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A woman – middle-aged, professional – walks into Nova Cannabis in Toronto’s Queen Street West shopping strip. It was the third legal retail outlet to open in Toronto, and is owned by a Mississauga woman with a brand-licensing agreement with Alcanna, a publicly traded Edmonton-based liquor store emporium that now owns nine weed shops. Between their 235 liquor and weed stores, Alcanna processes 18 million transactions a year – so they clearly know about selling vice.

It’s just after 4 p.m., and, after being asked if she needs help with her selection, the woman at Nova Cannabis says, “Nobody ever asks me how I’m doing.” Apparently, she’s going through it: her mother is sick, her partner is absent and both of her kids are young. The budtender, a hipster with artful hair and the bearing of a camp counsellor, says, “I got you.” After every purchase, he says something like “Happy Chanukah,” or “Merry Kwanza,” as the customer proceeds to the till. It’s his catchphrase, I guess.

In this instance, she says she wants something relaxing, that doesn’t smell – after all, there’s those kids – and that’s gentle: this is her first time trying cannabis – and she’s wary.

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“What about something that can be administered with a dropper, that’s light and soothing and doesn’t require you to burn anything and only costs eighteen bucks?”

The kid recommends Unplug Oil by Solei, an indica with low THC.

The woman says she just wants some relief. Then she gives him a hug.

Seven months into legalization and the retail experiment is … if in not full bloom, then at least sprouting flowers. The Tokyo Smoke shop at Yonge & Dundas, in its infancy, is open and there are at least 200 legal stores across the country, with the majority located in Alberta. On a Friday before the Victoria Day Weekend, Cannabis Professional spent the day at Nova to learn about the inner workings of a legal cannabis store.

Four things we learned really fast:
  • The budtenders are an integral part of the show, and they’re never on their phones (imagine another group of 20 twenty-somethings – and nobody checking social media, for an entire day).
  • The place doesn’t smell like weed. Since the grams arrive at the shop pre-packaged, and obviously no smoking’s allowed, there is no cannabis odour. (In fact, Queen Street West, where the store backs onto Graffiti Alley, smells more like weed than the weed store).
  • Guys come into the store alone, early and often; women account for perhaps 30 per cent of the customers and, mostly, when they arrive, they arrive in groups.
  • Like a liquor store, nearly everyone who enters makes a purchase. In that sense, it’s more Shoppers Drug Mart than Apple Store.

Of course, not everybody buying weed comes in to make a confession, and plenty of people ask, like the young man in Vans at 10:46 a.m., “What’s the cheapest pre-roll you’ve got?”

The question the staff at Nova Cannabis are asked most frequently: “What’s the weed you’ve got with the most THC?”

(The answers to those questions are: Trailblazer half gram Flicker Stix at $6.95; and the highest THC is Sunset Indica by Canopy Growth brand LBS [formerly called Leafs by Snoop], which costs $36.95 for 3.5 grams, an “eighth,” which is the most popular unit of purchase).

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An employee cleans displays at Nova Cannabis in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta on Tuesday, February 12, 2019.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

The store itself has high ceilings, lots of light, a vault in back, and plays Kanye West-styled pop rap music like the American Apparel location it replaced, and is arranged like a deli for weed. A customer walks into the store – and since April, they’ve done away with security guards – and is greeted by a budtender with a tablet. There are also self-serve kiosks, but orders are placed into the computers and customers receive a ticket. You then take your ticket to the cash register where orders are fulfilled. It can all be done within a few minutes, but browsing is encouraged and there are park benches for contemplation in the middle of the store.

The gravest concern at Nova, which has not happened, is that their cabinets run dry. Every week, they receive a shipment and, by law, they don’t know what day it will arrive. The owner of this Nova Cannabis, who won the lottery for the location, is Heather Conlon, who owns a safe company in Mississauga and thus had a relationship with Alcanna through safeguarding their liquor stores. She says she spends the legal maximum every week on product: $250,000. “If they let us spend $400,000, we would,” says Conlon. “I’m still surprised by how many people partake – it blows my mind.”

Here are some bits of dialogue overheard over the course of one day:

“After 50 years of puffing, I like Jean Guy.”

“This is just like McDonald’s!”

“AltaVie is low THC, very mellow; the Ghost Train Haze is very powerful – I’d be careful.”

“What’s an accessory?”

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“Yes! Yes!”

“The last time she smoked weed was 1995 at an Our Lady Peace concert.”

“The underground weed store is faster.”

“Every day, 20 customers ask me for vape pens. That’s going to be huge.”

“We sell lots of pre-rolls, especially to the youngsters.”

“Have a good day, bro.” “Cheers, bro.”

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“Don’t mind me, I know what I’m doing.” “Oh, yeah? The last guy who said that to me…”

“My mom was like, ‘What are you doing?’ Now she has stock in Canopy.”

The demographics change as the day goes on.

The store opens at 10 a.m., and there are five customers shopping by 10:05, all men. Construction workers in their orange vests pop in. The shop accepts U.S. dollars, and the manager, who has retail experience at Indigo and Tiffany’s, estimates that between 10-20 per cent of their customers are tourists. The shop sometimes struggles with consistency of product. LA Confidential is a strain known to go up and down in THC content. Aurora products, especially, I’m told, struggle with this. Yet their Pink Kush, made by San Rafael, a brand Aurora owns, is the most popular strain. “If we ever have it, it always sells out. Anything San Raf does very well.”

Women trickle in as pairs from 11 a.m., and the first tie of the day is spotted around noon. People bring in their dogs, but parents aren’t allowed to bring in baby strollers – the inverse of the laws at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Around lunch, a group of women come in wearing Lululemon pants and a man goes weed shopping while holding a brown bag from Kiehl’s (which, incidentally, looks exactly like the brown bags at Nova Cannabis). There’s a homeless guy with signs in his backpack asking for help who causes no trouble, and a loud young man carrying golf clubs, wearing ear buds, who tells a friend over an invisible phone: “I’ll take six tall boys of Heineken!”

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A woman with arthritis gets a gram with high THC, and one with high CBD. She has a one-hitter that she keeps next to her bed and, when the pain wakes her up, she takes a small hit and feels better. A dad comes in with his son just before 4 p.m. When the Brinks armoured truck guy comes in to make his pick-up, resplendent in his bullet proof vest and unassailable uniform, he doesn’t buy anything, but asks if there’s a weed store in Kingston. (There is, two: Spiritleaf and Fire & Flower, both, incidentally, with parent companies in Alberta). And the customers begin to take on the stylized if stereotypical chic appearance of Queen Street West as the long weekend Friday kicks in. Nothing special is done at 4:20 – the universal rallying cry for people who smoke weed – however, at that time, all 23 people in the store, customers and clients alike, are wearing cool shoes.

Not one selfie is taken all day. No shoplifting. No drunks.

The average client, though it’s challenging to deduce, would be a male between 28 and 32, who buys 3.5 grams, perhaps of a San Rafael product – roughly 50 per cent, we estimate, are repeat customers. This number will rise.

The budtenders are fired if they take the floor high, but there are no rules governing what they do outside of work. Two young women and a man finish their shifts at 6 p.m., and the woman has purchased Subway Scientist by RIFF. On Queen Street West, she opens her container and the cannabis is plump, with purple buds and trichomes that glisten in the late afternoon sun.

It’s the first time all day any of us have seen any actual weed and the smell is pungent, the olfactory equivalent of Handel’s Messiah. The young man is stopped in his tracks. All day he’s been inside the store and his shift is over – but there’s no way he’s spending Victoria Day weekend without that.

Special to Cannabis Professional.

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