Toronto Is Making a Play to Become North America's Cannabis Capital
The Canadian city is positioned to become the Denver of the Great White North.
On October 17, 2018, Canadians from coast to coast fired up comically large joints to celebrate becoming only the second nation to legalize recreational cannabis.
Many assumed Canada would quickly become one great-big version of Denver. But things didn’t quite pan out that way. Edibles and oils were still illegal. Smoking lounges, too. A small number of dispensaries couldn't keep up with demand, and the supply ran dry within days. Most people went back to their old-school dealers.
So when I returned to my native Canada and relocated to Toronto after traveling the world last year, I braced for disappointment. Upon arrival, I discovered Toronto's cannabis culture isn't at all what I expected: It's great.
In Toronto, I can walk down the street and see people merrily smoking joints without fear of consequence. I suddenly have more cannabis flower and edibles than I know what to do with. Every weekend (before the COVID-19 pandemic) featured an abundance of cannabis-related events, from festivals to THC-infused dinner parties.
"I think Toronto is really the epicentre of modern cannabis culture.”
A dozen authorized dispensaries (and a few unauthorized ones) operate downtown, with most adopting delivery and pickup options to keep spirits up amid the pandemic. On good-weather days during more normal times, Trinity Bellwoods Park and the aptly named High Park are flooded with enlightened locals basking in nature, tossing discs, and digging into global cuisine. Cannabis has woven itself into the city's everyday DNA.
"I think Toronto is really the epicentre of modern cannabis culture,” said Paul Weaver, an American immigrant and head of innovation at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest cannabis company. "It takes the best of (British Columbia) cannabis, takes the best of urban nightlife, and puts the two together.”
I met Weaver over drinks and joint-rolling lessons at the opening of a new Tokyo Smoke dispensary in February. There, he decreed Toronto might be the best place in the world to get high, thanks to the combination of incredible food, world-class arts and culture, easy explorability, and a community of people pushing the cannabis lifestyle forward.
“In Toronto there’s a lot of very smart entrepreneurs that are very passionate about cannabis that have a lot of people willing to buy into that passion,” Weaver said.
Stepping out into the city, it's easy to buy into this narrative.
“You bring some cannabis?” called out a man in chef’s clothing. I had just showed up at Cannabis Cooking Company, a few weeks before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill. The nondescript unit in a downtown office building facing the CN Tower caused some confusion. The question assured I had found the right place.
“Yeah, I got some,” I responded, still in disbelief that I’m legally allowed to say that.
Over the next three hours, executive chef Brent Leitch and company co-founder Josh Tuck taught eight twenty-somethings different methods of making THC-laced oil and explained how cannabis can infuse with fat, alcohol, sugar, and vinegar.
“Tell me any dish. I’ll tell you a way that you can infuse it and make it delicious,” said Leitch, a veteran of Toronto's culinary world who formerly worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Sicily.
Cannabis Cooking Company is among a handful of food-centric classes around Toronto. At this point, THC-infused restaurants are forbidden; current laws say you can’t serve cannabis in food unless guests bring it themselves or if it’s a private event. One such event is the ByMinistry upscale supper club, where five-course dinners go for $100 to $150 a pop. Another involves cannabis-infused pancakes and curated Saturday morning cartoons in a mystery host's living room (check Artery to see when that event is happening).
Tuck believes rules will be relaxed soon, opening the path to lounges and restaurants in Toronto. Until then, the company wants to destigmatize cannabis for anyone who’s still on the fence. So far, clientele at Cannabis Cooking has ranged from young enthusiasts to an octogenarian trying cannabis for the first time.
“We think if we can educate you on how to dose it and consume responsibly, we can make it normal. That's our goal,” Leitch said.
Legalization might be broadening horizons, but it's also caused some old-school stalwarts to adjust. From 2006 to legalization, Underground Cafe 420 was the place for getting high in Toronto because, for some unknown and ultra-chill Canadian reason, it never got shut down by the police. It was a new law prohibiting smoking indoors -- designed to curb cigarette smoking -- that forced the comedy club to cease being a de facto hotbox.
While owner Joanne "Puff Mama" Baker now sends her clientele outside to smoke, she said her iconic club’s cannabis-themed acts are as popular as ever. Last year, she said, a fire chief even stuck around for the show. “We’re just sort of 420 friendly,” said Baker. “We’re not allowed to smoke inside anymore."
The smoking ban has caused other underground favorites to pivot. Kensington Market's HotBox Cafe is currently remodeling after years of indoor smoking, while Oasis Aqualounge, a water-themed sex club in a 19th-century mansion, has adopted a "cannabis friendly" policy while banning indoor vaping and smoking. But one location has skirted the issue to allow legal indoor smoking, and it might just represent a glimpse into Toronto's future dominance of the cannabis world.
I walked up the stairs of the dingy vape lounge for a comedy night and the smell of smoke immediately pummelled my nostrils. Vapor Central is the only place in Toronto where you can currently smoke inside. Entering requires a $10 cover and the completion of a questionnaire, but once inside, it's as if you've entered cannabis Shangri-La. Smokers casually sit around rolling joints, inhaling from the smoke-filled bag of a volcano vape machine and ripping bongs with aplomb.
How is this legal in a city where lounges have yet to become the norm? A clever loophole: Vapor Central lists itself as a scientific research facility.
“We don’t want to be a research lounge,” admitted manager Anthony Carnevale. “We want to be selling weed behind the counter.”
Carnevale said the lounge -- which hosts live music, guided painting, “stoner bingo” and comedy nights -- attracts everyone from students working on their laptops to professionals stopping in for a dab to tourists looking for somewhere to smoke their store-bought cannabis, since it’s illegal to do so inside their hotel rooms.
“When they walk in the door it’s like ‘how is this possible?’” he said. “They just want to have a fun day in Toronto without the hangover.”
When I asked Carnevale to compare Toronto’s cannabis scene with the ones in other Canadian cities like Vancouver or Montreal, he echoed what I’d heard from Weaver at the Tokyo Smoke event: Toronto is the best because of the sheer amount of things to do while indulging, including theatres and museums, major league sports teams (including the reigning NBA champs), and great restaurants.
Vape Central might just be a window into Toronto's future cannabis evolution. Ontario launched public consultations in February to gauge whether it should allow cannabis consumption in lounges, restaurants and cafes. If that goes through, there's a strong chance that Toronto will become North America's greatest destination for cannabis culture, if not the world's.
“We’re not quite in the golden age, but we’re right at the precipice,” said Weaver.
TORONTO CANNABIS 101
With Toronto's status on the rise, we're sure you've got questions about how to fully immerse yourself in the cannabis culture. Here's a quick hit list of where to buy cannabis in Toronto, where to roam, and what to eat.
OK, so what are the rules for smoking cannabis in Toronto?
As long as you’re over 19, you can smoke cannabis in a private residence or in public. You’re not allowed to smoke anywhere that you can’t smoke cigarettes -- so no hotel rooms, restaurants, right outside of public doorways, etc. Keep it out of your car, and don't drive under the influence. And don't carry more than an ounce (30g) you.
Where can I buy cannabis?
There are about a dozen legal dispensaries in Toronto, which you can locate via the provincial government’s legal cannabis website, the Ontario Cannabis Store. Shops have different vibes ranging from Apple Store to Starbucks to upscale fast-food restaurant, but all sell similar stuff: flower, pre-rolls, oils, softgel capsules, and edibles at prices starting from about $7.50 Canadian dollars per gram. Keep an eye out for illegal dispensaries, like CAFE, which look virtually the same as legal shops, but aren’t regulated.
These are our favorite spots to stock up:
The Hunny Pot Cannabis Co: The city’s first legal pot shop (built in an old strip club) spans three floors and has qualified budtenders with iPads to walk you through your purchase.
Tokyo Smoke: Owned by Canopy Growth, Tokyo Smoke has three legal dispensaries with over 125 strains and tiny sniffing pods or “scent orbs” to have a whiff before you buy. Tokyo Smoke also has coffee shops, which sell accessories but aren’t permitted to sell cannabis.
Canna Cabana: One of Toronto’s newest shops, Canna Cabana has a fun tropical-themed vibe and helpfully offers a place to recycle wasteful plastic packaging.
Nova: Similar to a fast-food joint, Nova has a big screen listing its offerings including “Black Market Buster’ deals that can drop prices below $7 per gram. Drop in on Thursdays for “Cannabis 101” education sessions.
Canvas: Toronto’s first women-owned dispensary opened in the east end at the end of 2019 and has a friendly forest-themed vibe with grassy walls that resemble cannabis flower.
Where should I go when I’m stoned?
As Canada’s largest city and cultural hub, Toronto has more than enough to do, with the huge added bonus that partaking and wandering in public isn’t against any provincial or federal law. World-class arts and culture institutions are peppered throughout the downtown core, and its parks and greenspaces are almost always home to groups of friends passing around a joint. Here are a few key places to hit up:
Kensington Market: The ultra-hip, graffiti-covered Kensington Market neighborhood has long been home to Canada’s cannabis culture and is perfect for a food crawl or to do some thrift shopping.
Art Gallery of Ontario: Home to over 90,000 works of art, the AGO is an ideal place to explore after a session, and staff are well-accustomed to giggles at the exhibits.
Toronto Islands: One of the best day trips from a city anywhere, the Toronto Islands are a pristine place to go for a nature walk surrounded by Lake Ontario while in view of the city skyline.
Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada: Smoking and diving is probably not a good idea, but it’s safe and (really fun) to gawk at sea life with blood-shot eyes at this massive 135,000-sq-foot aquarium in the heart of downtown Toronto.
High Park: If the name doesn’t already give it away, this park is a great place to hike around a lake, throw around a frisbee, have a picnic, or go skating after partaking.
What should I eat after partaking?
With more than 200 ethnicities represented across the city, Toronto's home to some seriously delicious, munchies-crushing eats. Here are our top-five places to hit after partaking:
St. Lawrence Market: For more than 200 years, St. Lawrence Market has been Toronto’s fresh-food hub, and its 120 vendors give ample options for whatever you’re craving.
Bakerbots: Two fresh-baked cookies hugging a giant scoop of artisanal ice cream is about as pure an indulgence as anyone plagued with munchies can hope for.
Bampot Bohemian House of Tea and Board Games: Take off your shoes and plunk yourself on a comfy couch for a board game, all the tea you could possibly imagine, and delicious vegetarian snacks including the three-tier high tea platter that comes with cakes, fruit, nuts, and an entire pizza.
Seven Lives: Tacos are found all around Toronto, but few, if any, are as delicious as this Baja-style counter in Kensington Market serving epic seafood tacos.
Sugo: This Italian-American checkerboard-tablecloth joint serves heaping (and affordable) bowls of pasta, and is made all the more fun when the servers -- seemingly plucked out of The Sopranos -- coerce the whole restaurant to sing “Happy Birthday” together. If pizza’s what you’re after, Sugo recently opened a pizza restaurant, Conzo’s, a couple of doors down.