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Legal cannabis shops hope to eventually smoke out their street-level counterparts

Star Buds Ontario president Stew Garner says he's already seeing change in attitude since cannabis became legal in 2018; 'At the beginning, people didn’t really want to be seen coming in'

The illegal cannabis market is taking a hit thanks to the legal shops that have been sprouting up throughout the province and here in the city.

Representatives of Barrie’s Star Buds and One Plant spoke to BarrieToday about how their shops  and others like them  are helping to fight against the illegal trafficking of cannabis. 

One Plant was Barrie’s first legal cannabis shop, opening its doors in January 2020 on Essa Road. Star Buds followed just a few months later in June 2020, with a shop on Livingstone Street.

Ryan Orr, Star Buds' licensed retail operations manager, told BarrieToday he knew legalized cannabis shops would help a little against street-level drugs, but not to the extent it has become in such a short time.

“At the time of our opening, the legal market was capturing an estimated 19 per cent of the cannabis market, and as of December 2020 this had moved up to an estimated 40.3 per cent,” Orr said. “So we've doubled the capture of the market in less than a year. The goal is to get 50 per cent, which no one originally expected to happen, but is very much a reality.”

The misconception from many, Orr said, is that legal shops are much more expensive than street-level dealers. As far as pricing at the retail store level, Orr says the prices are actually better than early 2019.

“We have seen a drop in price per gram from $12.40 in January 2019 to $9.13 per gram, with black-market prices moving from $8.13 to $7.76 on average, so we are closing the gap fairly aggressively,” said Orr. “That's less than a $1.50 difference and that is a very cheap price to pay for the safety of a registered business and to know what you’re getting.”

Orr said more people are coming into the shops and asking about what is in the product they're buying. That isn’t something you would get on the streets.

“The trust factor is huge, especially with our first-time buyers who are in their late 50s or 60s, especially,” he said. "They come in and see the Health Canada label right on the box, and they can ask us whatever they want to know.”

Ryan Grenville, from One Plant, echoed Orr’s sentiments, noting the relationship between the customers and those behind the counter is key.

"Buying on the black market has a lack of accountability. I've seen a lot of 35 per cent or 38 per cent THC claims that just have nothing behind them,” he said. “The black market has the luxury of claiming what they like to sell more cannabis.

"On the legal market, producers are accountable to the potency claims we make," Grenville added. "There's a greater degree of trust and a level of safety to what we do."

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. 

Barrie police communications co-ordinator Peter Leon told BarrieToday that anyone buying illegal drugs, no matter who your go-to person is, could be a dicey situation. 

“Street-level purchasing comes with a risk and that is that you really don’t know what you are buying as we are seeing many drugs that are being trafficked, when seized and tested by Health Canada are coming back positive for fentanyl,” Leon said. 

Recreational cannabis use became legal in Canada on Oct. 17, 2018. 

Prior to the changes in legislation, Leon said police regularly laid charges for cannabis possession. 

“These charges were processed through the criminal court system, often resulting in conviction and a small fine being registered,” he said. “Although there are locations where people can legally purchase cannabis, there are those who still make these purchases from those involved in the drug trade.” 

Star Buds Ontario president Stew Garner says he believes companies like his are only going to become more popular as the prejudice around cannabis changes.

“I’m already seeing the change and it's only been a couple of years,” Garner said. “At the beginning, people didn’t really want to be seen coming in. Now I’ve got people I know from years ago shopping at Star Buds. People are talking to each other about the new product they tried or asking what each other prefers.

"It's just becoming part of the natural conversation," he added. 

Grenville believes the cannabis industry will be as acceptable as the alcohol business in the near future. 

“In five years, this industry is the liquor store. It's that normal,” Grenville said. “You may see them in the malls, I don’t know, but it may become that widely accepted. It's on the same status as the LCBO.”

While the local cannabis shop operators believe they will continue to put a dent in street-level cannabis dealing, when asked if he believed the illegal buying and selling of cannabis would ever be a thing of the past, Leon was less optimistic. 

“I don’t really think so,” he said. “The market you are speaking about is operated by organized crime syndicates and as long as they exist, so will the availability to purchase illegal drugs and this includes cannabis.”

Shawn Gibson

About the Author: Shawn Gibson

Shawn Gibson is a staff writer based in Barrie
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