For decades, Amsterdam was the go-to destination for cannabis enthusiasts around the world. While the winding canals, beautiful architecture, and endless stroopwafels were enough to bring thousands of tourists on their own each year, it was the allure of the Amsterdam coffeeshop that called to cannabis users the most. While technically not legal, the Amsterdam coffeeshops have existed for a long time in a sort of grey area, allowing people to consume cannabis in private property. However, the ever-increasing number of tourists visiting Amsterdam every year has caused the closure of a large number of these coffeeshops, as the city tries to move away from the reputation of a party town, not helped by its world-famous red-light district and liberal psilocybin laws. While once seen as a paradise for cannabis and hash enthusiasts, Amsterdam does not welcome the reputation anymore and with this change comes the opportunity for a new cannabis tourist destination.
Cannabis was legalized for recreational use in Canada in October of 2018, following several American states in the years before it. One would be justified in asking why Canada could not take the place of Amsterdam, and while many companies are fighting for a chance to do so, the laws put in place by the Trudeau government have made it next to impossible for cannabis tourism to survive in Canada, let alone thrive.
What is preventing Canada from becoming the next cannabis hot spot?
Suffocating Advertising Laws
The laws put in place when cannabis was legalized are restrictive, to say the least. Advertising cannabis businesses or products in Canada comes with a lot of red tapes that limit the options significantly. Where most businesses can freely advertise on buses, billboards, tv, radio and online, cannabis businesses cannot advertise anywhere that would be accessible to a minor (below the age of 18).
On the platforms that are left for them to advertise on, they are limited in what they can show. Images of cannabis, prices or sales, animals and characters that could be appealing to children and testimonials or explanations of experience/effects are all banned under federal law. On top of that cannabis companies must follow not only the federal laws listed above but additional provincial rules laid down that only make it harder to turn any profit.
Since the inception of Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, not a whole lot changed (before their untimely demise). Sure the music probably altered a bit (possibly not though because Bob Marley is timeless), the decor may have been updated, and the choices of hash and flower likely changed with the times. However, with those exceptions, people coming to Amsterdam knew what they could expect. Whether first-timers or people visiting for the 12th time, the comfort and warmth of the coffee shop made them feel invited and something to remember and come back for.
Confusion over Consumption
So why not try and replicate the same thing in Canada? We have cafes after all and all you’d need to do is change the music, add some cannabis to the menu and you’d have cannabis enthusiasts from around the world flocking to the Great White North. It is because the laws put in place both federally and provincially make it next to impossible. Many provinces ban smoking and vaping inside public establishments, meaning the idea of the Canadian cannabis coffeeshop goes up in smoke until the law changes in regards to how they view cannabis and their willingness to approach it separately from tobacco smoke.
It is not for lack of trying by the way. Before legalization, cannabis existed in a grey area in many provinces. It was far from perfect and during this time arrests were still made for cannabis offenses in some places. However big cities such as Vancouver and Toronto offered a wide selection of dispensaries and smoking lounges. Vancouver’s historic New Amsterdam Cafe existed for years pre-legalization offering a safe space to roll and smoke a joint, listen to music and eat some house-baked goods. While it has managed to survive without changing, not all lounges have been so lucky. While Hot Box in Toronto is able to call itself the first ‘legal’ smoking lounge in the country, it had to compromise drastically to adapt to the province’s new laws, meaning patrons now have to smoke cannabis solely on the back patio and the owner is unable to sell them food or drink while they do so meaning an inevitable loss of income. This kind of model is unsustainable for any coffeeshop hoping to become a full functioning cannabis cafe, in the style of Amsterdam.
When cannabis was legalized in Canada, the old model for how Canadians acquired their flower went out the window. Previously, in the grey area of legalization, there were dozens of storefronts where consumers could purchase, in addition to flower, all the other products geared towards cannabis users flooding the market at the time like the emerging vape pens, an unbelievably wide variety of edibles, and countless extracts. Under legalization, the rules for products that can be sold are very strict and limit the amount of potential for growth within the industry.
Over a few years, the majority of grey zone dispensaries have disappeared, unable to adapt to the new restrictions. Where the market was once flooded with products, stores are now only permitted to sell the flower of cannabis or an oil tincture. This meant that consumers who visited the legal recreational stores were left with only two options of either smoking cannabis flower or using a watered-down tincture rather than the healthier alternative of edibles or higher concentration extracts that required them to smoke less plant matter.
It has been announced that legal edibles will be rolled out in October of 2019 and some extracts will be included with them but the federal government has already announced their intentions to cap the potency on the lower end, therefore, forcing the consumer to purchase and consume more to meet their desired dose. This whole experience has been frustrating for both consumers and even producers as they know people will be more inclined to explore Canada’s cannabis market and maybe even try cannabis for the first time if they have greater and safer options. This kind of market is unsustainable not only on a local level but for international cannabis tourism as well.
Pressure on Grey Market
The new laws also made it next to impossible for existing and otherwise law-abiding dispensaries to exist as the new system relies on the ‘seed to sale’ platform (tracking a seed from its greenhouse to a container with its own unique barcode). They also laid down rigorous rules regarding the growing and distribution of cannabis. Where the dispensaries were once able to rely on their supply coming from growers they trusted and built a relationship with, they are now forced to sell government-approved cannabis, severing a large stream of their supply. This move, combined with the new rigid laws, forced countless dispensaries to shut down, leaving only a few government-approved stores.
In regards to the quality of the cannabis coming out of legal stores? Well, it leaves a bit to be desired. Many of the seasoned master growers were left out of legalization through red tape laws that used their past experience in cannabis (the very thing they were legalizing) to prohibit them from participating. This logic, or lack thereof, is dizzying, as the result is large companies with no experience in not only growing but storing cannabis left to monopolize the market with sub-par products and no real competition, at least in terms of quality or price, to speak of.
Furthermore, government-approved cannabis is considerably more expensive, than black or grey market options meaning many Canadians are choosing other avenues despite knowing that government-approved cannabis is the only legal choice. Telling tourists that they can only try certain approved types of cannabis at high prices and if they wish to do so they can only smoke it, despite voiced concerns over the quality is absurd and it is because of laws and restrictions like this that Canada’s legal cannabis tourism market is far from ideal.
It is important to note that high-quality cannabis is definitely still available, as much of it comes from online stores. Just Cannabis is proud to offer top-shelf flower, edibles, extracts, and accessories but you will need a mailing address to receive your package so not always possible for tourists passing through for a day or two.
Not All Hope is Lost
Some brave companies have chosen to venture on despite the bleak outlook, at least in the short term, for cannabis tourism. Tour companies have opened in several big cities but the confusing federal, provincial and municipal laws make turning a profit tricky. Some companies like Candian Kush Tours have expanded past the traditional model set forth by other tour companies, offering services like Cannabis Wedding Bars. Replacing (or adding to) the traditional alcohol bar, the Cannabis Wedding Bar offers a variety of edibles and smokeables for guests (many presumably from out of town) to enjoy. Other companies like Canada High Tours go the more conventional route, offering tours around cities, showing off local dispensaries and joint-rolling seminars. Still, companies like these must work around the various laws and bylaws in place to make sure they are still within the law and because of those very same laws, they do not have many options for their customers as so few businesses have been allowed to open under legalization.
Can we expect Vancouver or any other Canadian city to take the place of Amsterdam? It’s very unlikely. That being said, all the blame should not go solely on the Canadian federal government. After all, American states like California and Washington legalized cannabis before Canada, and they have yet to take the mantle as the primary cannabis destination, held for so long by Amsterdam. This has more to do with the changing and conflicting social views on public smoking and consumption than just high prices or sub-par product on its own.
When looking at all the challenges facing current Candian cannabism tourism, it appears more and more like Amsterdam in its prime, was an anomaly. Not something that can be recreated or relocated to another city. Like many things in the world, cannabis tourism is facing massive changes and until federal laws loosen enough to allow for a competitive and lucrative market, it is too hard to say when it can take off in Canada.
With that said, don’t let that deter you from coming to Canada! There are still countless reasons to visit this beautiful country. If you wish to use cannabis while you are here, familiarize yourself with the current rules to avoid any awkward conversations with the police or border agents, but don’t let it stress you out too much. If you are looking to come and smoke a joint in front of a beautiful sunset, that is very much attainable. Just don’t be confused when someone gives you a dirty look for sparking a joint in your local coffee shop.