A man holds a joint between his lips during the annual 4-20 cannabis culture celebration at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on April 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A man holds a joint between his lips during the annual 4-20 cannabis culture celebration at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on April 20, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Pot legalization unlikely to kill black market right away

Legalization of recreational weed unlikely to kill pot black market right away: Canadian Drug Policy Coalition

From texting a local dealer to dropping into a neighbourhood dispensary or ordering online, Canada’s black market for recreational marijuana has seen significant changes in recent years and, no doubt, will see more as the country hurtles toward a new world of legalization next summer.

What does seem clear, however, is that the illegal market is unlikely to disappear in a puff of smoke come legalization day.

“There’s a huge, complex system out there operating in the world that has been delivering excellent product to people at reasonable prices for 40 years now,” says Donald MacPherson, the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, an organization based out of Simon Fraser University that advocates for evidence-based policy-making and harm-reduction strategies.

“It’s really the degree to which the regulated system can, over a period of years, encroach on as much of that pre-existing market as possible — that is the key question.”

Talking to users quickly reveals three major strands that make up the current system, starting with the traditional approach: knowing a guy who knows a guy who gets you your pot. It’s familiar, it’s trusted, it feels safe.

More recently, street-level dispensaries have offered a somewhat normal retail store-front experience, though some offer only delivery, but perhaps the biggest change has been in what appears to be a very Canadian phenomenon: the burst of website-based mail-order marijuana suppliers, or MOMs as they are known.

A plethora of websites now feature different cannabis products along with prices and, in some cases, testimonials, contests, specials, and freebies. Most ask for proof of age in the form of an uploaded ID document — 18 or 19 is generally minimum — and payment takes place via Interac. The vacuum-packed product is shipped to the buyer via Canada Post or courier.

Related: Marijuana legalization passes in House of Commons

Francois, 34, an IT professional in Quebec City, says he now buys exclusively online.

“The convenience factor is what brought me there,” says Francois, who like other users interviewed for this article only wants his first name used. “It’s delivered to your doorstep. It’s super easy, it’s super discreet.”

Marie-Helene, 26, a journalist in Montreal who smokes recreationally most evenings and weekends, says she doesn’t expect much will change for her post legalization. She plans to stick with buying from a guy she knows who sells medical grade weed. She trusts him, she says, and she enjoys the personal touch — he knows what strains she likes — and what she calls their “professional-business relationship.”

“It doesn’t feel super shady,” she says. “It probably sounds silly (but) it’s the same thing as people who enjoy buying stuff in stores — because it’s customer experience.”

Robert, 55, an IT professional based in St. Catharines, Ont., a recreational user for decades, says he now has a medical prescription and can avoid a black market he believes was tied to organized crime. The illegal market is doomed over time, he says, because every gram sold legally is a gram the black market won’t need to grow.

“Most of my friends can’t wait to purchase legally and are quite jealous that I am currently able to do that,” Robert says. “Friends who have more libertarian leanings swear they will never buy from the Ontario government (but) I bet that changes. People are lazy and follow the path of least resistance, so if they can buy a couple grams in the same shopping plaza that they are grocery shopping, they are going to do that.”

Statistics Canada data indicate about 12 per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older — or 3.6 million of us — reported in 2015 having used cannabis in the previous year, with 840,000 saying they used it most every day.

Robert, however, says he thinks governments have hugely underestimated the prevalence of use and the Ontario government’s plan, for example, to start out with 40 retail outlets is laughable.

“People don’t honestly answer surveys about sex and drugs, so nobody really understands how big the market will be,” Robert says. “I predict massive lines for legal weed next year.”

Whether the black market shrinks and how quickly, observers say, will depend on what the legal market ends up looking like. It’s far from clear. Each province is charting its own course, with some tending toward maximum restrictions in terms of retail outlets, while others talk of stiff criminal sanctions for selling product to underage buyers or near schools.

“These new laws are going to make the black market thrive,” says Chad, 40, who produces edible cannabis products in Toronto. “The black market is really vast. It’s really huge, right now, the competition.”

The advent of dispensaries, he says, forced the black market to up its game in terms of quality and price. While the recent police crackdown on storefronts in Toronto has just pushed them underground, it has not dented what is a plentiful supply, he says. What Chad does believe is that many online sellers will go dark post-legalization.

“Being online is just a way to get caught,” he says.

Related: Province, Feds see lots of work ahead of marijuana legalization

The challenge facing federal and provincial governments, says MacPherson of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, is the fact that the current system is so large, diverse and filled with expertise — in other words, it is mature.

Across Canada, hundreds if not thousands of small-scale growers along with some large grow-ops supply a seemingly ravenous consumer cohort that includes younger Canadians who have some of the highest usage rates in the world, according to various surveys.

Canada’s police services, however, have expressed concern they won’t be ready to enforce the new laws by next summer. They told a Commons committee earlier this year that among other things, they would need more time to train officers and increase the ranks of those certified to do roadside drug-impaired driving testing.

OPP Deputy Commissioner Rick Barnum warned that organized crime will flourish.

“Policing will not be ready to go Aug. 1,” Barnum told the committee. ”The damage that can be done between the time of new legislation and police officers ready to enforce the law in six months or a year can make it very, very hard to ever regain that foothold.”

Enforcement is unlikely to make the illegal market go away, MacPherson says, but legalization does afford governments an opportunity to deploy policing resources elsewhere, and to make reliable public health information readily available as cannabis use becomes normalized in the way a glass of wine or beer already is.

Most importantly, he says, displacing well entrenched networks now used for selling and buying good quality pot from people users know will require hassle-free access.

“It’s a really interesting and complex thing that the government is trying to do,” MacPherson says. “It’s trying to take a very robust, complex pre-existing market and basically put it out of business by coming up with a better robust market.”

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Victoria Police Department looks to identify a person of interest after a Friday night stabbing. (VicPD handout)
Police seek person of interest after Victoria stabbing

Friday night assault leaves one with potentially life-altering injuries

Daniel Foster, last seen in downtown Parksville on Saturday, May 1. (submitted photo)
RCMP seek help locating missing Victoria man, last spotted in Parksville

Daniel Foster, 43, seen via surveillance camera using an ATM

Police stopped, then let go this man and his large collection of cans during a stop Monday morning on Resthaven Drive. Police had received a report of a possible theft, but let him go after he had returned the property, which he believed was his to take after being left out in public. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Report of theft, balancing act on Sidney street draws curious onlookers

Incident happened just before 8:30 a.m. opposite of Vancouver Island Regional Library branch

Sean Hart, 34, unexpectedly left the Seven Oaks Tertiary Mental Health Facility in Saanich on Nov. 6, 2020 and has now been missing for six months. (Photo courtesy Penny Hart)
Search continues for Saanich man Sean Hart six months after his disappearance

Support from community, police keeps his mother hopeful

Victoria Police continue to investigate a stabbing in downtown Victoria. (Black Press Media file photo)
Passerby calls police after finding man stabbed, sobbing on Victoria street

One man was sent to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

Vancouver Canucks goaltender Thatcher Demko (35) makes a save on Winnipeg Jets’ Nate Thompson (11) during second period NHL action in Winnipeg, Monday, May 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Greenslade
Vancouver Canucks see NHL playoff hopes dashed despite 3-1 win over Winnipeg

Montreal Canadiens earn final North Division post-season spot

The B.C. legislature went from 85 seats to 87 before the 2017 election, causing a reorganization with curved rows and new desks squeezed in at the back. The next electoral boundary review could see another six seats added. (Black Press files)
B.C. election law could add six seats, remove rural protection

North, Kootenays could lose seats as cities gain more

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the shooting of an Indigenous woman in the Ucluelet First Nation community of Hitacu. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation wants ‘massive change’ after its 3rd police shooting in less than a year

Nuu-chah-nulth woman recovering from gunshot wounds in weekend incident near Ucluelet

Nurse Gurinder Rai, left, administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Maria Yule at a Fraser Health drive-thru vaccination site, in Coquitlam, B.C., on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. The site is open for vaccinations 11 hours per day to those who have pre-booked an appointment. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
COVID vaccine bookings to open for adults 40+, or 18+ in hotspots, across B.C.

Only people who have registered will get their alert to book

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, hosts an update on efforts to contain B.C.’s COVID-19 transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Valley and protect hospitals in the Lower Mainland, May 6, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate slowing, 20 more people die

Deaths include two people in their 40s, two in their 50s

Most Read