Will tourists take the high road to Canada?

Newly legal marijuana is a powerful draw but strict state regulation may put off the potheads

Features

28 Nov 2018

On 17 October, Canada became the second country in the world — after plucky little Uruguay — to legalise recreational cannabis. While the exact details will be left to Canada’s ten provinces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t shied away from his ambition to give every Canadian access to safe and legal cannabis.

Good news, no doubt, for Canada’s treasury which, based on the experience of those US states that have taken the legalisation plunge, can expect to reap a significant windfall on sales taxes. But can legalisation deliver an even bigger economic boom for Canada by supercharging the country’s tourist industry?

Some in America clearly think so: in anticipation of leagues of pot enthusiasts heading north for their fix, the US Department of Justice has made various headline-grabbing announcements about the penalties for Americans trying to bring it back over the border. South Korea, too, has vowed to arrest its citizens on return if they dare to smoke cannabis on Canadian soil.

To see whether a tourism boom might be under way, I spent a weekend in Montreal, the largest city in French-speaking Quebec. Could a whistle-stop tour of Canada’s thriving pot industry sell me — a marijuana agnostic at best — on the merits of cannabis tourism?

First thing first: anyone expecting to be able to roll into Canada and purchase their first spliff at the airport is going to be disappointed. Weed might be legal, but it’s heavily controlled: even more so than alcohol. In Quebec, the sale of marijuana is limited to a small number of state-run dispensaries known as SQDC (Société Québécoise du Cannabis). In Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, it’s currently only available online.

You also need to be there at the right time. At present, the SQDC dispensaries are open only from Thursday to Saturday, although that’s largely due to Canada’s well-publicised problems with meeting demand. With the Canadian government relying on a small handful of licensed farms for its marijuana (home growing is still illegal), the initial buzz of legalisation gave way to stories of empty shelves and unscheduled closures — something which probably hasn’t done wonders for the country’s tourism pitch.

When you do make it to a dispensary, it’s a pretty surreal experience. With its chic minimalist décor and wall-mounted tablets (offering information on the 20 or so strains of plant available), the overall ambience feels more like visiting the opticians than a dedicated pot shop. Advertising and promotion are strictly prohibited, so the distinctive cannabis leaf motif — that tacky mainstay of Amsterdam shop windows and teenage bedrooms — is nowhere to be seen. Probably for the best.

This being Canada, you’re obliged to take a public information leaflet spelling out the dos and don’ts. Even if much of the advice seems like common sense (would any first-timer really consider smoking a whole dose in one go?), I figure it at least makes a novel souvenir. After all, it’s probably the only thing in the shop I’d be allowed to take back to London.

Growth industry: legal marijuana plants in an Ontario ‘flowering room’

I take a quick straw poll of the other shoppers. The vast majority are locals, along with a handful of Americans and two German tourists. None of them seem particularly bullish about the city’s tourism prospects post-legalisation. ‘You don’t have legal marijuana back home?’ one of the Canadians asks me, seemingly oblivious to his country’s outlier status.

Having purchased a small package (three low-strength, pre-rolled marijuana joints — each the equivalent, I suspect, of a glass of buck’s fizz or lager shandy — for the same cost as a packet of cigarettes), I head to a nearby shop which sells all manner of smoking accessories. It’s another insight into Canada’s slightly bashful approach to marijuana.

The shop assistant, a keen smoker himself, explains that any products intended for marijuana consumption (rather than just tobacco) have to be kept strictly out of sight. He points to a cabinet with thick opaque glass. With the click of a switch, the fog turns perfectly clear and I find myself looking at a veritable trophy cabinet of expensive-looking smoking pipes, several with hundred-dollar price-tags.

My server tells me he isn’t expecting a tourism boom for Montreal any time soon. Although he expects legalisation will be popular with the party-goers who attend Montreal’s dozen or so music festivals each summer.

Perhaps, though, it’s just a case of local modesty. After all, Canada has typically shunned the kind of bluster and braggadocio associated with its southern neighbour. Montreal’s baroque charm of ivy-tinged towering cathedrals and homely old-world taverns is plain to see. Surely it could steal a march on Colorado — which, after leading the way with legalisation, went from being a mountainous backwater to the most popular spring break destination for American college students?

Colorado’s secret, as with Las Vegas and gambling , has been to turn smoking marijuana into a full-blown American experience. Arriving in Denver, the state’s biggest city, tourists can choose from dozens of privately run marijuana tours. When I visited last year, I joined a group of saucer-eyed tourists in a Scooby Doo-style van as we were shown around the city’s burgeoning weed industry (including the astonishing cultivations where hundreds of tonnes of the plant are refined each year). Oh, and you get to smoke while you’re at it.

In Montreal, by contrast, things are much tamer. Could this highly regulated approach actually end up holding things back? At the time of writing, Montreal’s state-run liquor stores (from which the SQDC model evolved) are one week into a crippling strike action which has closed many and left others running with a skeleton crew. Similar disruption at SQDC (and it’s worth noting that strikes are hardly uncommon in Quebec) could deal a hefty blow to Canada’s image as the laid-back capital of cannabis tourism.

When I get back to my apartment, I take out the package I bought, peeling back the government-duty label to reveal three neatly wrapped marijuana cigarettes. With the window open — and a rather excellent view of Montreal’s Mount Royal on a crisp, cold night — I take a few nervous puffs.

Within minutes I feel a deep relaxation and a sense of relief as the everyday anxieties disappear. I take a second to feel the cold air on my chest, before pulling the window shut and spreading myself out on the bed. As far as relaxing mini-breaks go, it’s a feeling that’s hard to beat.


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