Abi Roach, cannabis advocate and president of Ontario’s Hotbox Lounge, thinks that if businesses want to survive in the legal industry, they will have to work within the legal framework laid out in these early days.
"I mean, if they want it, they’ll get it. That’s the bottom line," she told Civilized on the eve of legalization. "Even applying for a restaurant license in the city of Toronto is a gruelling task, in terms of paperwork. Legalization comes with paperwork, it comes with red tape—it comes with all of that. So, if you’re a smart business person, you’ll figure it out. That’s just the way it is."
Roach is also the primary contact for the Cannabis Friendly Business Association, an organization that unifies cannabis or cannabis-adjacent companies in order to "build a refined and respected cannabis industry in Canada."
What is the general feeling among private retailers? Is it all doom and gloom?
No. I did a deputation last week about lounges, and they asked me afterwards, how will we be able to tell the good players from the bad? Well, I said, those that will want to be legal will close, and they’ll apply. Those who are just in it for the short-term will keep going and you’ll have to shut them down. It’s a pretty simple solution, really.
Do you think those that are choosing staying open without a license have any legitimate legal recourse or claim?
There’s no charter right says you can get high, you know? For medicine, sure, but there is no charter right to smoke tobacco, there’s no right for smoking alcohol. It’s legal, so there are regulations around where, when and how you can buy and consume it. That’s just the nature of the beast. We can’t ask for something to be legal, then just not have it be regulated. That’s just not how legal products work.
Even when we buy gas for our car, it’s regulated. There is regulations around everything. So, that’s an important part of legalization. If we want cannabis to be legal, we’re going to have to expect to follow some rules.
For many of us involved, all we ever wanted was a legal license. While the past government took that opportunity away from us, we’ve now been given the opportunity to work within that legal framework, and I think we should be wanting to comply.
How do you think this will affect organizations like the Cannabis Friendly Business Association that helps organizations rally behind a cause - it will likely foster more competition between brands. How do you expect that to play out?
Well, with the CFBA, the reason that you do have private retail in Ontario right now, is because we fought for it. Our mandate has always been to work along with the government to create solutions. That has always been our mandate.
Our mandate now is to create a framework that will be more inclusive, not only for businesses, but also for the consumer. Right now, we’re working with the Ontario Cannabis Consumer and Retail Alliance, so we’re working on behalf of both consumers and retailers at the same time, and towards the same point.
Do you anticipate that most brands will be on board for that and continue to rally together?
Again, those who are going to enter the framework already know what they have to do. They understand that they have to have their security, their compliance, all of that comes with applying for a license, and the people who just want to sell illegal weed, will just continue to. That’s okay, that’s their prerogative, but they’re going to have to figure that out.
For me, I don’t own a dispensary, I own a lounge, but we’re making sure that any product that I’d call an "eggshell" product (i.e. "walking on eggshells") is coming off of our shelves. Just to be compliant. We don’t want to rattle any cages after I’ve been waiting eighteen years, just so I can lose my chance at participating in the legal market. So, what’s four or five more months of building and waiting for a lifetime?
Do you see online distribution having a better chance of lasting in the "gray area" market than the brick and mortar private stores?
I think so. My personal feeling is that the private brick and mortar stores will go down like this. I think it'll mostly happen though paperwork, meaning landlords will get letters informing them that they have an illegal business operating in their building.
So, for an online building, you don’t have as much red tape. There’s nowhere to really raid, unless they find out where your warehouse is, there are fewer people to arrest, and no landlord to call and threaten.
I think with Ontario, it happened at a funny time, because we had an election right before legalization, and everything changed, so there just wasn’t time to create private retail and roll it out properly. I understand the province’s hiccup, and for them the online solution…well, it is what it is, right? It’ll work. This is just day one of forever. But, for the illegal dispensaries, online will likely remain the most viable option.
Do you think Ontario will meet the April deadline it has set for itself?
Sure. I think there’s enough precedents from around the world that they can draw their policy from. There’s enough to pick and choose from, so the framework is there.