Cannabis tourism in Toronto
I guess it should come as no surprise that the guide for my marijuana tour of Toronto is running late.
Neev Tapiero calls to tell me he’s running behind schedule while I stand shivering at Yonge–Dundas Square, Toronto’s answer to Times Square, under neon lights and a midday sky like crushed ice.
Tapiero runs Canadian Kush Tours, and he’s one of several operators looking to get in on the ground floor of what they see as the potentially enormous market made possible by Canada’s legalisation of recreational cannabis in 2018.
The company’s website offers everything from a $C3000 cannabis wedding package (“Ask about the Moroccan tent option”) to a $60 a person cannabis cooking class. Today I’m tagging along on the guided tour option, which costs $150, “cannabis included”.
After another 15 minutes, Tapiero calls and apologises again, explaining that he had to pick up the other guests. We start the tour at a burger franchise in a nearby food court, though it occurs to me that this might be a more appropriate endpoint.
Tapiero, stocky, middle-aged and dressed in a grey hoodie, introduces me to my fellow tourists, Dez and Quita, a young American couple on a weekend away for their sixth anniversary.
They’re not quite the stoners I was expecting. Dez has a neat goatee and runs his own landscaping business; Quita’s a civil servant with tortoiseshell specs. Their two-year-old daughter is back in Wisconsin with a relative. They’re warm and funny and I like them immediately.
“Do you smoke a lot at home?” I ask.
“Not as much as him!” Quita says, laughing and pointing to Dez.
“I’m on a legalised weed world tour, man,” says Dez, who has previously been on trips to Colorado and California. After the tour, their plan is to dine at the revolving restaurant atop the CN Tower. Tomorrow they head to Niagara Falls.
“Oh dude, you gotta go to the butterfly conservatory in Niagara. It’s awesome,” says Tapiero. I wonder if he’s high already.
Dez finishes his chicken tenders and we head north up mildly seedy Yonge Street. Toronto’s glass high-rises slowly fade away, replaced by shabby mid-density brick.
Tapiero says we will get a taxi to our destination, a smoking lounge, but does not call said taxi. We end up walking in the biting wind. Tapiero puts his hood up and dons a pair of wraparound sunglasses.
After 15 minutes, we turn into a doorway and head up a narrow flight of stairs. The lounge is on the second floor. It comprises half-a-dozen laminate tables with red leather banquettes, an arcade machine, photographic wallpaper of an Amsterdam canal and a counter selling pastries. We sit down. I order coffee. Dez puts three bags of weed, provided by Tapiero before I arrived, on the table. The name of the strain is written on each bag in indelible ink: a gram each of OG God and Diesel, and a quarter-ounce (seven grams) of Strawberry Cookies.
“What’s the difference between them?” I ask.
“I dunno: we’re gonna smoke ’em and find out,” says Dez, grinning.
He proceeds to roll a chair-leg-sized joint combining all three, using a thick hemp wrap that looks like the outside of a Cuban cigar. Tapiero produces his own, smaller prerolled joint and everybody lights up.
I am not much of a smoker, but Dez and Quita keep offering. Wouldn’t it be unprofessional, journalistically speaking, to go on a marijuana tour and not smoke any marijuana? More importantly, I don’t want to look uncool. I take the joint.
Tapiero, meanwhile, is explaining the confusing province-by-province legalities of cannabis sale and consumption in Canada. Quebec has government-run bricks-and-mortar stores, while British Columbia allows private sellers. Saskatchewan allows you to grow your own, but next-door neighbour Manitoba does not.
Tapiero insists the weed he’s provided for Dez and Quita has come via mail order from the provincial government’s online store. Only a few approved private sellers are up and running in Ontario, and many technically-illegal-but-mostly-tolerated dispensaries from the pre-legalisation days are still in business. The legal shops that have opened aren’t boutiques or cafes: by law they must keep all their products behind the counter.
The smoking lounge is also legally problematic: as a public place, it’s technically in breach of anti-smoking laws.
All this makes activities such as tastings and farm visits difficult, a problem for the burgeoning marijuana tourism sector. Indeed, apart from carrying the stuff around, everything cannabis-related we do on our tour of downtown Toronto is in the same legal grey area it was in prior to October 2018. Tapiero even admits he ran the tour pre-legalisation for “a bachelor party, a few other couples and one guy who came on his own for a Radiohead show”.
Still, he’s hopeful the regulatory environment will improve. At least I think he is, because at this point it begins to dawn on me that I have made a grave mistake. I am distressingly, face-meltingly stoned, and rather than listening to Tapiero, I’m starting to worry about whether I’ve been vocalising my internal monologue.
Dez is now finishing his second joint. Incredibly, he and Quita have managed to smoke the best part of the weed. When did that happen? If this is how high I am from one puff, how high are they? It doesn’t bear thinking about.
“Oh, man, this is dope,” says Dez.
Tapiero sits up straight. “I should put that on my website, man! Like, a…” He pauses to think of the right word. “A testimonial!”
The guy running the lounge opens the back door to let the smoke out, admitting a gelid breeze, which we take as our cue to exit. Dez says he wants to get more weed, so Tapiero suggests we go to a dispensary. There is more talk of a cab, but Tapiero’s phone has run out of battery, so again we walk. Tapiero promises it’s not far.
On the way, we witness a homeless man verbally abusing a pair of police officers in French. “Just another day in downtown Toronto,” quips a busker dressed as Spiderman. In my opinion the vibe has taken a turn for the worse.
When we finally arrive at the dispensary, it’s closed. A note taped to the window reads: “To all our valued customers, we have made the difficult decision to close based on the new legislation laws.”
Dez and Quita take this development with admirable sangfroid. Tapiero suggests we get out of the cold and head to a hookah bar around the corner. We all agree this is a good idea.
Once we are safely installed in the warmth of another lounge, conversation turns to types of cheese, then politics. What is jack anyway? Is it a type of cheddar? What if Dez and Quita get refused entry back into the United States because they’ve been smoking weed? If so, will their daughter be allowed over the border into Canada to join them?
Tapiero tries to charge his phone but can’t make it work, no matter which way he turns it. I think he’s nailed it when he flips the phone upside down, but that doesn’t work either. It’s a mystery. I feel frustrated just watching.
It’s been nearly three hours and the end of the tour is approaching. A long and companionable silence descends, broken only by the bubbling of the hookah. Much to my relief, Tapiero has worked out that the charger is, in point of fact, a stereo cable.
After what seems like an age, Dez shakes his head and smiles. “Man, it’s so crazy. This country just legalised weed… And we just smoked it.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "Stoned throes". Subscribe here.