With new government-licensed cannabis stores still opening in communities across Canada, shoppers with experience buying black market bud from their local dealer might be in for a surprise when they browse the legal market, where shoppers can't see the exact weed they're buying until after they buy it.
At Lake City Cannabis in Chestermere, Alta., customers ask to open sealed cannabis containers for examination on a daily basis, said owner Ryan Roch.
"We just explain to them, there's a lot of regulations… We can't just crack jars open, expose product, have it out there," he said.
"We try to explain, ultimately, that things are changing, right?"
Federal cannabis production regulations, which prioritize public health concerns, are the main reason Canadians must shop for legal marijuana sight unseen. The rules require that the immediate container for dried cannabis bud be either completely opaque or at least translucent, meaning no one can see exactly what's inside.
"This measure, along with requirements for plain packaging and labelling, and for packages to be child-resistant and tamper-evident, is part of the government's approach to reducing the appeal of cannabis products to youth and reducing inducements to using cannabis," wrote Health Canada spokesperson Geoffroy Legault-Thivierge in an emailed statement, noting that the federal task force on cannabis legalization recommended opaque packaging.
Provincial retail regulations add another layer of control on top of the federal packaging rules. In Manitoba, for example, provincial regulations forbid customers from handling cannabis before purchase, and cannabis can't be sold unless the original, nontransparent packaging is completely unopened.
But for discerning consumers, eyeballing cannabis flower can impart valuable information about quality. Independent cannabis reviewer Brad Martin of Pancakenap.com likens it to scrutinizing a container of grapes at a grocery store, or inspecting flowers at a florist.
"You want to make sure that it's not scant, that the colouring looks like it should," he said.
Scent also matters to cannabis cognoscenti like Martin.
"You can see what works with you and what doesn't, the same way you test cologne."
Walking the line between government regulations and consumer preferences, many licensed cannabis stores do display samples of cannabis, even though those floor models aren't exactly what shoppers will end up buying. At Delta 9 Cannabis stores in Manitoba, the sample display takes the form of a "sensory bar" where different cannabis cultivars are laid out side-by-side in transparent jars with a built-in magnifying lens. A special port lets shoppers get a whiff of what's inside, but provincial regulations require that store staff keep control of the display jars when shoppers pick them up.
The inability to inspect a specific cannabis container tends to be most confusing to those customers with experience shopping in the illicit market, said Trevor Duncan, who manages one of two Delta 9 Cannabis stores in Winnipeg.
"People from the west coast, who may not have seen how stores after legalization are operating, are sometimes surprised not to see the big jars with all the buds in it sitting on the counter, available to peruse," he said.
"But for the most part, people are generally quite happy that they can look, even look under a magnifying glass, and smell the product."
The distance between shoppers and their legal cannabis purchases means store operators have to know their stock and share their opinions with curious shoppers, according to Ryan Roch of Lake City Cannabis in Alberta.
"We do a lot of our own buying it and testing it, so that we can smoke it and experience it too," he said.
"But what it comes down to is, that's a cost to us. And as a retailer, that's anywhere between a 25 to a 35 per cent margin that I chuck out the door. So we lose that cost, but to me it's a cost that's an absolute necessary for doing business, because if we're not doing that, we're not giving that back to our consumers."
Solomon Israel is a full-time reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and for two years, the lead writer for Free Press cannabis news site, The Leaf News. He continues to provide coverage of the cannabis beat while covering business in the city and province.