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A cannabis user rolls a joint. Photo: Pexels

Legal cannabis rising in popularity but illegal cannabis sales still high

Experts and regular users say there are pros and cons to both markets

By Emily Blatta , in City , on November 28, 2023

For two years, Glamma Gregory has worked at Local Cannabis Co., a sleek storefront near the happening corner of Fraser and Kingsway in Vancouver. He has seen firsthand how, five years into legalization, more people are opting to buy legal cannabis.

“We feel like we’re a community spot for people,” he said.

In the early years of cannabis being legal, the industry had success attracting those new to cannabis or curious about it, but many longtime users were hesitant to buy from legal sources. Nowadays, people who used to only buy from the illegal market are turning towards legal sources more often. 

This uptick in legal cannabis sales is reflected in a new report by Statistics Canada, which shows that by the first half of 2023, more than 70 per cent of the total value of cannabis consumed in Canada was from a legal source. In 2019, only 47 per cent of cannabis users sourced some of their cannabis legally. 

Rates of cannabis use are highest in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Across the country, cannabis use is most common among those aged 18 to 24.

One reason for this shift is that “in the beginning, the quality was terrible in comparison to what was on the black market, and now there are a lot more options for direct delivery and quicker turnaround on pack dates,” said Gregory.

Fixing the kinks in the legal cannabis system has led to better quality, making it more similar to what is available on the illegal market. These improvements, he said, have made it easier to build relationships with customers coming from this market.

According to both drug policy researchers and regular users, one big advantage of legal cannabis is that it’s tested.

“You can be pretty confident that what you’re buying is what’s on the label,” said Michael-John Milloy, a research scientist at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use who is focused on the therapeutic applications of cannabis and the public health impact of regulation.

Ground cannabis flower. Image: Pexels

It was for this reason that Samuel LeCours, who is 28, started buying from dispensaries.

“I buy it from the dispensary because I don’t tolerate THC very well and wanted to ensure that the weed I was buying had a low THC content and higher CBD content. It’s kind of a gamble with illegal weed, you just don’t know.”

Milloy said that testing is especially beneficial to those using cannabis for therapeutic reasons. For people with compromised immune systems, being sure that regulated products don’t have mould, pesticides or other contaminants is a plus. 

However, both Gregory and Milloy noted that there are still cost advantages to buying illegally. According to Statistics Canada, a gram of legal cannabis costs 55 cents more than illegal cannabis.

Additionally, edible products at legal retailers are capped, said Gregory, meaning that doses per product only go so high and don’t meet the amount of THC or CBD required to manage some levels of pain. For users to get the high dose they need, they have to spend a lot more. In comparison, illegal market edibles offer higher doses at a fraction of the price. 

Milloy said the groups most likely to buy illegally are those with lower incomes: young people, people earning minimum wage or less, and the unhoused. 

On the distribution side, Gregory added that the price of legal cannabis has to do with the hidden costs associated with regulation. Cannabis producers are required to pay a federal excise tax before distribution, resulting in additional final costs. 

“Lowered excise stamp prices would allow for better pricing for the consumer.”