Legalization ended 'romance' of cannabis counterculture, owner of closing Glebe shop says

Crosstown Traffic — one of the oldest stores selling smoking paraphernalia in Ottawa — will be closing its doors for good in the spring. Owner Mike Foster said the proliferation of cannabis stores since legalization, along with the shift to online purchasing for customers, hurt sales.

'The proliferation of cannabis shops certainly affected our sales'

A man stands behind the counter in a store.
Mike Foster opened Crosstown Traffic in 1992. He says the store will be closing its doors forever this spring. (CBC)

Crosstown Traffic — one of the oldest stores selling smoking paraphernalia in Ottawa — will be closing its doors for good in the spring.

Mike Foster opened the head shop in Westboro in 1992 before moving to its location in the Glebe in 1997. The iconic cannabis counterculture store became something of an institution in the city.

Foster was involved in efforts to legalize cannabis because he said he didn't want to see people getting arrested for using the drug, but its legalization also led to the growth of larger retail operations catering to cannabis aficionados.

"The proliferation of cannabis shops certainly affected our sales on smoking accessories," he said.

"Once legalization happened, our sales plummeted on that. There's so many stores out there now, like every few blocks there's a cannabis shop and you can buy your papers or pipes there. So that aspect of our business suffered."

Photos on a bulletin board.
Some photos on display at the store. (CBC)

Despite the challenges, Foster doesn't have any regrets about supporting legalization efforts.

"I was still happy to see progress being made in that regard."

David Soberman, a professor of marketing at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said stores like Crosstown Traffic have lost the "forbidden fruit appeal" they had when cannabis was prohibited.

Head shops had a "rebellious" nature that drew people in, Soberman said, working in the margins between legal and illegal.

"Legalization kind of takes a bit of a romance out of the whole cannabis counterculture rebellion," Foster agreed.

 "I've visited Amsterdam sometimes and there it's just another commodity you know, and that's what it will become here … just like socks or cheese or something else you can buy, like the culture that goes along with it kind of dissipates a little."

Parallels to other industries

Bongs on display at a head shop in Ottawa.
Some of the bongs on display at Crosstown Traffic. (CBC)

Soberman said there aren't many direct parallels he could draw to the effect cannabis legalization has had on head shops, but said there could be similarities to how the growth of one-stop-shop grocery stores affected bakers and butchers.

"If you go back 50 years ago, there were supermarkets, but there were a lot more independent butchers, bakers," he said.

"Some still survive, but they need a unique offering in order to survive."

He doesn't necessarily think legalization will be the death of head shops because there is still a counterculture dimension to them.

But for stores like Crosstown Traffic to survive, he said they would likely need to get into the business of selling cannabis itself.

"If I am running a paraphernalia-type business and I know legalization is coming down the road, the obvious thing to do would be to get a licence to sell."

'I'm not bitter'

Foster said along with the legalization of cannabis hurting business, the change in shopping habits generally — shifting to online — made keeping the doors open untenable. 

"The sales aren't there anymore," he said. "The vinyl is back, and that's fine, and we do very well with vinyl, but it's not enough to carry the entire store."

He said he's going to spend his time volunteering at an animal sanctuary.

"We had a great run. And I'm not bitter, you know, we're happy," he said.

"It's just time."

March 31 will be the last day, though Foster joked he might make it April 1 — April Fool's Day.