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By Scott Roberts

With the gas gauge hovering at empty, a telling odour lingering overhead and hankering for a weekend in the big city, Nick Epp and Meredith Tyhurst have finally arrived in downtown Toronto.

An hour and a half late and craving a meal, it takes them more than five hours to make the trek to Hogtown. Students at Laurentian University, the two have fled Sudbury, Canada’s nickel capital.

Epp and Tyhurst, or Tyru as her friends call her, aren’t really into the “cultured” scene. They don’t plan on visiting the AGO or the ROM on their three-day visit. There is only one place these two are adamant about frequenting and that’s the Hot Box Cafe.

“We’ve definitely heard a lot about this place from our friends, and they keep telling us we should go,” says Epp, a first-year criminology student. “So we’re making it a point to go this weekend while we’re in the T-dot.”

The Hot Box Cafe isn’t some trendy side-street eatery on Bloor West. It is Toronto’s first and only marijuana café, tailored to the city’s “high” society. Nestled between Kensington Carpets and open-air grocery stores in the heart of Kensington Market, it’s a place where patrons can sit down for a coffee and smoke a joint. Customers are encouraged to bring and smoke their own weed in the café.

Inside, the café is filled with customers lounging on the sectional couches and retro chairs. Two teenagers sit and play chess at one end of the café, while three well-dressed 30-somethings talk business at the other. In the corner, an elderly woman reads a book as she sips her latte.

As Epp and Tyhurst first walk through the door of the narrow joint, they can’t help but stand and stare. Between the live turtles and vibrant glass bongs, the place is mesmerizing and, today, it’s buzzing with patrons.

Painted in acid greens and the washed-out oranges, the café is a mellow haven for Toronto’s potheads.

Posters on the wall feature the Mona Lisa smoking a joint and a marijuana leaf replacing the maple one in a Canadian flag.

“This place is chill,” Tyhurst says as she gazes around. “It looks just like my friends described it to me.”

It’s just how owner and operator Abi Roach envisioned the café when she decided to build it 10 years ago.

“I have always had the thought in my mind that I wanted to eventually open a pot cafe,” Abi says. She legally changed her last name to Roach and she was 18 years old.

“The (cafe) was one of those ideas that the timing was right, the money was there and I just did it,” she says.

In fact, the timing couldn’t have been more favourable for the 25-year-old Israeli-born entrepreneur. The grand opening of the Hot Box was May 15, 2002, during the peak of Canada’s marijuana law debates.

The debate sparked across the country left many citizens more confused than informed.

Though Marijuana laws have not yet changed, police have softened up against people carrying small amounts.

Some people now believe the drug has already been decriminalized, others are under the impression that it’s now legal to possess and smoke maruijana. Neither notion is true.

Under our current pot laws, it is illegal to possess or smoke any amount of marijuana in Canada, unless you have a prescription to use pot for medical reasons.

So, what does it all mean for pot cafés in this country? Simply put: they are against the law.

“All of these cafés are illegal in the sense that they don’t have licenses to do what they do,” says John Conroy, a high-profile Vancouver lawyer. “The operators are aiding and abetting marijuana possession and use because it is taking place on their property.”

Conroy, who has specialized in drug-related cases for more than three decades, says cafés such as the Hot Box Cafe are still relatively safe from prosecution.

“There’s simply a non-enforcement policy that seems to exist in Canada in regards to these cafés,” he says. “Maybe because (police) realize that it’s not worth their while and maybe because the issue has rebounded against them politically. Either way, these cafés are not being prosecuted.”

That suits Abi just fine. She says that although she knows she is breaking the law, she feels it is for a greater good. Abi is a self-described ‘freedom seeker’ and feels smoking marijuana is a freedom of expression that is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“I’m doing something good for this province and something good for the people who live here,” says Roach. “I’m willing to face the consequences if there are any.”

But the Hot Box Café is no all-night party bar. It opens at 11 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m. All patrons must be at least 18 years old to enter the café and alcohol is not allowed. But the most important rule prohibits the selling of pot in the premises.

“When we first opened up we had some problems with people coming in and using the café as their own personal dealing office,” Abi says. “We put a stop to that right away.”

Respect, Abi says, is a mainstay at Kensington Market. It’s just one of the reasons she decided to open her café here. “(The market) is so open and multicultural and balanced. Nobody’s too rich; nobody’s too poor. Everyone is really accepting,” she says.

Adrian Kos, a 55-year-old teacher, is a regular at the Hot Box. Today, he is relaxing inside the jam-packed café with a couple of teenagers dressed in black. The three are discussing the moisture level in the marijuana they are smoking.

Epp and Tyhurst decide to join in the conversation, which has really turned into a lesson. Kos, who says he’s been using weed since he was 13 years old, hails from the Netherlands, which has the most liberal pot laws in the world. As the eldest in the group, he leads in the discussion as others listen in.

“The weed here is perfect,” he says as he opens a Ziplock bag filled with marijuana. “It’s dry enough that it burns well but wet enough that it packs together tightly.”

Kos, who comes to the Hot Box every day after work, says it reminds him of his home. He says the people here are relaxed, free-spirited and real. “Look at everyone having a good time out here,” he says as he points across the café. “You’re telling me that this is breaking the law? Us sitting here having a smoke. I tell you that you’re crazy.”

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