Toronto’s cannabis trailblazer, looks ahead to Canada’s legalization

It’s rare to watch history in the making and be cognizant of an imminent, pivotal change in society. Watching Canada march toward the end of cannabis prohibition is one of those occasions.

This summer, the Great White North is expected to legalize recreational cannabis at the federal level. By doing so, Canada will become the first Group of 7 (G7) country to undo a 95-year-long practice of banning the medicine.


How did Canada get there?


The Trudeau government will tell you that legalizing cannabis is their doing because the country simply can’t ignore the incredible number of Canadians who use pot on a daily basis.

Although the feds might be a political catalyst for ending cannabis prohibition, the reason the change is happening at all goes far beyond any government, and started well before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in diapers.

Canadian advocates and activists created a robust underground culture that grew by incredible proportions over the years, and culminated small wins that have lead up to this upcoming large-scale victory.

For one Canadian cannabis activist, she feels it’s inevitable to reflect upon how far the cannabis movement has come now that the country is on the precipice of legalization.

Abi Roach is one of the individuals responsible for the legalization of marijuana in Canada. As the owner of the Hot Box Cafe, arguably the most popular cannabis lounge in Toronto, Abi has been part of the movement for decades. She sat down with to discuss how cannabis culture has changed in Canada’s largest city, and how far we still need to go.


( When did you first started venturing into the cannabis culture scene in Toronto, what was it like?

Abi: [It was] 1993. I was just a teenager and I had a little business on Queen Street West selling handmade jewelry. Robin Ellins from [cannabis culture shop]Friendly Stranger, before he had Friendly Stranger, had a little stand beside me.

There were no head shops in the city back then, so Robin would bring little pipes and things and set up on the street. He actually introduced me to hemp, so I went from selling beaded jewelry to hemp jewelry, so that was my first hemp business.

Robin then opened up the Friendly Stranger around 1997, I think, and that was the first real cannabis culture [head shop.]Then THC was the second cannabis culture head shop and they opened around the same time, I came in 2000 with Roach-o-Rama.

So there were only three head shops when I opened an official cannabis business. Back then, people were getting raided for this. If you told someone their bong was for marijuana, you were promoting illicit drug use if you were selling magazines, if you were doing any of that stuff.

At the time, our biggest crime was talking about cannabis. There was no medical program, none of this stuff existed.


M: So you had to call a bong a water-pipe, I’m assuming?

A: Yes and say it was for tobacco, but I never did, I refused to. [Let them] come arrest me for speaking.

Back then people were afraid to come in because they thought that police had video cameras above our doors and they were taking their names. It was a very different time.

Then in 2003, I opened up the [Hot Box] lounge portion of the business.

“Come arrest me for speaking”

M: What was the catalyst for that? Because that’s a step further, as you were allowing people to smoke weed at your establishment.

A: Totally a step further.

It was really for financial reasons. We were sharing a space and [the other tenants]moved out without notice. [Also] I had just come back from Vancouver, and I went to Jamaica for the first time and I saw people just lighting up ganja everywhere, [and I thought]this is amazing.


M: You were influenced by British Columbia and Jamaica and figured they were doing it, so why can’t we?

A: Exactly. So I opened up the Hot Box and that was crazy and groundbreaking, but we got lucky. A day before we opened, a court ruling that made possession laws in Ontario null and void went through. So that is what I have been doing for the last 20 years.


M: Have you ever been raided?

A: Never.


M: So between the time you opened and now, how would you say cannabis culture has changed in Toronto?

A: The culture grew at a really rapid pace. We went from just me, and then there were a couple more lounges, there was one lounge raid, and then more lounges. Then there were more head shops and all these compassion clubs opened up.

[After that] underground dispensaries kept opening up, so the culture in itself [grew]as well as the development of products. It went from Puff Mama’s Cookies to having a full-on edible market and edible events. And you could also see the progression of packaging, branding, and all that stuff. Then the explosion of dispensaries when Trudeau came in.


M: It seems that the core movement for the marijuana community was always taking away the stigma of cannabis in Toronto and across Canada.

A: [It was about] changing social norms. Our concept behind the Hot Box when we first opened, was it should be just as normal to come and have a cup of coffee as it is to share a joint with your friend. We wanted people to feel that normal about it, and we wanted people that weren’t consumers to be able to walk in of the street and feel perfectly at home in their space.

All these businesses that came out and normalized cannabis brought us to this point and it makes me laugh when the government is now saying they don’t want to normalize weed. I’m sorry, it’s a little late to not want to normalize.


M: Where is Canada now? Would you say the country is further along?

A: Absolutely. One of the most interesting innovations [for cannabis]is the stock market.


All these [licensed producers]that have now gone public, you now have a whole sector of human beings that would never even think about touching cannabis, now thinking about cannabis as a commodity. The stock market has really changed the way people view cannabis.

What needs to catch up now is politicians and the law itself. Right now, we are [competing]with the American market. B.C. was the cannabis capital of North America at one point. Now, we are going to be legal on the West Coast from Mexico all the way up to Alaska, and B.C. has to compete with a legal market that allows promotion, packaging, and branding.

I think Canada is going to fall behind and we won’t be able to compete. We are going to be the first [G7] country to federally legalize and then everyone else will soon follow.

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