'It's crazy!': Quebec's ban on sales of anything with words or images of pot riles business owners

In the back room of a head shop in downtown Montreal, there are boxes stuffed with shirts, lighters, board games, and even colouring books — all pulled from shelves because even though cannabis is now legal in Canada, stores in Quebec can't sell anything bearing words or images associated with marijuana.

'We're standing up for cannabis culture,' says Christopher Mennillo, co-owner of a head shop chain

Christopher Mennillo, co-owner of Prohibition, examines a sampling of the products his stores are no longer allowed to sell. (CBC)

In the back room of a head shop in downtown Montreal, there are boxes stuffed with shirts, lighters, board games, and even colouring books. They've all been pulled off the shelves because — even though cannabis is now legal for recreational use in Canada — stores in Quebec aren't allowed to sell anything with words or images associated with marijuana.

Only the government-run Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) outlets are allowed to sell cannabis in the province, while private retail shops are allowed to sell pot-smoking accessories.

But provincial inspectors have told head shops that selling items that appear to promote cannabis — a shirt with the word "bud" on it, for example — could mean a fine ranging from $2,500 to $62,500. 

We really didn't think that, come legalization day, products that we've been selling for the last 30 years would all of a sudden become illegal.- Christopher Mennillo, Prohibition co-owner

"We really didn't think that come legalization day, products that we've been selling for the last 30 years would all of a sudden become illegal," said Christopher Mennillo, vice-president and co-owner of the head shop chain Prohibition.

He said it's frustrating because Quebec's rules are far more conservative than those in the rest of Canada.

Other Canadian provinces seem to have no qualms about pot-related paraphernalia being decorated with cannabis leaves or references to cannabis culture.

These are just a few of the examples of the merchandise that Quebec shops have had to remove from their shelves, because of wording or images associated with cannabis. (CBC)

"Only in this province is it illegal for you to sell a T-shirt with a cannabis leaf on it," Mennillo said.

The vague wording of Quebec's Cannabis Regulation Act makes it even more challenging to follow the rules, he said. 

"One inspector will say that the word 'blunt' is a reference to cannabis, and another will say that '420' is a reference to cannabis," he said. "But they both don't agree on where they draw the line."

Mennillo plans to challenge the regulations in court, with the backing of a handful of other entrepreneurs frustrated by the tight restrictions. 

Prohibition, a Quebec chain of smoke shops, plans to mount a legal challenge of the province's regulations banning the sale of items that appear to promote cannabis. (CBC)

Even though legalization has meant an increase in profits for Prohibition, Mennillo said smaller shops are struggling and could face bankruptcy. 

"We're standing up for them. We're standing up for cannabis culture," he said.

Beer legal, labels not

Montreal craft brewery Saint-Bock, which runs a pub, recently found itself in trouble over its new cannabis-flavoured beers.

Montreal's Saint-Bock craft brewery created four cannabis-flavoured beers in anticipation of legalization. They were promptly removed from circulation, because images and wording on the labels refer to marijuana. (CBC)

Owner Martin Guimond launched four new beers in the spring, in anticipation of legalization. He spent three months on research and development to make sure the beers — which won't actually get you high — were legal.

But he found out last month that the labels on the bottles are a problem.

The names he chose for the beer, including Pineapple Express and Jack the Ripper, are not allowed because they're seen as references to pot.

Guimond said he now has $400,000 worth of beer stuck in a warehouse. He can't sell it unless he puts on new labels.

Saint-Bock owner, Martin Guimond, is working on designing new labels for his cannabis-flavoured beers. He expects he'll lose as much as $100,000. (CBC)

The provincial government declined a request for comment, but it may soon have to confront the issue in court. 

Guimond said he also plans to launch a court challenge.

"Just last week we had customers who were rolling [a joint] on the table," he said. "It's crazy!

"There are people who are actually, legally [allowed] to roll a joint in my bar, and I'm not able to tell them, 'Oh, I'm sorry, I have a beer in the flavour of cannabis.'"

About the Author

Jaela Bernstien

Jaela Bernstien is a national reporter based in Montreal. She's covered a wide range of news topics, ranging from criminal trials to ice age caves, and everything in between.