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Winnipeggers were keen to buy legalized cannabis Wednesday online and in line.
Cannabis prohibition in Canada ended as of Wednesday morning, but the stigma around using marijuana persisted for many people lined up outside Winnipeg's new, legal cannabis stores on a brisk, clear day.
Shoppers of all ages tended to be shy about giving their names to inquiring reporters. But when the doors finally opened, those Manitobans ran the gauntlet of cameras for their first chance to buy weed without breaking the law.
Here's what happened on Wednesday at four legal cannabis outlets across the city.
An hour before the Tokyo Smoke cannabis store at 55 Goulet St. in St. Boniface opened, about 20 shoppers were lined up outside. Some hid their faces behind big sunglasses and tuques that were pulled down low.
"A lot of people just are so taboo against it, a lot of people are still against it — I've been against it for my whole entire life," said a customer who works in law enforcement, and would only agree to an interview if he wasn't identified.
The 37-year-old, who had only used marijuana three times, was looking for some cannabis to help him sleep at night.
"Anyone who works in law enforcement, we all work shift work, and honestly, it takes a toll on your body."
By opening time at 10 a.m., the line had swelled to at least 50 people. After a quick ID check at the doors, they were off — browsing the descriptions of a variety of cannabis strains in a bright, open space and writing down their purchases on shopping lists. (Only five kinds of cannabis were available for sale, with more promised soon.)
Educational material on the walls walked novices through the basics of cannabis lore, and staffers were available for advice at every turn.
Store manager Andrew Sniatkowski guided 26-year-old Eric Bachmann through his first legal purchase.
"Regulatory actions are actually really great for cannabis, because we know what we're getting — you know what's in it, it's been tested," Sniatkowski told Bachmann, who agreed.
In the end, Bachmann spent $28 on a gram of Serious Kush and a gram of Cold Creek Kush. The shopping experience, he said, was a big step up from the last time he bought weed.
"You're always worried about being caught, and I don't want to worry about it. I don't want to have the stigma attached to it — I don't feel like I'm a criminal, so this is very nice."
Before it opened at 10 a.m., 150 cannabis customers lined up outside Delta 9’s retail store on Dakota Street in St. Vital.
"Merry legalization day!" said one young man who'd been waiting since 5 a.m. with two friends, each of whom requested anonymity.
"There’s still a stigma," said the 23-year-old female in the trio, a university student. "It's history in the making," said the third 20-something, who was shivering in the dark and identified himself as a health-care worker. "We want to support cannabis culture," he said, noting they have the day off.
When it opened, 30 customers at a time were allowed inside the gleaming bud boutique.
"It’s a high-class kind of shop," said Sam, 25, who didn't want his last name used. "It's like an Apple store."
A sensory bar along the back wall allows customers to see and smell the cannabis strains before placing an order. Sam spent close to $100 on weed and accessories, including grape-flavoured rolling papers. His buddy, Carl, spent almost as much. The two young men said they’ll use cannabis recreationally instead of booze.
"I feel much more in control," said Sam. "And there’s no hangover," said Carl.
Online, Delta 9 sold out an hour after it began taking orders at midnight. "We had 400 orders in the first hour," said CEO John Arbuthnot. "I went online at 12:01 (a.m.) and I was the 90th order," said the 28-year-old, who runs the company. A new shipment arrived by 6 a.m. The store’s vault was packed with cardboard boxes filled with strains such as Sensi Star, Diesel, Keats and Galiano.
"We’re hoping that’s going to last a few days," said Arbuthnot. "Hopefully, we’ll get through the weekend." Another "few hundred kilograms" of cannabis is expected to arrive in the next few weeks, he said, trying to keep in mind the historic importance of the day, and likening it the end of Prohibition in 1933. "This was kind of surreal."
For the crowd at Tim Hortons next door, the legalization of marijuana wasn't a big deal.
"I’m not concerned," said Nissa Chmilowsky, 49. "The only ones it affects are people who already smoke cannabis," she said.
At Canopy Growth Corp.'s Tweed store on Regent Avenue, at least 50 shoppers were lined up as of 11 a.m. — only to face another long line when they got in. One customer said the entire shopping process took him two hours.
"I definitely think it will speed up, just as stores hit their stride," said Dan Larocque, whose job title with Canopy is "cannabis subject matter expert."
"A lot has gone into planning how this is going to be done, but when it comes down to it, today is the first day that the wheels hit the road."
Eleven kinds of dried cannabis were available for shoppers at the Tweed store Wednesday morning, with more on the way.
"We've already received three shipments — there's stuff rolling in the door," said Canopy Growth corporate trainer Kate Moody.
As with shoppers at other cannabis stores, the vast majority of Manitobans in line at the Tweed store weren't willing to talk on the record with reporters as they waited.
Winnipeggers Al and Susan Altomare were a rare exception — Susan had never used cannabis, and Al figures the last time he used it was 40 years ago, "at least." Wednesday was his 61st birthday.
"My wife is making me a special birthday dinner, so if we smoke first then we'll be really hungry," he said, laughing.
Jokes aside, Altomare felt legalization might be a step forward for Canada.
"If it works the way they're planning for it to work, getting rid of criminal activity, protecting a certain number of younger kids from getting easy access to it, I think it'll be good."
National Access Cannabis waited until 5 p.m. to open its Meta Cannabis Supply Co. retail storefront, not that the delay seemed to matter.
About 100 people lined up outside the strip mall location at 584 Pembina Highway were in a festive mood, chatting amicably under a setting sun.
Security guards allowed access to small groups, as customers made their purchases and made room for others.
Inside, a lobby separated the store from the street, and the retail space had the polished feel of a mall computer store.
"We’re not comparing ourselves to that fruit product," NAC vice-president Matt Ryan said with a chuckle.
He gestured to the central round bar, and then to display cases set into the walls around it. "We designed the store to look like a jewellery store meets a bakery."
Store consultants, about a dozen of them, were on hand to act as concierges.
"Cannabis is a complex product," Ryan said. "We call (staff) 'friendly guides,' and they help people as they go on their journey and learn about cannabis."
Chief Christian Sinclair of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation was the first customer. OCN owns 10 per cent of NAC.
"I had no clue what I bought," Sinclair said.
His guide was a store employee who’s also a member of OCN. Melissa Constant suggest two hybrids with mid to high levels of THC: the Ultra Sour and Girl Scout Cookies brands.
Both were tucked discreetly away in a small white paper bag. The sales receipt was for $167 and change.
It won’t be consumed. The purchase is headed back to OCN.
"We’re going to put this into frames and keep them as mementoes," Sinclair said.
OCN is a member of the "Big Five" group of First Nations with plans to retail pot in Manitoba.
Three retail outlets are expected to open on reserve lands between the end of October and mid-November: on Long Plain’s Madison Street site in Winnipeg, at OCN’s mall adjacent to The Pas, and on Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation property in Thompson.
Matthew Dahl was the first retail customer to purchase cannabis at the Delta 9 store on Dakota Street.
"I said, 'Give me one of those and one of those' — I wasn't picky," said Dahl, who was in a hurry. He had been waiting in line in the cold since 7 a.m. and had to go to the bathroom.
He spent about $25 on a gram of "Keats" and a gram of "Galiano." He was looking forward to sampling his purchases at home.
"I have the day off," he said.
Dave Watson drove from his home in Morris to buy weed Wednesday.
"I've been waiting for this day for 27 years," said Watson, 45. He said he placed an online order on Delta 9's website when it became legal just after midnight, then decided to drive in to buy some at the St. Vital store.
"I think every little town should have (a retail outlet)," said Watson, who has used cannabis medicinally after hurting his back a few years ago. Now he uses it for migraine headaches and anxiety.
Kim Cayer didn't want to miss the moment when legal pot went on sale in Canadian stores.
"I wanted to be here," the 58-year-old Toronto resident said in line, waiting for Delta 9 to open its doors.
Ontarians have to purchase recreational weed online through the Ontario Cannabis Store, which does not operate any retail outlets. The provincial government expects to introduce a private retail model, but not until next spring.
Cayer, who performs as a magician and clown in Toronto, wanted to buy some in the flesh. Her mother Joyce Cayer, who lives in Steinbach, was in line with her; Joyce said she has tried marijuana, but didn't care for it.
Kim said she's looking forward to having a puff at the end of a workday, just as some people enjoy a glass of wine, without raising eyebrows.
"Now I can sit on my deck," she said. "And I don't have to go into a back alley to buy it."
Kim Talaga, who has a prescription for medical marijuana, drove into Winnipeg from Beausejour to visit Delta 9, where she has a prescription on file.
When she saw the line out the door and around the building, she asked one of the security guards outside the store if there was an express lane for medicinal marijuana users.
"There's no priority for patients? I have to wait in line? It doesn't make any sense," said Talaga, who had adenoid cystic carcinoma that affected her trachea and left her with scar tissue and pain.
"This is my medicine," said the 49-year-old, who decided not to wait. "You shouldn't have to line up."
"I just wanted to see what it's all about and be part of the experience," said Dan Niles, a 59-year old Winnipegger who has used cannabis for about four decades, as he waited in line at the Tokyo Smoke store on Goulet Street.
"It's kind of like the end of Prohibition, in a way, but with an unenforceable law to start with. If people want to smoke, they're going to find a way to smoke."
Niles said the success of legal cannabis will depend on quality and price.
"If it's going to be more than, say, $10 a gram, then I can simply go to my guy down the street and buy some."
St. Boniface resident Hubert Bergeron was happy to give his full name to media as he waited to buy weed at Tokyo Smoke.
"There's two factors there: I'm old, and I don't give a s—t," joked the 72-year-old. "And it's legal, so why not?"
Prices at the store did seem "a bit high," he said.
"But I wanted to come here today because it's quality-controlled and I can choose what I want, so I'll be doing it for today. But in the future, we'll see what happens with the black-market competition."
Bergeron has waited 50 years for legalization, and was excited about government regulation. Was he willing to pay extra for the legal stuff?
"Oh sure, yeah — a couple of bucks. But other than that, people will be looking for the best price in Canada, and that's going to put some pressure on the retail."
Claudine Bergeron accompanied her husband to his first legal pot deal, even though marijuana's not her thing.
"I tried it when I met him 50 years ago, but it wasn't for me," she said.
Still, she's in favour of legalization, because cannabis users "should know what they're getting."
"I think this is a good step," she said. (You) shouldn't go to jail for this, and people should really feel at ease what they're taking is protected, it's quality-controlled. Some people want it for medicinal reasons, and I think that's really going to be interesting for us seniors."
Winnipegger Steven Garner uses marijuana "maybe twice a year" with his significant other. But he was still willing to spend his Wednesday morning waiting in line for some legal bud at the Tweed store on Regent Avenue.
"We just feel that it's kind of a momentous occasion, we should probably contribute to the free rights and open rights for Canadians to do what they want to do," he said.
As he waited, Garner had plenty of time to reflect on the store itself, which was mostly occupied by high-end accessories and Tweed-branded apparel.
"It seems like a lot of wasted space for something like this," he said.
"They could do this whole thing with half the retail space. Nothing's been purchased off the shelves; you don't see anyone buying T-shirts.... It should just be like a Tim Hortons."
Gary and Heather met while they waited in line at the Regent Avenue Tweed store, and neither wanted to share their last names with the Free Press. But they were both happy to share their thoughts on legal weed.
Gary, a retiree from The Pas, is accustomed to buying from "a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy."
The opportunity to buy marijuana in a store has been "a long time coming," he said, adding he was planning to get 3.5 grams — an eighth of an ounce — and was willing to spend as much as $60 for the privilege.
"It's only a weed, it's just a plant," he said.
Heather usually gets her weed from friends, and was prepared to spend about $50 for "a little bit" of the legal stuff.
"It's like buying an expensive bottle of wine, or a cheap bottle of wine," she said.
Like Gary, Heather said she was willing to spend a bit more for government-controlled product.
"Because you don't know what you're getting with a local dealer — who knows what? Do they spray it with Off to get the bugs off it it, or, who knows?"
Still, she would have preferred to see cannabis sold in government-owned liquor stores, as opposed to private stores.
"I just think that the government control would be better that way."
Solomon Israel is the full-time cannabis reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press and its national cannabis news website, TheLeafNews.com. He covers the social, legal, medical and scientific aspects of marijuana legalization in Manitoba and the rest of Canada.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.