Cindy Pokey was first in line at Hobo Recreational Cannabis Store Monday morning.
“I’m here to buy pot,” said Pokey, 59. “It’s so clean, no garbage in it, no fentanyl. It’s absolutely wonderful.”
Half a dozen people were lined up outside to wait for the 10 a.m opening.
It’s one of three legal pot stores opening in Ottawa Monday morning and only a handful across the province.
In fact, Ottawa is now the cannabis-shop hotspot of Ontario — for a few days or weeks, anyway.
Ottawa has more stores ready to go than any other city, including Toronto.
The province wanted 25 of the privately-run stores to open on April 1. However, only 10 stores have received approval so far, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario said in a posting Sunday night.
That includes only one store in Toronto, The Hunny Pot Cannabis Company. In addition to the three in Ottawa, the other stores are in St. Catharines, London, Brampton, Burlington, and two in Kingston.
And while 10 stores are approved, it’s up to the owners to decide when to open them.
A spokesperson for one of the Kingston stores, Brock Street Cannabis, said they didn’t expect to be ready to open the doors until April 5.
Hobo is a brand created by the Donnelly Group, which owns pubs, cocktail bars and barbershops in Vancouver and Toronto. The Hobo store on Bank Street near Gladstone is the first in the company’s plan to create a chain of cannabis stores in B.C. and Ontario.
The other Ottawa cannabis stores are Superette on Wellington Street West, which features decor resembling a diner; and Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis in the ByWard Market, in a renovated brick heritage building.
There were lineups at all three stores on Monday — about 80 people at Superette, 50 at Hobo and 15 at Fire & Flower — but they were easily managed by staff.
Cannabis may be legal, but it’s clear there is still a stigma surrounding it.
Most of those in the line declined to give their name.
“I wish I could be proud,” said Joe, 24, who lives in Centretown.
He said he was glad to be able to buy his weed legally and support a local business.
Three people in the lineup at Hobo had previously worked or volunteered at illegal dispensaries in Ottawa. The city had about two dozen dispensaries that all closed after marijuana was legalized last October.
One of them, Cannabis Culture, was in the same storefront now occupied by Hobo.
Taryn Morrison was one of 10 Cannabis Culture workers taken out of the store in handcuffs during police raids in 2017. (He received a suspended sentence on drug trafficking charges.)
On Monday, Morrison was eager to check out the new legal store to compare prices and quality.
“We’ll see if they are as knowledgeable and friendly as we were,” said Morrison.
Shawn MacAleese, a cannabis activist who also faced drug trafficking charges for working at an illegal dispensary, said watching the doors open at the city’s first legal stores was bittersweet.
“I’ve been arrested, fighting for this day … to see it legal,” he said.
But like Morrison, he said he fears there won’t be room for the “little guys” in the new multi-billion dollar industry dominated by huge growers and retail chains.
At Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis, eight people were in line as of 9 a.m., with an even split between Ontario customers and those from Quebec.
Carmel Berlinguett, 38, said he was waiting to buy cannabis for his glaucoma, which has left him blind in one eye. According to him, marijuana has helped with his migraines and appetite, as well as reducing the strain on his eyes.
His mother, Laura, came along to support him. She said she initially did not support cannabis, but now believes in its use on a medicinal basis.
“I’m a new user,” said Ashley Hradecky. “So it’s really helpful to have all of the educational stuff and guides in the store.
“I think places like this will be good for the community. It’s controlled, so people will know what they’re getting without having to worry too much.”
Construction and design teams at all three Ottawa stores worked feverishly to get them ready for opening on Monday.
The Ottawa stores all promised bright, trendy designs aimed at making customers feel comfortable shopping for a drug that still carries a lot of stigma.
The Hobo store, for instance, features light wood, Japanese-style slatted wooden blinds and pre-rolled joints and cannabis oil nestled in display cases that look like terrariums.
Superette on Wellington was also hit by an apparent break-and-enter over the weekend, and had boarded up one of its windows when the store opened Monday.
Drummond Munro, Superette co-founder, would only say there was an “incident” over the weekend, that it was “minor” and that operators are dealing with the police, Ontario Cannabis Store and Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. He had no comment on whether any products were stolen.
Police would not specify a location but confirmed they responded to an alarm in the 1300 block of Wellington Street West, Ottawa, at 4:36 a.m. Sunday.
Patrol officers arrived two minutes later and launched an ongoing break and enter investigation. No arrests had been made as of Monday.
Jody Curry was the first in line at Superette when the store opened a few minutes after 10 a.m.
“I’m down the street, so I thought I’d take a chance at the opportunity to be one of the first. It’s really neat to see a retail environment like this, where you can get the help you need if you need it.”
Superette is designed to resemble a deli, with a blue, red and white colour scheme.
Its inventory includes about 120 strains of cannabis, many of which have their names displayed on a large lightbox behind the counter that runs along much of the store.
To help speed things along, customers can choose their shopping basket by colour — red for those who know what they want and seek a quick checkout, and green for people who might need help from staff.
The arrival of bricks-and-mortar stores is expected to boost sales of cannabis in the province.
Ontario residents can buy online at the Ontario Cannabis Store. However, may people prefer shopping in a store, where they can talk to a clerk and also have the option of paying in cash.
Canada legalized recreational marijuana on Oct. 17, but Ontario is the last province to roll out brick-and-mortar stores.
The stores were delayed when the new Conservative government changed course to allow them to be run by private operators rather than a branch of the LCBO.
A lottery was held in January to decide who could apply for the coveted first wave of licences.
The province temporarily limited the number of licences because of a shortage of cannabis.
Politicians have said they are committed to opening up more licences when the supply increases.
Initially the government announced it would not limit the number of licences that could be awarded, and officials estimate Ontario would end up with 1,000 or more cannabis stores.
The lottery winners are supposed to own and maintain control of their stores — at least until the lottery period is over on Dec. 13.
Some winners have teamed up with retail cannabis chains to help create and operate their stores, though. Some of the chains had already rented storefronts before the lottery was announced and all of them are eager to get a foothold in the retail trade.
As a result of deals made with lottery winners, some stores will operate under the brand names of chains: Fire & Flower, Canna Cabana, Choom, Nova Cannabis, Tweed, Tokyo Smoke, Spiritleaf and Hobo.
In Ottawa, the lottery winners who own Superette and Hobo have declined to speak to the Ottawa Citizen. The companies hired to help them say the lottery winners are not comfortable talking to the media.
Fire & Flower York Street Cannabis is owned by Michael Patterson and Eric Lavoie, who are brothers-in laws. They had been planning to open a cannabis store, and were elated when they won the lottery, said Lavoie in an interview.
Lavoie, a sales rep for a heating, ventilation and air conditioning wholesaler, said both he and Patterson, an accountant, will work at the store.
— With files from Trevor Oattes and Taylor Blewett
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019