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Illustration: Reine Tejares

Is the legitimate buying and selling of marijuana in the Ottawa area about to break into the mainstream?

Despite the newly elected Liberal government’s favourable attitude towards legalization, the general atmosphere in Ottawa seems to suggest that its citizens are still hesitant to accept weed culture in its entirety.

Outside of the legions of pot aficionados who storm Parliament Hill every year on April 20 to promote their love of the Mary Jane, Canada’s capital seems to lag far behind cities like Vancouver and Toronto in terms of their willingness to openly embrace cannabis in a social and fiscal context.

In places like Vancouver they have pot themed magazines, tourism, and dispensaries by the hundreds, which means that the community is willing to invest a lot of its money and resources towards a substance that is still technically illegal.

Instead of acting as the poster child for impending legalization, businesses in the nation’s capital that profit from this subculture are bogged down in legal grey areas and social stigmas that prevent any greater sense of larger societal acceptance.

Vapour lounges like Smoke Signalz on Rideau street and Buzz On in Vanier are still some of the most high-profile pro-cannabis pillars in the Ottawa community, offering locals a safe space to light up in a recreational capacity.

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Smoke Signalz continues to be one of the most high profile cannabis culture hubs in Ottawa. Photo: Kyle Darbyson.

Ottawa even welcomed its first walk-in medical pot shop into the fold in November, which has accumulated over 500 members so far.

Unfortunately, these establishments are few and far between, and their relative newness means that it’s an uphill battle to build up a loyal customer base and citywide acceptance amongst the public.

But can Ottawa break out of this cycle and stop shying away from a burgeoning “counter culture” that fellow Canadian cities have already embraced?

Cultivating a scene

Over the last year, much of the discussion surrounding Ottawa’s local weed culture has pivoted around the previously mentioned Buzz On lounge.

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Although it’s open today, the Buzz On vapour lounge was shut down in May due to “building code violation”. Photo: Kyle Darbyson.

When news broke that Buzz On was going to be the first high-profile vapour lounge to open in Ottawa, some did not take kindly to the concept, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson.

“I’m not impressed with it at all. I think it’s the last thing this city needs,” Watson said in an interview with the Ottawa Citizen a year ago. “I want to see areas like Vanier develop with legitimate, exciting new businesses, not something that is clearly illegal.”

Watson went even further than simple moral condemnation, stating that law enforcement should take direct action: “If laws are being broken, if people are consuming and smoking and exchanging illegal products, then police should lay charges.”

These sentiments of mistrust and suspicion began to take shape when Buzz On opened last April, as the business was shut down within its first six weeks due to building code violations, something that owner Wayne Robillard feels scared the public away.

“It was not the nature of the business. It was all just the zoning (laws), but I think that confused a lot of people,” he said. Others feel that it was done as an implicit warning to those like Robillard who want to start a similar business.

“It was for other reasons,” said Alex Cross, a Buzz On employee. “They wouldn’t have looked into the building code violations if it wasn’t a vapour lounge.”

Regardless of the mayor’s opinions, Robillard is operating within the law, since he does not sell marijuana on the premises. Instead, Robillard merely provides an environment where his patrons can smoke their own weed, while also indulging in snacks, drinks, and video games.

With about 30 clients a day, and with events like UFC nights, comedy nights, and live DJ performances taking place on a semi-regular basis, Robillard and his employees have established a fairly solid social scene after re-opening their doors in November.

However, Cross admits that although they do get a good show of people for events, it’s almost never a full house on a regular day.

Robillard is looking to change this and hopes to see more vapour lounges pop up in the Ottawa region in the future.

“We should have more lounges. We should have those places to gather,” he said. “It’s a totally different culture than alcohol.”

Where do we draw the line?

Despite the baby steps that the city seems to be taking towards accepting weed as being part of the mainstream, Robillard still believes there’s a long way to go.

“It’s very underground here,” he said. “Cocaine is probably more prolific in the public eye than cannabis.”

Eugene Oscapella—a professor in the department of Criminology at University of Ottawa—explains that the cultural acceptance of cannabis does in fact vary from city to city, but not for the reasons you might think.

“It’s not so much the culture, it’s the degree of enforcement,” he said. “That’s one of the problems we have is inconsistency of enforcement. If you live in one city the police will bust you, and if you live in another one they will not, and that’s not fair.”

This is particularly true for many municipalities in the province of Ontario, where city officials are stuck in a bizarre legal circumstance where they can regulate legal substances, but are unable to rigorously regulate illegal drug use.

Watson admits as much in the previously mentioned interview with the Citizen, saying: “We can regulate tobacco products, but we can’t regulate marijuana as a city bylaw. It would have to come from the province—it would have to amend the Smoke Free Ontario Act.”

This legal grey area complicates matters for store owners like Nick Dumond as well, who runs a medical dispensary called Weed Glass & Gifts a couple doors down from Buzz On.

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Weed Glass & Gifts is one of the many outlets in Vanier that sells weed related paraphernalia, even though such a thing is illegal. Photo: Kyle Darbyson.

Although the distribution of medical marijuana is protected under Canadian law, the selling of bongs and other weed-related paraphernalia is not, which can lead to tense situations for someone like Dumond, especially since he is not an officially licensed producer.

Dumond, whose store is built like a bank with its security features, has already experienced his own run-in with the law when a police officer came in after he accidentally pressed the panic button. The interaction went without incident, but a the lingering sense of uncertainty remains for Dumond and countless store owners like him.

As such, while Dumond says he’s all for opening more dispensaries in the Ottawa area, he states that business owners should proceed with caution and act diligently and responsibly.

“If we’re acting like a bunch of yahoos then we’re not going to get the stigma lifted,” he said. “Being in the capital of Canada, I’m hoping that they’ll look at me and say ‘Look, let’s use this as a template.’”

Won’t someone think of the children?

Another angle that has certain members of the community feeling uneasy is its “corrupting” influence on the youth of the nation.

This is particularly true for university campuses, which is known for being a haven for young people to experiment with a variety of controlled substances with close to zero supervision.

Robillard knew as much, as posters advertising Buzz On were plastered all over the U of O campus in the months after its grand re-opening.

“When I look at my students, the vast majority of them have at some point in their lives tried cannabis… so I don’t think that (legalization) will change that much,” Oscapella shares. “What it will change is that they won’t get criminal records, and that’s significant.”

Oscapella believes that people who want to use drugs will find a way to do so regardless of the law, which means, in his mind, that proper legal regulation is a much better way to go than straight up prohibition.

“Prohibition is the easy solution… but it’s totally ineffective and actually counterproductive. Intelligent regulation is much more complex… but I think it will bring about a much better result for society in the end.”

His theory is reinforced by the success of establishments like Buzz On in the Vanier region.

Whereas in pubs there is heavy security and police monitoring the area, Robillard says that he has no such concerns since marijuana, scientifically speaking, is much less destructive than alcohol.

Cross affirms this by saying that “(It’s) way more of a calm environment, everyone’s mellow… they haven’t had one problem since we’ve been here and that’s pretty rare for this neighbourhood,” adding that before they opened it was not uncommon to find needles in the alley ways behind buildings.

Leigh Meghan, a first-year psychology student at the U of O is similarly skeptical of any kind of drug prohibition, saying that “If people want to smoke pot, they will, whether it’s legal or not.”

Meghan goes onto say that she would consider making the switch from a bar to a vapour lounge when the drug becomes legal, even though the overall presence of weed in Ottawa pales in comparison to what is available to her in her home city of Toronto.

“I don’t see a lot of people smoking here,” she said. “I would notice it more (in) Toronto, and you could even smell it in the streets… it got to a point where you wouldn’t know if someone was smoking a joint or a cigarette.”

Government on the grind

While the groundwork exists for the legalization of marijuana to become a possibility in the near future, our current government is stuck in a bit of a “will they, won’t they” relationship on the issue.

“We’re in a transition period now. We have this government that says we will legalize, and they’re right to take their time,” said Line Beauchesne, a U of O professor who specializes in community policing and the impact of drug policies on treatment and prevention. “But at the same time you have all those people waiting for years to be free to use cannabis as they want. And you have the police who don’t know if they should make a move because it will be legalized in a few years’ time, and you have cities who (don’t know what to do).”

Robillard in contrast, is sick of waiting for the government to make up its mind.

“It’s a waste of resources.” he said referring to current Canadian criminal legislation that is responsible for putting away more than 40,000 Canadians each year for possession of marijuana. “That’s my take on legality. It should be as simple as saying ‘Look it’s legal, here’s the minimums that you can carry. Here’s where you’re breaking the law.’”

But things may be looking up in the future, especially in the National Capital Region.

Canada is currently one of the countries who has signed multiple treaties with the United Nations on drug prevention, which means that we might get our answer to whether or not we can move forward with the legalization process when the UN General Assembly Special Session wraps up later this month.

Big name Canadian institutions like the LCBO and Shoppers Drug Mart have also brought some legitimacy to this movement, as representatives from both parties have expressed interest in distributing medical marijuana.

And let’s not forget about local staples like Robillard and Dumond, who are helping to lessen the stigma around medical users by attempting to run safe and legitimate businesses.

However, Dumond believes that in order for Ottawans to fully embrace this new fiscal, social movement, they will have to get over the overwhelming ‘chill factor’ that has defined the city for so long.

“They’re afraid to lose their jobs,” he said, echoing the strong government job market in the city. “It’s like they don’t wanna say anything because they’re afraid of people going on the Internet and (typing in their name).”

But at the end of the day, even though the city has a reputation for being full of squares and stuffed shirts, much of this legalization movement will have to be carried on Ottawa’s back.

After all, being the nation’s capital, Ottawa is expected to lead by example when it comes to enforcing government-sanctioned legislation, something that’s apparent whenever the issue of bilingualism is brought up in casual conversation.

So if the Liberal government makes good on its promise to legalize and delivers, the city should be primed and ready to take that groovy responsibility head on.

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Local pro-marijuana protesters gather at Parliament Hill on April 20, 2012. Photo:CC, Dustin O’Donnell.