CANNABIS CULTURE – Legalization is still fresh, and regardless, expecting the government to have a solid plan out of the gate is foolish. Still, that doesn’t make things any less disappointing for cannabis users.
When Canada made cannabis legal for recreational use in 2018, many users saw this as an opportunity for the existing marijuana community to have a chance at an affordable and legal endeavour.
In October of 2019, the government continued down the path to legalization by introducing cannabis edibles. But much to the dismay of experienced users, the approach to selling edibles so far has been cautious and pricey.
Just as was the case with Canada’s initial legalization of smokable weed in 2018.
Some seeking the formerly illicit drug will be more than satisfied with the legal option, regardless of price and accessibility. But many others are likely to scoff at the licensed products sold given the alternatives on the black market.
Lawrence Loh is an adjunct professor of public health at the University of Toronto. Along with fellow PhD Jasleen Grewal, he recently wrote an academic commentary for the Canadian Medical Association Journal that addresses the risks of selling edibles legally.
Loh is in favour of weed legalization. He is also aware that the suggestions that experts like himself have given for edibles will prevent them from attracting the full spectrum of users.
“The reality is that the black market is part and parcel of the cannabis landscape to this day. There is some suggestion that people are more likely to purchase from the legal market just given that it’s legal and that it makes it a little more attractive.”
However, according to recent data from Statistics Canada, the first year of legalization saw just 29 per cent of cannabis users get all their product from legal sources.
Take Ottawa as an example. The city currently has three legal retail options for buying recreational cannabis products. In order of affordability, the options are: Hobo Cannabis, Fire & Flower Cannabis, and Superette Cannabis. And while the prices vary at each location, they all charge much higher than those available through the online Ontario Cannabis Store.
Keep in mind OCS is the same store that distributes product to these retail stores.
Meanwhile, there are multiple online services available through Weedmaps, many neighborhoods dealers still in business, and more ways than one to make your own delicious (or not) edibles at home.
Again, this narrative isn’t new. The same scenario can be said when it comes to finding bud in the city.
Since cannabis was legalized, the government has been able to regulate and distribute different strains that range up to 25% in THC content.
In terms of the three stores in Ottawa, there are similarities in pricing between the low-end options sold in-store and the low-end options sold through services such as the Urban Farmer. In fact, paying $30-40 for 3.5 grams might even be standard from a local dealer for most people.
However, the key difference being that your local dealer will offer to sell you four times that quantity for roughly double the price. Licensed cannabis-sellers can offer no such bargain.
Pricing and accessibility are still factors that have prevented the black market from going anywhere.
During the fourth quarter of 2019, an average gram of legal product costed $10.30 while an average gram of illegal product went for $5.73.
While the OCS has prices as low as $5.59 per gram online, many users have been hesitant to input payment information on the internet or may just want weed in the moment and not want to wait for mail.
The gap can get crazy when comparing edible prices. Fire & Flower’s Ottawa location sells a 10 mg THC chocolate bar for $10. Culture Cannabis, an Ottawa-Gatineau weed delivery service, sells a package of 20 ‘ganja gummies’ for 55$, with each gummy holding 50 mg of THC. Break down those numbers, and it costs $10 for 10 mg of licensed THC and $10 for 181 mg of unlicensed THC.
Some might say this is just an isolated case of a good deal for Ottawa-Gatineau shoppers.
Yiğit is a University of Ottawa student who started doing his own business of selling edibles to other students during his first year at school.
“I sold a 100 mg cookie or brownie for $10,” he says. “I also made deals for the people who wanted to buy more than 1, like 3 for $25.”
While Yiğit no longer sells these goodies, he doesn’t think people would want to go to stores that charge more than $10 for a 50 mg edible, much less a 10 mg option.
Some people would go to stores that charge $10 for a 10 mg option, and Tricia Lackey is the director of customer experience for one of those stores. Lackey works at Superette in Ottawa, and she feels that customers shouldn’t bring their conceptions from the illicit market into how they look at the new regulated edibles sold. Lackey feels that a lot of people who think their dose is 25 mg of THC would be surprised to find that Superette’s 10 mg THC edibles would have the same effect- because they’ve been regulated and distributed through OCS.
You’d certainly hope that the government now regulating marijuana will increase the likelihood of accuracy of THC content amounts. But it’s not fair to assume that every illicitly purchased edible has been labeled with an overestimation of THC.
For those customers who want more than 10 mg, Lackey says it’s perfectly fine to buy multiple edibles if it stays within the legal limit of 30 grams of cannabis.
While this is at least a bone being thrown to experienced users, it’s also an expensive one. All of this should be mentioned with an asterisk, as the OCS only allows retail shops to get one shipment of edibles per week — which Lackey says they typically run out of within 24 hours.
Mike Foster is the owner of Crosstown Traffic, a headshop that’s been around in downtown Ottawa since 1992, and he’s skeptical of the way legalization has been rolled out in general.
“There’s been an underground culture that existed for decades, and it’s been built up and it functions really well. When they legalized it, instead of bringing the existing culture in, they still shut us all out.”
“They gave it to these other guys who are reinventing the wheel,” Foster says. “And doing it with public funds, and everybody’s lining their pockets and they have no frigen idea what they’re doing. The chocolate bars I eat are like 100 mg. I can pay $10 and get a 100 mg bar.”
Foster points out that the licensed cannabis companies are about to lose a bunch of money if they don’t figure out what worked in the black market and at least try to replicate it.
To be fair, it’s not always good to assume the worst in people- so why do that with the government regulations that have been applied to edibles?
There are certainly valid concerns with how to roll out the licensed distribution of snack food that can also make you high.
Just as Loh points out with his commentary, public health officials have warned of the risks edible products pose when it comes to overconsumption or accidental ingestion.
“I think the reason why they aimed for a 10 mg dose per serving of cannabis is that they wanted to make sure that people are adhering to the advice of starting low and going slow,” Loh says. “In terms of overconsumption, this can happen to anyone, particularly those who are new to cannabis edibles. They take a little bit, they don’t necessarily feel anything, so they take a bit more and before they know it- with the delayed response of a lot of these things- four hours later they’ve overconsumed.”
Anyone who’s ever underestimated an innocent-looking gummy bear before knows that eating too much can feel like the walls are closing in, but there are very few recorded incidences of people fatally overdosing on marijuana. Most of the time, it just serves as a useful ego check for users.
The idea of accidental ingestion is a concern that has been raised because of the chance that children may find a THC-infused cookie and indulge. This would obviously be a disaster, and it would be a failing on the part of whoever (accidentally or not) made it so that kid could access an edible.
While this scenario is possible, there are also plenty of delicious-looking, sugary alcoholic beverages that a kid could stumble upon. And we’ve decided as a society that it is generally not the role of the government to remove these temptations from public access.
While the option to buy a 10 mg THC chocolate bar legally is reasonable for some users, it’s also not for those who might need at least three of these edibles to get some resemblance of a high.
Camelia is an Ottawa post-secondary student who uses the unlicensed market because she can buy good product for affordable prices.
“The illegal market is better for your money, especially if you have a high tolerance.”
She uses Weedmaps as her source for edibles.
While Ontario’s edible failings are the focus here, things aren’t perfect anywhere.
In Saskatchewan, people like Maureen Remenda have an entertaining way of describing their experience with licensed edibles.
“I bought 150 mg worth of edibles which took forever because they come in 2 mg candies. Ate it all in one sitting and cost over $100 for that session. I’ve been more stoned from my hippy neighbor lady’s brownies.”
Many experienced users will tell you that 150 mg of THC is more than you need, but there’s still a big middle ground that is being left unserved between the 10 mg THC edibles offered and 150 mg.
However, health experts such as Loh view the concerns surrounding overconsumption and accidental ingestion as the priority.
“It would probably be unwise for the government to be competing on dosing size as opposed to other things like price or availability- in terms of edibles,” Loh says.
While the government should be focused on competitive pricing and availability, these are variables that are tied to the dosing options.
If a customer must pay up to 10 times more for 10 mg THC legally, than the legal market is not offering products at a competitive price.
Things could be a lot worse. It hasn’t been the legalization that many wanted, but it at least has been legalization.
In Ontario, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has said they are determined to open the pot market and loosen the current licensing system. This is positive news for users all over the province, as there at least 2.8 million Ontarians who live in areas where their municipality was able to opt against the presence of retail stores.
And if with these changes the government opens public consultation on what dosages people would like to see, then things are looking up for users. That might be a pipe dream though.
It could also be great news for those looking to eliminate the black market, as an actual ‘free cannabis market’ would mean real affordability and accessibility when it comes to people buying the cannabis products that they see fit.