Will tourists take the high road to Canada?





On 17 October, Canada became the second country in the world — after plucky little Uruguay — to legalise recreational cannabis. While the exact details will be left to Canada’s ten provinces, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hasn’t shied away from his ambition to give every Canadian access to safe and legal cannabis.

Good news, no doubt, for Canada’s treasury which, based on the experience of those US states that have taken the legalisation plunge, can expect to reap a significant windfall on sales taxes. But can legalisation deliver an even bigger economic boom for Canada by supercharging the country’s tourist industry?

Some in America clearly think so: in anticipation of leagues of pot enthusiasts heading north for their fix, the US Department of Justice has made various headline-grabbing announcements about the penalties for Americans trying to bring it back over the border. South Korea, too, has vowed to arrest its citizens on return if they dare to smoke cannabis on Canadian soil.

To see whether a tourism boom might be under way, I spent a weekend in Montreal, the largest city in French-speaking Quebec. Could a whistle-stop tour of Canada’s thriving pot industry sell me — a marijuana agnostic at best — on the merits of cannabis tourism?

First thing first: anyone expecting to be able to roll into Canada and purchase their first spliff at the airport is going to be disappointed. Weed might be legal, but it’s heavily controlled: even more so than alcohol. In Quebec, the sale of marijuana is limited to a small number of state-run dispensaries known as SQDC (Société Québécoise du Cannabis). In Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, it’s currently only available online.

In Montreal, by contrast, things are much tamer. Could this highly regulated approach actually end up holding things back? At the time of writing, Montreal’s state-run liquor stores (from which the SQDC model evolved) are one week into a crippling strike action which has closed many and left others running with a skeleton crew. Similar disruption at SQDC (and it’s worth noting that strikes are hardly uncommon in Quebec) could deal a hefty blow to Canada’s image as the laid-back capital of cannabis tourism.

When I get back to my apartment, I take out the package I bought, peeling back the government-duty label to reveal three neatly wrapped marijuana cigarettes. With the window open — and a rather excellent view of Montreal’s Mount Royal on a crisp, cold night — I take a few nervous puffs.

Within minutes I feel a deep relaxation and a sense of relief as the everyday anxieties disappear. I take a second to feel the cold air on my chest, before pulling the window shut and spreading myself out on the bed. As far as relaxing mini-breaks go, it’s a feeling that’s hard to beat.

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