A longtime business owner in Calgary is looking for opportunities to cash in on Ottawa's plan to legalize marijuana.

Vlassis Douvis — owner of Hemp Roots — says he's making space in his three retail stores in anticipation of the Liberal government's new pot legislation.

"If it's allowed for me to sell marijuana I would in all forms," said Douvis, 59. "Be it flower, be it concentrate, capsules or whatever the case may be."

Originally from Greece, Douvis came to Canada in the 1970s during the height of what he called "hippy culture."

He described growing marijuana in his youth as really no different than growing tomatoes at home.

"It was part of the lifestyle," said Douvis, who later decided to turn that lifestyle into a career and business.

"This is a crazy business — crazier than anything I've done," he said.

Bongs camouflaged as flower vases

In the early days of Hemp Roots, when the first storefront had to be draped in heavy curtains and only T-shirts were allowed to be on display, Douvis described a semi-secretive trade in which water pipes came in boxes labelled as something else.

"The bongs that were coming from China, where the hole for a downstem, had a sticker — Made in China — and they would come into Canada as flower vases,"  Douvis said.

"We had to put the parts together to make them into water pipes. Because in the '80s I think it was the Mulroney government that made water pipes illegal."

Hemp store marijuana

Bongs were once imported as flower vases in order to skirt Canadian law against drug paraphernalia. Vlassis Douvis would bring in the downstem parts separately, then re-assemble the pipes before selling them to customers. He said in nearly two decades only one elderly woman has mistaken the product for an actual vase. (Falice Chin/CBC)

The broadly worded ban in question is still part of the Criminal Code, but Douvis said importers have long abandoned the masquerade.

"They don't come as flower vases anymore," he said while chuckling.

"I remember one of my customers — an old lady — came in here looking for a flower vase and I didn't have the heart to tell her not to buy it. I told her it was used for smoking and it had a hole that wouldn't hold the water."

Public attitude toward cannabis has changed

When Hemp Roots opened a third store on Northmount Drive in 2012, a group of nearby residents protested — citing concerns about the shop's proximity to a school.

"Strangely enough, the same people who complained to us now come to us looking for information about medical cannabis and how they can use it," said Douvis.

He said he noticed a big shift in mainstream thinking within the past five years, adding he hasn't encountered any "NIMBYism" against his stores in recent years.

"In the past, everyone thought cannabis was a drug, even the recreational users who were using it as medicine," said Douvis. "The facts remain the same — people use it to sleep, use it to treat pain, arthritis, appetite, a whole variety of things."

Daughter to take over, grow pot business

While other businesses in Calgary are struggling to weather the economic bust, Douvis is eyeing a potential boom.

"I am hoping that it's true," he said about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to legalize pot.

"'Hoping' is a big word here because from what I see, the 'how' part is what it is. Because if you're going to regulate to the point that's not accessible to us, or the prices aren't going to be anywhere reasonable, people would continue buying from the local street dealer — if that's even the proper term anymore," said Douvis.

Hemp Store marijuana

Angelina Douvis, 19, grew up watching her father grow his head shop business. She wants to take over the Hemp Roots chain and is going to business school to prepare herself. (Falice Chin/CBC)

Regardless of how the law takes shape, the longtime store owner wants to keep the business in the family. He's currently grooming his 19-year-old daughter, Angelina Douvis, to take over.

The fresh-faced SAIT business administration student grew up watching her father advocate for cannabis. One of her earliest memories of Hemp Roots is hanging out with "Prince of Pot" activist Marc Emery and his wife when the pair visited Calgary.

"Having watched this business grow from bare bones to what it is now is an incredible source of pride for me," said Angelina. "I want to keep it going and build an empire."

​She said she also wants to diversify the business.

"Whether that means opening separate dispensaries or opening compound stores with product in them as well as smoking accessories, it would just be great to have this business build out from where we are now. And of course I want more of them."

When asked what her fellow business students think about her plan to inherit a hemp chain in the city, Angelina said she only hears positive responses.

"They go, 'Wow that's so cool, could you give me a deal?'" she said.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener