“RELAX. Unwind. Centre. Enhance.” These hippy-dippy blandishments will appear in big bright letters on government-owned shops in Nova Scotia, a province in Canada’s east. They will add colour to outlets that otherwise resemble post offices. Business will begin on October 17th, when the sale of recreational cannabis will become legal across Canada. In the western province of Alberta, Tokyo Smoke, a private-sector firm, plans to open pot shops that are more like hipster cafés. In British Columbia illegal outlets have long masqueraded as “dispensaries”. Newly legal, some plan to kit themselves out like upmarket pharmacies.
Under Canada’s scheme for legalising cannabis, the federal government will regulate production and set minimum standards for safety. Consumers must be 18 or older and may possess no more than 30 grams. But each of the ten provinces and three territories will decide how to distribute the stuff to 12m potential consumers (the number of Canadians who say they have indulged at least once) plus visitors.
In typically Canadian fashion, every province’s legislation has its own “quirks”, says Michael Armstrong, a business professor at Brock University in Ontario. Five will make the sale of cannabis a provincial monopoly, as most provinces do for spirits. Government-run shops will take especially seriously their mission to safeguard public health and supplant the black market, says Rebecca Brown of Crowns Creative, an advertising agency that specialises in cannabis. Their design is thus likely to be “pleasant, but not too pleasant”.
In Ontario, the most populous province, cannabis shops will keep the product out of sight. Customers will fill out order forms, which employees will execute in back rooms. (The province’s new premier, Doug Ford, whose late brother was a crack-smoking mayor of Toronto, may have other ideas. He has mused about allowing sales in private shops.) New Brunswick, an eastern province, will require cannabis to be kept behind glass. In Nova Scotia it will be displayed behind a counter, except in one central store, where customers will be able to sniff the weed.
Things will be livelier in the other areas, including Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba, where the private sector will be allowed. In some cases it will compete with government-owned online and bricks-and-mortar retailers. Private shops will be freer to “pursue a delightful retail experience”, says Ms Brown, though the delight will be curbed by a federal rule that cannabis be sold in plain packages bearing large, yellow labels and smaller red ones warning of health hazards. There will be room (just) for the logo of the producer.
Will Canadian tokers be able to get supplies from neighbouring provinces with glitzier emporiums? Maybe not. Most provinces limit how much people can transport across borders. They may do the same for cannabis, says Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer. British Columbia already has a “ridiculous and unenforceable” requirement that anyone bringing cannabis from outside report to provincial authorities. “It boggles the mind that in 2018 you can’t cross an imaginary line and buy 24 beers or 30 grams of cannabis without filling out a form or paying your own province,” Mr Tousaw fumes. Canadians waving goodbye to prohibition will be tangled up in red tape.
Correction (August 16th 2018): Nova Scotia is in Canada’s east, not its north-east as this article originally claimed.