High for a price: Cost of legal cannabis has some students turning back to illegal dispensaries

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ONE YEAR AFTER LEGALIZATION, RYERSON STUDENTS ARE WEIGHING COST VERSUS SAFETY WHEN IT COMES TO BUYING CANNABIS, SERENA LOPEZ REPORTS

When recreational cannabis was legalized one year ago, Tess Stuber was stunned. Walking around Ryerson’s campus, she inhaled the pungent, earthy scent of weed in the air and was in awe by how open people were about smoking it.

Coming from Columbus, Ohio, where cannabis is still considered too taboo to even talk about in such a highly religious and conservative state, Stuber was excited to attend school in Toronto. The cannabis culture was becoming more and more normalized here in comparison to her conservative hometown, where medical cannabis was legalized in 2016 and licensed dispensaries of medical cannabis opened in January 2019. 

“People have to be so secretive about it,” says Stuber of her hometown. “They have to smoke it in secluded areas like their garage or find some areas in the forest.” 

As another semester came to a close in late April, the second-year journalism student was anxious to christen herself into the new world of legal cannabis stores. 

She decided to visit a newly-opened cannabis shop on Queen Street West called The Hunny Pot, wanting to explore her newfound freedom. Shortly after waiting in line, Stuber walked out with a one gram of weed and 16 dollars less in her pocket. 

“It’s money well spent,” she says. “I have to take into account I know exactly what I’m buying and what I’m about to put into my body. I trust it.”  

Since legalization on Oct. 17, 2018, 25 legal dispensaries have opened in Ontario, three of them being within walking distance of Ryerson campus. Legal dispensaries have become an additional option for smokers, although some continue to purchase cannabis illicitly. Those who buy from legal dispensaries are avoiding the safety risks that come with buying illegal cannabis.

But the costly price tag on legal cannabis isn’t stopping student cannabis users from spending more for a safer high. According to a Statistics Canada survey, 76 per cent of those who consumed cannabis in the first half of 2019 listed quality and safety as an important factor when purchasing cannabis, while 42 per cent considered price. 

Last autumn, Ryerson students said they preferred to purchase cannabis through local dispensaries rather than from the Ontario Cannabis Store because it was faster and offered a better selection. 

According to an April StatsCannabis report of crowdsourced cannabis prices in Canada since legalization, cannabis buyers have paid an average of $9.99 per gram, which is about 56.8 per cent higher than the average price of 6.37 dollars per gram in the illicit market. 

With the various other expenses that come with being a university student and the hundreds of bank-emptying traps that surround campus on a daily basis, it’s easy to question whether spending on legal cannabis is worth the splurge and whether buying from the black market is still the way to go. 

Talha Hashnani is a novice cannabis user. The first time the second-year journalism student even tried smoking, it was cannabis purchased by a friend that he smoked briefly during a 10-minute break from class. It wasn’t particularly memorable enough for him to want to do it again. 

Whenever Hashnani thought of buying drugs, he pictured a situation that was something slightly “sketchier involving pockets and drug-deals in the corner,” he says.

Buying from an illicit dispensary near campus for the first time wasn’t exactly what he expected. Besides the groups of people getting high outside the shop, Hashnani says if he didn’t already know, he wouldn’t have guessed that it was an illicit, unlicenced dispensary.

He remembers the dispensaries’ employees even wearing shirts with brand logos on them. But having heard about the steep costs attached to legal dispensaries, Hashnani ventured towards buying cannabis illicitly. 

The latest StatsCanada report shows 42 per cent of Canadian cannabis users still bought their cannabis illegally after legalization.

“Am I really going to spend 16 dollars on something [at a legal dispensary], when I could get it cheaper illegally?” Hashnani asked. The dispensary seemed professional to him, so he didn’t worry about the quality or safety of the cannabis. 

Still, when it comes to buying cannabis specifically on the basis of safety, his mind is made up. “Sometimes you don’t know what’s inside your gram,” he says. “Legal dispensaries I think are the safest place to go to.”

Brad Poulos, a Ryerson lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Strategy, says concerns about the safety and quality of cannabis are valid.“[Legal] cannabis has to be tested for pesticides that are on the banned list, heavy metals and mould,” he says. “In the illicit market, all of those things can and do exist.”

Poulos says although the illicit market isn’t regulated, he believes it still includes responsible growers who follow ethical practices close to government standards. “It’s not that there isn’t good pot and good growers. It’s just that there’s no way to know which one is which,” he says.

Apart from taxes, running a cannabis business in the regulated market also comes with its own expenses from the start. Consumer costs are higher because facilities have to be Health Canada compliant and purchase cannabis from the government, which costs around 1,000 dollars a batch, he says. 

“At the end of the day cannabis is a consumer good,” says Poulos. Like any other product with sales competition, he says companies have to compete on price, quality, selection and access.

Currently, Ontarians are only able to legally purchase dried cannabis and pre-rolls. But, effective as of Oct. 17, 2019 the Government of Canada announced cannabis regulations will expand the rules to include sale of cannabis edibles, extracts and topicals in physical and online stores in mid-December.

In an effort to divert Canadians from purchasing in the illicit market, the Ontario government announced earlier this summer that they would licence an additional 42 stores through a revised lottery process; similar to the previous one held earlier this year. By the end of the month, 13 stores more stores are set to open in Toronto. 

All factors considered, Stuber still feels torn having to spend so much for cannabis. It means that “she’ll smoke less and buy more in bulk” to make purchasing worth it, meaning she’ll be spending an average of about $50 a month. 

But for her it’s less about the money. It’s about the motivations behind why she’s spending it. 

“If I have to spend $16 I’d rather spend it in the legal market,” she says. “I’d never spend that much money in the illegal market for a risk.”

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