HAMILTON, Ontario >> Up on the third floor of a commercial building near the city’s edge is a vision of Canada’s future.
To the sound of throbbing music, hundreds of people jockey around the marijuana-infused products laid out for sale in a pop-up cannabis market. Marijuana cinnamon buns. Marijuana cereal bars and gluten-free cookies. Marijuana foot scrub, bath bombs, lip chap. Marijuana mixed nuts, marijuana sour keys and marijuana cherry tarts.
Amid a haze of smoke, from people taking hits of cannabis distillate from “rigs,” or high-tech bongs, sits a portable Tim Hortons coffee urn, offering shoppers a cannabis version of the classic Canadian beverage — a double double, or double cream and double sugar — infused with tetrahydrocannabinol, the chemical that causes a high.
On Wednesday, after 95 years of prohibition, Canada will become the second country in the world to legalize cannabis, after Uruguay — a country with less than one-10th its population.
“It’s a day in Canadian history we’ll look back on and be proud of,” said Hilary Black, one of the country’s leading cannabis activists, who now works on patient advocacy and education for Canopy Growth Corp., the world’s largest cannabis company. “We are very much taking a strong leadership position on the global stage.”
As the legalization date approaches, much of the focus has been on logistics — setting up laws for where people can smoke and buy cannabis, figuring out how police will test drivers for its signs, drafting workplace policies and jockeying for a piece of the burgeoning multibillion-dollar industry.
But the pop-up cannabis market — where everything will remain illegal until next year, when the sale of cannabis-infused edibles and other products becomes legal — beckons larger questions about how cannabis will change the culture of Canada, a country known for multiculturalism, maple syrup, hockey, saying sorry and perhaps soon, its high-grade bud. Will it turn polite and slightly reserved Canadians into laid-back, summery people?
Already, Canadians smoke a lot of pot.
Statistics collected by the national census bureau reveal that 42.5 percent of Canadians have tried marijuana and around 16 percent have used it over the past three months. A 2013 UNICEF report found that among people ages 15 to 24, one-third had consumed cannabis in the previous three months — making Canadian youth the biggest partakers in the world.
Some people think legalization will bring enormous changes not just to Canada, but to the rest of the world.
“Prohibition causes serious, serious harm around the world,” said Black, the marijuana advocate.
In Canada, she said, people convicted of cannabis possession have historically been disproportionally Indigenous and black. “It’s a serious social justice issue we are correcting in Canada, and I pray we are going to pull the world with us.”
Some countries might follow because of economics. Market analysts expect the industry to reach $5 billion (6.5 billion Canadian dollars) by 2020, injecting jobs back into hollowed-out manufacturing towns like Smith Falls, Ontario, where Canopy is headquartered.
“Oct. 17 is day one of forever,” said the owner of the Hotbox Lounge in Toronto’s Kensington Market, who has gone by the name Abi Roach for two decades. For the past 18 years, she has been selling pot-smoking equipment and inviting pot smokers to roll, rent bongs and take hits from the rigs lined up on her “dab bar.”
“Now, our job is to reform the law to the point cannabis is going to be a normal part of our lives, whether we choose to consume it or not,” she continued, giving a tour onto her patio, which hummed with 20 people smoking joints in the rain on a recent weekday.
Others are more skeptical.
“I don’t think we are going to see a dramatic increase of cannabis use, maybe just at first because of the novelty factor,” said Geraint Osborne, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta who has studied cannabis use for 13 years.
Andrew Hathaway, a University of Guelph sociology professor who has also studied cannabis use, wonders how corporatization and regulation will affect the stereotypically peacenik, liberal and anti-establishment cannabis culture.
He pointed out that the government’s new regulations — which codify how much a person can buy, carry and share (30 grams), as well as where and how it can be ingested (cannabis flower and low-potency oil only, for now) — are intended to suppress the use of cannabis, not encourage it.
“Some people are referring to this as Prohibition 2.0,” Hathaway said. “The regulation has brought an enhanced sense of scrutiny.”
In the three years since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected with a mandate to legalize marijuana, cannabis culture and industry have boldly emerged from the shadows in many parts of the country.
Dispensaries selling various strains of marijuana and high-potency extracts, called budder and shatter, have opened on main streets. Regular pop-up markets like the one in Hamilton have sprouted, to the point vendors can attend five a week in the Toronto area.
Cannabis lounges have expanded, offering not just a place to smoke and take hits, but classes on growing cannabis at home and making cannabis creams. Cannabis-infused catering has gone so mainstream that the national association of food service businesses, Restaurants Canada, is hosting a seminar on it. Cannabis tour companies have opened, as have cannabis “bud-and-breakfasts.”
Universities and colleges across the country have introduced courses on cannabis business, investing, retail and cultivation.
Newspapers, which have hired full-time cannabis reporters, have published cannabis sections, filled with editorial ads by government-licensed producers advertising lines of cannabis-infused beverages, coffee and dog chew-toys they are developing for when such products become legal.
One big question is what will happen to the huge illegal marketplace, pegged at 5.3 billion Canadian dollars by Statistics Canada. Since legalization will provide governments with a new income stream in taxes, most people expect the police to crack down on the gray areas.
But the ground is shifting as the provinces set up regulations for the new law.
In August, the newly elected government of Ontario scrapped its plan to sell cannabis at government stores, declaring it will issue private licenses instead. In September, it expanded the rules on where people could consume, from only private property to anywhere smoking was legal.
“We never expected we would be able to smoke cannabis in the street,” said Lisa Campbell, chairwoman of the Ontario Cannabis Consumer and Retail Alliance, which hired a lobbyist for $20,000 a month to persuade government officials to loosen the plan.
Until recently, when she founded the cannabis subsidiary of her family’s wine and spirit company, Campbell ran the Green Market, a regular pop-up cannabis edibles market in Toronto. The market ran around 30 events, she said — all of them illegal.
“We thought it was a pipe dream that all these pop-ups we were doing would get licenses and become legitimate,” she said. “I think we’ve made it so mainstream, now Restaurants Canada are reaching out to us saying, ‘We need your help.’”
The lobbying will continue until what Campbell calls “peak legalization” — a year from now, when the government plans to expand the scope of legal marijuana products in Canada to include edibles, extracts and creams.
In the meantime, municipalities around the country are trying to figure out whether to permit cannabis consumption spaces, like Roach’s Hotbox Lounge.
She has avoided being shut down by arguing that she’s taking users out of city parks and offering them a safe space to consume their own marijuana. Ultimately, her dream is to sell cannabis to her customers.
Roach see cannabis becoming almost like corn in its derivative form, threaded through everyday Canadian consumer products. Although people eat a minimal amount of corn each day, she said, “there’s corn syrup in everything.”
Reena Rampersad, who runs a cannabis catering company and organized the pop-up market in Hamilton, a city an hour west of Toronto, also dreams of expanding. She expects very soon to offer cannabis-infused coffee at the Caribbean restaurant she owns.
“Trends happen in the gray market first, then follow into the mainstream,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
With the media attention and investment, the stigma around cannabis use has already declined. The stereotype of pot smokers in Canada has shifted from lazy, forgetful layabouts to doctors, entrepreneurs and lawyers — many of whom have started up boutique cannabis firms.
One of those lawyers in Jack Lloyd. For years, he edited books about cannabis under many pseudonyms with Green Candy Press. “Now, I see all these media companies have cannabis journalists, and they use their own names,” he said.
“What a long way we’ve come.”