By, Rob Gillies, Gene Johnson and Tracey Lindeman
MONTREAL (AP) — Jubilant customers stood in long lines for hours, then lit up and celebrated on sidewalks Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018, as Canada became the world’s largest legal marijuana marketplace.In Toronto, people smoked joints as soon as they rolled out of bed in a big “wake and bake” celebration. In Alberta, a government website that sells pot crashed when too many people tried to place orders.
And in Montreal, Graeme Campbell welcomed the day he could easily buy all the pot he wanted.
“It’s hard to find people to sell to me because I look like a cop,” the clean-cut, 43-year-old computer programmer said outside a newly opened cannabis store.
He and his friend Alex Lacrosse were smoking a joint when two police officers walked by. “I passed you a joint right in front of them and they didn’t even bat an eye,” Lacrosse told his friend.
Festivities erupted throughout the nation as Canada became the largest country on the planet with legal cannabis sales. At least 111 pot shops were expected to open Oct. 17, 2018, across the nation of 37 million people — with many more to come, according to an Associated Press survey of the provinces. Uruguay was the first country to legalize marijuana.
Ian Power was first in line at a store in St. John’s, the capital city of Newfoundland and Labrador, but didn’t plan to smoke the gram he bought after midnight.
“I am going to frame it and hang it on my wall,” the 46-year-old Power said. “I’m going to save it forever.”
Tom Clarke, an illegal marijuana dealer for three decades, opened a pot store in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, and made his first sale to his dad. He was cheered by the crowd waiting in line.
“This is awesome. I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” Clarke said. “I am so happy to be living in Canada right now instead of south of the border.”
The start of legal sales wasn’t the only good news for pot aficionados: Canada said it intends to pardon everyone with convictions for possessing up to 30 grams, or 1.06 ounces, of marijuana, the newly legal threshold.
Medical marijuana has been legal since 2001 in Canada, and Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has spent the past two years working toward legalizing recreational pot to better reflect society’s changing opinion about marijuana and bring black-market operators into a regulated system.
‘It’s a Once in a Lifetime Thing’
Corey Stone and a friend got to one of the 12 stores that opened in Quebec at 3:45 a.m. to be among the first to buy cannabis. Hundreds later lined up.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing — you’re never ever going to be one of the first people able to buy legal recreational cannabis in Canada ever again,” said Stone, a 32-year restaurant and bar manager.
The stores have a sterile look, like a modern clinic, with a security desk to check identification. The products are displayed in plastic or cardboard packages behind counters. Buyers can’t touch or smell the products before they buy. A small team of employees answer questions but don’t make recommendations.
“It’s a candy store, I like the experience,” said Vincent Desjardins, a 20-year-old-student who plans to apply for a job at the Montreal shop.
Canadians can also order marijuana products through websites run by provinces or private retailers and have it delivered to their home by Canada Post.
At 12:07 a.m., the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission tweeted: “You like us! Our website is experiencing some heavy traffic. We are working hard to get it up and running.”
Alberta and Quebec have set the minimum age for purchase at 18, while all other provinces and territories have made it 19, the age established by the national government.
No stores will open in Ontario, which includes Toronto. The nation’s most populous province is working on its regulations and doesn’t expect stores to operate until spring.
Federalism at Work
A patchwork of regulations has spread in Canada as each province and territory takes its own approach within the framework established by the federal government. Some provinces have government-run stores, others allow private retailers, and some have both.
Canada’s national approach allows unfettered banking for the cannabis industry, inter-province shipments of cannabis and billions of dollars in investment — a sharp contrast with prohibitions in the United States, where nine states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational sales of marijuana, and an additional 22 have approved medical marijuana.
Bruce Linton, CEO of marijuana producer and retailer Canopy Growth, claims he made the first sale in Canada — less than a second after midnight in Newfoundland.
“It was extremely emotional,” he said. “Several people who work for us have been working on this for their entire adult life and several of them were in tears.”
Linton is proud that Canada is now at the forefront of the burgeoning industry.
“The last time Canada was this far ahead in anything, Alexander Graham Bell made a phone call,” said Linton, whose company received an investment of $4 billion from Victor, New York-based alcoholic beverages giant Constellation Brands, whose holdings include Corona beer and Robert Mondavi wines.
Cam Battley, chief corporate officer of Aurora Cannabis, also one of Canada’s largest cannabis companies, said it’s not every day you get to be involved in the start of a new industry.
“The world trusts Canada to be a leader in this,” he said. “We’re not known as wild and crazy. We’re known for good public policy and I think they will follow our lead.”