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The Soapbox: It’s high time we fix cannabis shopping experience

For all their sameness, LCBO outlets offer a familiar, welcoming and attractive shopping experience, so why, if it is no longer illegal, are cannabis shoppers made to feel like we’re doing something wrong

It’s been more than four years since Canada decriminalized cannabis for recreational use (release the balloons and those in jail for prior cannabis possession charges). 

This legalization quickly begat the ‘cannabiz’, and despite the slow start where only a handful of applicants could open a store, we now have dispensaries popping up everywhere like gophers on a golf course.  The analogy is intentionally pejorative as it seems that while we’re okay legalizing cannabis, its not an industry that is allowed the same freedoms as others, including other recreational drug businesses (see alcohol). 

The federal government left it up to the provinces to determine how the product was going to be sold. In Ontario, what was initially to be government-operated cannabis stores (Hello, unionized jobs with good pay), never got off the ground. That’s because the government changed and with it the wind that wafted the cannabis smoke in a new direction, one that looked to let the private sphere dole out the dope (Hello, part-time, min-wage jobs).

And so they did. But instead of the aesthetic sameness of, say, an LCBO store (and there is an expediency of shopping because of that sameness), we have a bunch of businesspeople throwing stylistic ideas at a wall to see what sticks. 

Already we’ve been witness to several odd in-store looks: There is the pot store dressed up like an iphone store (a bit sparse and antiseptic, looking like it was the winner of some furniture-less design challenge of the future); there is the Rustic Wooden Chalet look (let’s hope this is one that sticks as it actually has warmth and character); and there is the dingy, bong-strewn back-alley look which old school users actually feel somewhat comfortable in (old drug habits die hard).

One constant between all these stores is the stealthy nature of their operations.  As per paranoid government rules, the public aren’t allowed to see into these dens of iniquity, such is the moral degradation within, which has caused partitions to be thrown up or some other kind of window coverage.  

It’s not clear why this level of secrecy must be maintained because when you enter a cannabis dispensary you don’t really see much cannabis. There are some little buds on display encased in glass and entombed in some deep wall recess, but otherwise the stores are remarkable for how little of anything is in them.  

Apart from some bongs, pipes, vapes and papers, there really isn’t much to show as the majority of the weed is in the back, out of site, like all the beer in the Beer Store.

And why are we being so secretive about this particular recreational drug anyway? Most LCBO stores are lit up like beacons in the night and in a decidedly festive fashion (with windows galore) so all and sundry can look in at the wholesome recreational drug consumers therein, choosing between a mind-boggling variety of poisons, all of which are adorned with highly decorative labels meant to attract the consumer.  Meanwhile, over in the decidedly greyer world of the cannabis store, behind a partition, in an empty echoing space sparsely adorned, a solitary customer stares up in confusion at glorified sandwich boards that try to inform about price and product, while the singular employee explains about the chasm of difference between indica and sativa hybrids.

Whatever is chosen, the product cannot, under penalty of law, have anything remotely resembling advertising. The effect this gives most products — when they are finally brought forth from the back in a plastic jar fortified with a child-proof lid — the allure of a bottle of overly potent nasal spray.  

It's somewhat understandable that when cannabis was first decriminalized we had to treat it like it was a drug, still potentially capable of being, in the words of the first U.S. drug czar, Harry J. Anslinger, a "shortcut to the insane asylum" and could make "a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man." 

Many people still believed there was a high potential for things to go wrong. Except not much has gone wrong. The insane asylums are not bursting with psychotic pot smokers; murders committed by otherwise mild-mannered men have not increased.  

Today, we should be a long way from the wrong-headed propaganda that began in the 1930s. We are four years into legalization and the canary has emerged from the coal mine. There should be no shame attached to using or selling cannabis anymore.  There should be no need for secrecy.  

We have planted the seeds of the weed industry into soil intentionally made poor, but the industry has grown, flourished even, because, well, it is a weed. Still, it’s high time to take the partitions down and shackles off, and give the producers and distributers of cannabis the freedom and latitude that every other business in this country gets. 

As an added benefit, it might finally and fully eliminate from the minds of cannabis consumers the idea that they’re still engaged in some kind of illegal activity.

D’Arcy Closs lives in Greater Sudbury. A rotating stable of community members share their thoughts on anything and everything, the only criteria being that it be thought-provoking. Got something on your mind to share with readers in Greater Sudbury? Climb aboard our Soapbox and have your say. Send material or pitches to [email protected].


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