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Canna-Curious? This is What it’s Like to Visit an (Illegal) Dispensary

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I admit, I was nervous when I visited my first illegal marijuana dispensary, which were popping up all around the city of Toronto, about a year and a half ago. My first thought was, “I’m a mother! What if this place gets raided while I’m in here? Wouldn’t THAT make for a good headline: Mother of Two and Editor of Parenting Site Busted!

But when Canada becomes the second largest country with a legal national marijuana marketplace on October 17th, according to a recent article, “At least 109 legal pot shops are expected to open across the country, with many more to come.”

Which means a lot of parents will be interested, or, as they say in the cannabis world, are “canna-curious.”

Last summer, I wrote a piece called, Has Parenting Gone to Pot? Why so many mothers are getting high (including me!)  In it, I write, “Don’t seem shocked that I fully admit that I’m a recreational pot smoker and also a mother. In fact, these days, I can’t seem to hook up with any of my mommy friends without at least one of them pulling out a joint…One of my mommy friends said, ‘Parenting on pot is THE only way to parent these days.’ I think she was joking, but I’m not entirely sure.”

Parents are clearly getting more and more involved in the scene. In fact, since my first visit to a dispensary, I’ve become somewhat of a “canna-tourist,” and have not only visited numerous illegal dispensaries in Toronto, but have also seen them in places like Palm Springs, Venice Beach, and San Francisco, where dispensaries are legal.

For me, visiting dispensaries is akin to window shopping. I don’t necessarily want to buy those fabulous boots in the window, but I do enjoy looking at them. I don’t necessarily want to buy anything from a dispensary, but I also enjoy looking, and learning, about all the different types of marijuana, and the ways you can use it, from pens to pills, to edibles, to patches, as well as cannabis accessories. It’s just fun to see what’s out there.

So what can you expect, entering a legal dispensary? Well, I’m not sure, yet. But I do know what it’s like to visit illegal dispensaries, which may turn, eventually, into legal dispensaries. I was shocked when I went to one specific dispensary in Toronto with a friend because from the outside, you couldn’t tell at all that it was a dispensary. It looked like a fancy New York brownstone townhouse. In fact, ironically, a law office is located right next door. This place, obviously, was known via word of mouth, like most illegal dispensaries are.

What I remember thinking when I first walked in—aside from noticing the stench of cannabis—was that the place was really… nice. The staff wore matching black and red uniforms. It was super clean. Usually, at most dispensaries, there’s also a security guard standing by the entrance. (How do you get that job?) But don’t let that scare you. They smile when you come in.

There are two types of illegal dispensaries. Some will only allow you to buy only if you have a medical marijuana card, prescribed by your doctor. In the dispensaries I have visited, that do require a medical marijuana card, like the fancy one in Toronto that my friend took me too, they also often have a doctor on staff, who you can see first, for a fee (around $250) who will write you a prescription. And—poof—like that, you’re allowed to buy! It’s a money grab, for sure, but if you’re desperate…

When my friend and I walked in, she just handed the employee sitting at the front her medical marijuana card. The employee looked at it, plugged something into the computer, and that was all. And then my friend walked up to the counter to check out what they were offering. My friend was looking to buy pot pills, not actual weed. Because I don’t have a medical marijuana card, I was not allowed to go up to the counter, where the “bud-tenders” help customers. (I also wonder how you get a job as a bud-tender? “Hey Mom! I got a job! I’m a Bud-Tender!”) I sat on the bench, just inside the front door, patiently waiting.

Truthfully? It didn’t matter. Even though my friend was about two feet away, she texted me what they had, and I texted her back with what I wanted. My friend paid for the purchases, for me too, and that was it. It was almost like visiting a pharmacist, asking a couple questions about a medication, and then leaving. It was so easy!

There are other dispensaries, that are illegal and don’t care if you have a medical marijuana card. When you walk in, they will ask you for a piece of I.D. Some people I know are wary of writing down their personal information—name, date of birth—but they will tell you that all your information will be deleted at the end of the day. You do, in fact, write your personal information on a whiteboard, with an erasable marker, like a mini version of what a kindergarten teacher would write down on in her classroom.

After you give them your information and show your I.D. you are allowed to go up to the counter, where, surprisingly, all the bud-tenders, are super happy and super helpful. To the bud-tenders, it’s a job, and a job they enjoy, and like finding an empathetic nurse, the bud-tenders treat you like they really care about you. They are super laid back, as are all the other customers. And, no, it’s not because they are high (Although maybe some of them are, I could never tell.) Sometimes, there’s a tip jar, like at Starbucks. Depending on how long they help you, you may want to tip.

The bud-tenders don’t rush you, they don’t pressure you, and, trust me, no question is a stupid question. They are more professional than you’d probably ever imagine. In fact, a lot of retail stores could learn a lot from the customer service at dispensaries, legal or not. And the bud-tenders really know their stuff, talking you through what they have in stock and answering any inane questions you may have.

Many times I’ve heard from a bud-tender, “I haven’t tried it myself, but I know a lot of other customers like this (fill in the blank) to help with this (fill in the blank.)” Or you can ask, “I need something to help me sleep. What do you recommend?” And they will tell you your options.

Also, you really can’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, judge a recreational marijuana user by how they look. In all the dispensaries I’ve visited, there are all sorts of people—young, old, middle-age, men wearing suits, and women in yoga clothes. In fact, the busiest hours at dispensaries seem to be after work hours. I’ve never felt scared or out of place or that I was in danger. Quite frankly, none of them, or the customers, seemed sketchy at all.

Once you decide what you want—if you do decide to buy anything—you usually can pay by debit, credit card, or cash. (Some dispensaries have bank machines inside.)

But now each province has their own rules when it comes to legalizing dispensaries, and, unfortunately, if you are canna-curious about dispensaries, and you live in Ontario, you’re out of luck until April, as there won’t be any retail stores to browse around in. You’ll just have to shop online, and you won’t be able to purchase edibles for another year.

Still, in other provinces, such as Alberta, you’ll be able to buy cannabis in retail shops or online. Alberta expects to open 17 shops next week and 250 within a year. Vancouver will have just one store ready next Wednesday: a state-run shop in Kamloops, a few hours’ drive northeast of Vancouver. But that doesn’t mean illegal dispensaries are going to shut down. Which reminds me—don’t get too attached to your favourite dispensary. The one I like the best in Toronto has been shut down twice in the past few months when I went for a visit. Both times, they were open less than a week later. But another dispensary I once visited closed and never reopened. And I think it will be the same, once marijuana is legalized.

“There is no immediate crackdown expected for the dozens of illicit-but-tolerated medical marijuana dispensaries operating in British Columbia, though officials eventually plan to close any without a license. Many are expected to apply for private retail licenses, and some have sued, saying they have a right to remain open,” this article states.

So, yes, even though there won’t be legal dispensaries in Ontario, many dispensaries will remain open. Or they’ll be shut down…and then re-open. The fact is, some or many, of the illegal dispensaries, make more money than the fines, so don’t really care if they are raided. Although that may change.

In Halifax, for example, according to this article, there are about 24 dispensaries operating in the city. Supt. Jim Perrin of the Halifax Regional Police said his department has a “myriad of demands” and that, “history has shown just how persistent some dispensary operators can be.” He doesn’t expect them to close shop, admitting that some dispensaries have reopened hours after being raided. “…Part of that is these businesses are lucrative. The police can investigate, we can enforce the laws, but there’s nothing in the legislation that we enforce that allow us to go in and evict somebody from a premise,” he said.

Canna-curious? Me, at a legal dispensary in California.

I am not an expert on cannabis (I don’t even know how to roll a joint!) I’m not an advocate, but nor do I judge. But I do know, by visiting legal dispensaries in California, just how much dispensaries can up their game in the name of competition. One day, maybe Canada will have dispensaries like the ones I visited while vacationing, which are fabulous to window shop in.

In one dispensary in Venice Beach, it looked more like an Apple Store than a dispensary. They had dozens of iPads on counters, which explained to customers the different types of strain, the strength, what certain herbs help with, and also their other offerings, like edibles. They also had staff walking around to help you, sort of like at an airport, where an employee helps you with automated check-in machines.

In another legal dispensary in Palm Springs, they had a waiting room, with couches, and bowls of potato chips and lollipops, which I thought was a thoughtful and very smart touch (for those of you who get the munchies! Or for those of you just waiting for a friend to finish ‘shopping.’)

In another dispensary in San Fransisco, I purchased a couple of edibles while on a kid-free vacation. I walked out with a bag so pretty that it could have been a bag from an expensive boutique. They definitely knew how to market not only their products, but the dispensary. After all, I was walking around with a bag with the name of the dispensary on it.

The difference here, in Toronto, or other parts of Canada (I’m guessing) is you’ll be walking out with a plain bag, or no bag, since many provinces you’ll be ordering online. Also, many illegal dispensaries have weird hours. Many don’t open until noon and usually close by nine pm.

One major change under the provincial Cannabis Control Act on Oct. 17 will be the hefty fines. Dispensary owners could be forced to pay between $10,000 and $25,000 for each day they remain open. Under the new federal law, they could also face stiffer penalties of up to 14 years in jail. Police will be able to enforce both the federal and provincial laws that come into effect on Oct. 17.

Perrin’s biggest worry is that people are going to call the police, following legalization with “nuisance calls” on people smoking cannabis in public spaces. He said he hopes police will not be the first phone call. Depending on your sensibilities, this could be a good thing (do we want people using near schools? On the other hand, shouldn’t the police use their resources for more serious crimes? This is for another article.) But walking down the streets in Toronto, I often smell cannabis anyway these days.

So, it will be interesting to see what happens when it comes to legalizing retail dispensaries in Canada. I’m canna-curious to see how much or how little people will be visiting a legal dispensary versus an illegal dispensary.

Do you plan to visit a legal dispensary, even if to window shop?

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