OTTAWA (Reuters) - Long lines formed on a sub-zero morning last week to buy marijuana over the counter from three different shops in Ottawa, the first capital in the industrialized world to open them.
Though the day highlighted the realization of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s promise to legalize cannabis during his 2015 campaign, neither he nor anyone else from the ruling Liberal party was out taking credit for it - a sign that the social stigma around marijuana is still strong.
“Canadians are accepting of legalization, but I don’t think they’re celebratory,” said Peter Donolo, a political strategist at Hill + Knowlton and communications director for former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Aside from difficulty keeping up with demand, legalization has gone smoothly. Online pot sales to adults began nationally on Oct. 17, but storefronts only opened in the province of Ontario, which includes the capital, on April 1.
Six months before a national election, polls show Liberals deadlocked or trailing the rival Conservative Party, and Trudeau is being cautious about weed.
Though Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has said he would not reverse legalization if elected, he has repeatedly expressed worries about safety - especially around people driving while high - and has said more young people might try marijuana now.
There are also some communities like the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, where 55 percent of the population list their ethnic origin as Chinese, which have prohibited cannabis storefronts.
“Legalization has gone well,” a government official said, but the issue is not a “primary focus”.
It is now safer to be a consumer because of regulation, the official said, adding that black market sales are falling and legal jobs and revenue are being created.
Interviews with customers and retailers at the Ottawa stores revealed that even if Trudeau is not talking about it, legalization has generated good will.
“I live close by and I’m excited to see how this store will change the neighborhood,” said Jessica, 23, who declined to give her last name. “I did not vote Liberal last time, but I might this time.”
Jessica was huddled close to an outdoor heater in front of the Fire & Flower store, which is just a 10-minute walk from both the prime minister’s office and parliament.
“We have a deep appreciation for the opportunity we’ve been granted,” said Michael Patterson, one of the shop’s two license holders.
Vivian Azer, a financial analysts who follows cannabis companies for Cowen and Company in New York, sees a bright future for Canada’s nascent marijuana industry.
She forecast cannabis retail sales reaching C$3.6 billion ($2.7 billion) in 2019, including taxes. Azer sees illicit sales declining to 11 percent of the total sales by 2025 from 90 percent last year.
By 2025, Canadian recreational weed revenue will total C$10 billion ($7.5 billion), with medical marijuana at C$2 billion ($1.5 billion), Azer estimates.
“The stigma is rolling away,” Azer said.
Cheralynn, 55, said the promise to legalize marijuana was one of the main reasons she voted for Trudeau in 2015.
“And I like Justin,” she said. “Most women do. He’s kinda cute.”
Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bill Berkrot