The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Better than the Olympics’: Canadians line up for marijuana as it becomes legal

Canada becomes the largest country, and only second in the world, to fully legalize recreational cannabis. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

MONTREAL — Just because they arrived at 3:30 in the morning, don’t assume Montreal’s first legal buyers of marijuana are stoners. Call them history enthusiasts, they said.

“I might not smoke it. I might keep it as a souvenir,” said Tonino Ruggiero, who was second in line at one of Quebec’s new, government-run pot stores on Wednesday, Canada’s long-awaited day of cannabis legalization. 

“It’s a moment d’histoire,” said Ruggiero, 64. “This is better than the Olympics. Not as good as the Rolling Stones, but close.”

The store he visited, in a hip neighborhood of Montreal, is one of three in the city. By its 10 a.m. opening time, hundreds of people snaked around the block, with police doing crowd control. Then a cheer went up, and the first customers rushed through the doors.

Montreal is one of the few cities in the country where marijuana was available in stores on Wednesday — a result of the fact that each province is responsible for the distribution and retail sales of marijuana.

In Ontario, the country’s most populous province, cannabis was available only by mail order Wednesday because the private outlets expected to open there cannot receive licenses before next spring.

There are a host of other concerns about legalization — a potential shortage of legal marijuana and the risk involved in crossing the U.S. border after using cannabis, among others — but few were on display in Montreal.

Once inside the government-run store, located in a commercial stretch known for wedding gowns, customers were greeted by smiling young women in dark-green aprons standing near wall-mounted touch screens.

Through another door was a minimalist, pharmacy-like space, with colorful boxes lining the shelves and more shop clerks.

“They were really cool,” said François-Xavier Monbelli, a 44-year-old wearing Burberry glasses. They asked if people had health problems, or “if you want to sleep, if you want to eat, if you want to think, if you want to be creative.”

Analysis: Three things you need to know before you go to Canada for some legal weed

Monbelli, 44, flew to Canada from France for legalization day, but, like Ruggiero, he said he would not be smoking his purchase.

In fact, even in the midst of his pot-themed vacation, he was in a rush, he said — he had promised to deliver the drugs to a friend who plans to launch a website of citizen reviews and who needed to get reviewers sampling the different strains as soon as possible.

Later this week there will be more time for celebrations, Monbelli said, including a “festival” that involves walking around Montreal and looking at different street art while smoking pot.

“We finish off by eating poutine,” he said. “That’s nice, no?”

Further down the line, people said they were not doing anything special to commemorate the day. Only one man was openly smoking a joint on the sidewalk — now legal in Montreal — but he said that was his normal procedure when waiting in any kind of line.

“People see it as a glass of wine kind of thing,” at least in Montreal, said another man, 30-year-old Ivan Akhtemiychuk.

Waiting with his wife, Akhtemiychuk named two types of pot he liked — Sativa and the Cannatonic strain — and said legalization meant he’d finally be guaranteed to get them.

On the black market, “people lie about what they sell,” he said. “They say any name, and you can’t verify.”

Though Canada has had a legal medical marijuana system since 2001, his wife has found it impossible to get a permit, he said, despite needing to smoke pot for fibromyalgia, epilepsy and lupus.

It seemed worth shelling out for, he said. Most in line predicted at least a 50 percent increase over street prices, with some bracing themselves for double, but Quebec priced its product below black-market prices.

Those waiting in line were almost entirely men, most of them over 50, and almost all white. David Donaldson was an exception — his mom was a Rastafarian, he said, and he grew up around weed, maintaining the habit after moving to Montreal as an adult in 2007.

There would be one major downside to the law, said Donaldson, who works as a licensed practical nurse. With a lot of uncertainty remaining around marijuana-impaired driving — how to detect it, and how to crack down on it — he expected to be pulled over by police more often, saying he feared it would give police “an excuse” to pick on black drivers in particular.

1 in 7 Canadian cannabis users has driven high at least once in the past 3 months

Still, he approved overall of the law, he said. “We’ve got to start somewhere.”

On the eve of legalization, the federal government had announced it would pardon Canadians with past convictions for possession of marijuana up to 30 grams.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the day marked the end of “the failed prohibition of marijuana” in Canada and that legalization would take power from organized crime and prevent young people from obtaining the drug.

Two women said they had trekked across the city hoping to avoid a long line, unsuccessfully. But they were surprised by the gender imbalance, said Beowulf Bertrand, 25.

The best thing about legalization would be the tax revenue for the government, she said.

It will also be nice knowing you can relax “if you’re walking by the cops and you’ve got a gram in your purse,” she said. “I’m a goody two shoes.”

Marijuana is now legal in Canada, but barriers remain for consumers

Americans are expected to flock to Canada for legal pot. But the border, and U.S. law, stands in the way.

In Uruguay’s marijuana experiment, the government is your pot dealer

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

Like Washington Post World on Facebook and stay updated on foreign news