VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The weed is expensive, the selection is limited, the black market persists, and licensed stores are scarce.
It's one year into Canada's experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened. While many residents remain proud of Canada for bucking prohibition, a lot still buy cannabis on the sly, because taxes and other issues mean high-quality bud can cost nearly twice what it did before legalization.
Much of the drug's production and distribution over the years has been controlled by outlaw groups, including the Hells Angels, and replacing such criminality with safe, regulated sales is a key goal of legalization.
Yet legal sales in the first year are expected to total just $1 billion, an amount dwarfed by an illegal market still estimated at $5 billion to $7 billion.
“One customer told me, 'I love you and I want to support you, but I can't buy all my cannabis here. It's too expensive,'” said Jeremy Jacob, co-owner of Village Bloomery, a Vancouver pot store. “The black-market producers are being well rewarded by legalization.”
The nation has seen no sign of increases in impaired driving or underage use since it joined Uruguay as the only countries to legalize and regulate the sale of cannabis to adults – those over 19 in most Canadian provinces.
But officials promised legalization would be a process, not an event, and they weren't wrong. Kinks abound, from what many consider wasteful packaging requirements and uneven quality to the slow pace of licensing stores and growers in most of the country.
Canada allowed provinces to shape their own laws within a federal framework. Some have done better than others.
The result: There are more than 560 licensed stores across Canada, but more than half are in Alberta, the fourth-largest province. Ontario and Quebec, which together make up two-thirds of Canada's population, have only about 45 shops between them.
Online sales, designed to ensure far-flung communities can access the market even if they don't have a licensed shop, have been underwhelming, at least partly because consumers are reluctant to pay with a credit card if that transaction might come to the attention of U.S.-based banks or border guards, said Megan McCrae, board chair of the Cannabis Council of Canada industry group.
Nowhere are the challenges of legalization more pronounced than British Columbia, which has had a flourishing cannabis culture since U.S. military draft dodgers settled there during the Vietnam War era. In Vancouver, which has 2.2 million residents and is Canada's third-largest city, about 100 dispensaries operated before legalization arrived.
Nevertheless, the legal market has fans. Vancouver resident Sarah Frank, who used to grow her own marijuana plants, loves that she can walk into a clean, welcoming, legal shop and walk out with a few grams of her favorite cannabis, actor Seth Rogen's Houseplant Sativa brand.
“You don't feel like a criminal,” said Frank, 41. “I have friends who can't travel to the States because 20 years ago they got busted with a joint.”