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Vancouver, the new Amsterdam? How the city is gearing up to legalise cannabis

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Outside the Provincial Court of British Columbia (BC) in downtown Vancouver, a city regularly hailed as one of the best places to live in the world, there is a farmers market dedicated to marijuana – or “craft cannabis” as traders like to call it.

Glass jars filled with the drug are lined up on tables beneath a gazebo, which protects hawkers and punters from the incessant rain.

“We get all different types of people coming here,” says Jesse Slater, who mans one of the stalls. “Every race, creed and colour; different ages too.”

Cannabis is currently illegal in Canada, but not for long; next July the country will become the first G7 nation to fully legalise the recreational use of weed. Until then the authorities in British Columbia are turning a blind eye to the province’s overt marijuana industry, as they have done for decades.

“BC has always been the Mecca for marijuana in Canada,” explains Jesse, who sports a bushy beard, thick spectacles and high-vis jacket. “It’s part of the culture here.”

Vancouver's cannabis farmers' marketCredit:Gavin Haines

Jesse worked as a street dealer in the Nineties, but took a job in construction when he realised “swinging a hammer paid the bills more readily.”

Not for much longer, perhaps. According to the accounting firm, Deloitte, a legal cannabis industry in Canada could be worth a whopping $23 billion (£13.5bn) a year to the economy; investors are already queuing up to get a slice of the pie, leading some commentators to compare legalisation with the Gold Rush.

Deloitte reckons tourism could play a part in the burgeoning industry, though it clearly already does.

At a glance | Cannabis 'coffeeshops'

“Cruise passengers are our biggest customers during the summer,” explains an employee at Vancity Bulldog Cafe who wishes to remain nameless, where pre-rolled joints retail for $5 (£2.95).

Vancity Bulldog Cafe – along with the New Amsterdam Cafe opposite – are as close to Dutch-style “coffeeshops” as you’re likely to find outside the Netherlands. Smoking is not technically allowed in either establishment, but punters are permitted to get their cannabis fix via a vape. Both cafes are illegal, but tolerated.

“Once marijuana has been legalised I think there will be a lot more smoking lounges and dispensaries in Vancouver,” says the member of staff, optimistically. “We could be the Amsterdam of Canada; we already are.”

Vancouver currently has two smoking loungesCredit:Gavin Haines

A few blocks east from Vancity Bulldog Cafe is Farm Dispensary, a cannabis store located between the chalk-and-cheese neighbourhoods of Gastown and Downtown Eastside; the former an upmarket district popular with tourists, the latter one of Canada’s most deprived postcodes.

Mitchell Flann works at the dispensary and believes there’s huge potential for pot tourism in British Columbia.  

“[Marijuana] is already a massive draw for tourism,” he says. “Pot tourism will only expand further as the government becomes able to openly push it.”

smoke cannabis legally

Critics fear legalisation will lead to an increase in drug-driving (driving under the influence of drugs) – as it did in Colorado, US – while others claim it could encourage teens to take up smoking; the government has vowed to take a hard line on both.

The fiercest criticism, however, has actually come from advocates of legalisation, who fear regulation will open the door to big corporates and allow them to monopolise what is currently a cottage industry.

“Each province in Canada is formulating their own plan for rolling out the new legislation; few have announced a concrete system yet,” explains Mitchell.

A pro-cannabis event on Sunset Beach, Vancouver, last yearCredit:Getty

“The Ontario government has adopted a centralised, internet-based ordering system that entirely negates any craft dispensaries in favour of an official government-mandated procedure for purchasing weed that forces patrons to operate within their monopoly. That would never fly in BC.”

There are similar concerns at the farmers market, which was founded as a protest movement. Organisers there fear the government will limit the amount of weed individuals can legally possess to one ounce and strictly enforce such limits, thus penalising growers and heavy users. They’d rather the status quo, whereby police just turn a blind eye; better the devil you know, they reason.  

“It could make it a lot harder for us,” says Dave Hill, a “craft” cannabis grower and stallholder, who claims to smoke 28 joints a day.  

Perhaps, although we won’t know for sure what legalisation looks like until spring, when the provincial government decides how to implement the new federal law. In the meantime, there’s one thing everyone can agree on; the “green rush” is on.

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