medical cannabis patients. A retired former casino dealer and server, she said taking CBD weaned her off pills for her own arthritis, asthma, anxiety and hypertension. Opening Sabrina’s Café, she added, has helped her cope with her father’s death by helping others.
CBD infused coconut oil is shown at the CBD Emporium store on Pelissier St. in Windsor on July 25, 2018. The store sells CBD-infused health and beauty products. DAN JANISSE / WINDSOR STAR
“There’s a big difference between medical and recreational,” she said, adding most of her customers are “baby boomers or older” and seeking relief for various health ailments, fibromyalgia being a current main one. She hosts seminars and guest speakers and says she’s had “great support” from the community.
Even when the production, distribution, sale, possession and use of marijuana for recreational purposes becomes legal in October, adults will only be permitted to purchase pot at government-run stores, although it is expected that the newly-elected Ford government will announce next week that private-sector retailers in Ontario will be allowed to own and operate cannabis shops.
Medical marijuana — for which approximately 300,000 Canadians are currently approved — can only be legally supplied by Health Canada-approved licensed producers, like Leamington’s Aphria.
Nic Nedin, a Windsor-based cannabis consultant, is among industry insiders convinced that the 40 government-run retail outlets that Ontario has approved for the first year of legalization — including one store in Windsor — will be inadequate for the anticipated consumer demand. If Ford decides that, like in B.C. and Alberta, there will be some private sector involvement in Ontario’s pot marketplace, then “Windsor is going to be taken overnight” by private dispensaries, Nedin predicts. “And then how will the city react? How will the police react?”
Windsor police spokesman Const. Andrew Drouillard said the department’s mandate is clear: “We enforce the laws that are in place at the time. If we receive information of someone selling drugs illegally, we will definitely investigate.”
In other cities, including Hamilton, as soon as police raid one place, another seems to immediately open to take its place.
“You cannot believe the number of people who want to get into this,” said Windsor pot activist Leo Lucier. “Hamilton has 80 of them — it’s the wild, wild west.” Given the current lack of clarity so close to Ottawa’s target date for legalization, “the doors are wide open … we know it’s going to go into private hands,” he said.
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