Quebec's new cannabis stores draw huge crowds for legalization day

Long lines formed outside Quebec's government-run cannabis stores and thousands more bought the drug online today, as Canada embarks on a new era of legal organization.

'I wanted to be the first to make a legal purchase in Montreal,' says customer who arrived at 3:30 a.m.

Hugo Sénécal reacts as his enters a government cannabis store to buy legal cannabis products in Montreal, Wednesday. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Hugo Senécal and Corey Stone wanted to be a part of history today.

They were the first people in line outside the government-run cannabis store on Ste-Catherine Street in downtown Montreal, which opened at 10 a.m. 

Both have medical prescriptions, but say it was symbolic for them to be there, as nearly a century of prohibition came to a close. 

"It is historic. I wanted to be the first to make a legal purchase in Montreal," Senécal, who sat next to the door, said.

The Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) opened three outlets in Montreal and 12 across the province on Wednesday as cannabis became legal across Canada. 

There are plans to open between 150 and 160 stores in the next two to three years in Quebec.

The lineup outside the Ste-Catherine Street store stretched for blocks. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Senécal said he hopes legalization will make people open-minded about those who smoke weed.

"People need to stop thinking potheads are people who don't do anything in life, sit on their couch eating chips all day. I got up at 3 a.m. to be here. Most people wouldn't do that," he said.

'Once-in-a-lifetime situation'

Senécal and Stone were among about 10 people lined up at the store on Ste-Catherine at around 6 a.m. as Canada embarks on a new era of legalization.

By the time the outlet opened, the line had grown so long it wrapped around the block. Lineups — some several hours long — formed at stores across the province.

"It's definitely a once-in-a-lifetime situation," Stone said.

Sarah Cantin was also in the line on Ste-Catherine. She said she's proud of Canada for legalizing cannabis. Cantin and her partner used to live in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, where it's illegal to consume the drug.

"I'm proud of my government — to come back, live in a place where they think about the future," she said. "They actually let people be."

"Finally, we can smoke and not feel like we're criminals, you know. It feels good."

Sarah Cantin, right, says she's proud of being Canadian because of legalization. (Lauren McCallum/CBC)

In Quebec City, 18-year-old Zachary Nicole was the first and only one at around 8 a.m. to line up at an SQDC store there.

Nicole said it wouldn't be his first time smoking, but that he was looking forward to consuming legal cannabis and felt it would be safer and simpler to buy it from the government.

"When it's sold by the government, you don't have to worry," he said. "It's crazy, I never thought it would happen."

Zachary Nicole, 18, was the first and only one waiting for the Quebec City SQDC store to open Wednesday morning. (Pascal Poinlane/CBC)

Nicole said he was dismayed by new Quebec Premier François Legault's plan to increase the legal age for consuming cannabis in the province from 18 to 21. 

"What's the point? No other provinces are doing that," he said. "Those people will find ways to get it, whether it be [at the SQDC] or their friends, so it's not the best idea."

Competing without promoting

Cannabis is also available for purchase online in Quebec, and it's going fast. The SQDC had already made more than 18,000 sales on the web by 4 p.m. Wednesday.

That compares to 6,000 sales made in brick-and-mortar shops. 

Some of the online products had sold out by mid-afternoon, including capsules and smaller quantities of dried cannabis. 

A representative for the SQDC said Tuesday it is trying to find a balance between competing with the black market, both in terms of price and quality, without promoting the consumption of the drug.

"The mission is not to promote consumption," said Jean-François Bergeron, a vice-president at Quebec's liquor corporation, which oversees the SQDC.

"It's really to distribute in a safe manner across Quebec."

The province has some of the most restrictive rules regarding the production and sale of cannabis of any province. The age limit, for now, is 18, but the new CAQ government is planning to raise it to 21.

It's also only one of two provinces (the other being Manitoba) that forbids non-medical users from growing plants at home.

The CAQ wants to ban the consumption of cannabis in public spaces. Several municipalities, as well as some Montreal boroughs, are planning to introduce similar restrictions. 

With files from Radio-Canada and Lauren McCallum

Our reporters Benjamin Shingler and Sarah Leavitt answered your questions in a Facebook Live today. You can watch below or here.


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.