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One store’s legal battle to free the pot leaf and save Quebecois cannabis culture

June 21, 2021

Poutine, unofficially the official national food of Quebec, pairs extremely well with pot.

So well, in fact, that it would be fair to assume that the Francophone province would have embraced federal cannabis legalisation when it came into effect in 2018. But Quebec has never been fond of taking directives from the federal government.

True to form, no sooner had the federal Cannabis Act gone into effect—over Quebec legislators’ vehement objections—the province announced the most restrictive weed regulations in the country.

From pot leaves to products used for consumption, Quebec has had a province-wide ban on all cannabis paraphernalia since federal legislation. While you can still get items like pipes and bongs, there won’t be any Tommy Chong glass or weed-branded merchandise for sale.

Free the pot leaf

After two years, one head shop is taking legal action against Quebec’s restrictive policy in order to free the pot leaf and restore access to crucial cannabis resources that empower and inform consumers.

Christopher Mennillo, co-owner of Prohibition Counter-Culture Club, a Montreal-based lifestyle brand and chain of head shops and apparel, has become the face of the legal fight against the ban, which covers clothing, posters, books, cosmetics, and a slew of other items.

Although initially on the fence about heading up the legal fight, Mennillo said the company ultimately felt compelled to take action.

“Little mom-and-pop shops in and around Quebec were affected to the point where they were going to go bankrupt,” he said. “That was a really big deal for us. We recognized that there’s a bit of injustice here, and we really should do something about this.”

Prohibition made its case in a Quebec Superior Court court in mid-April, but two months later it’s still anyone’s guess how long it will take Justice Marc St-Pierre to render a decision.

A violation of freedom of expression?

The club’s case against the provincial government asserts that the total ban is a violation of freedom of expression.

“We claim that these objects carry political, social, cultural and religious thoughts and beliefs, and that such a total ban cannot be justified in a free and democratic society,” Prohibition lawyer Frederick Pinto of Pinto Légal explained in a statement.

The inability to score a weed-print bandana may not seem like a public health issue, but the effects of the ban may be more far-reaching.

Not only do the regulations outlaw words and images that depict cannabis, but those that reference cannabis—and the lack of clarity in the wording can leave retailers at the mercy of provincial inspectors.

“Reference is up for interpretation,” explained Mennillo. “If a word, in the eyes of an MSSS Inspector, is a reference to cannabis, it’s up to their discretion if they want to issue a fine.”

He cites words such as “faded,” “elevated,” and the number 420 as examples of potential violations.

Weekly inspections by enforcement

Prohibition has gotten used to the pot police showing up to make sure they aren’t stocking banned items.

Mennillo said that with over 25 locations, the company faces inspection several times a week by provincial representatives from the Ministry of Health and Social Services.  

“They constantly visit us and look for mistakes, and we are constantly going above and beyond to make sure that we’re ahead of the curve in respecting the law because we have no interest in going against it,” he said. 

“If anything, we want to work with the government to just make cannabis a better industry and a better culture. Right now, I believe that we’re stifling the culture.”

 A Prohibition Counter-Culture Club storefront in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
A Prohibition Counter-Culture Club storefront in Montreal. (Courtesy Prohibition Counter-Culture Club)

Mennillo calculated that the regulations have netted the company about $1.5 million CAD in losses per year since they came into effect in October 2018. The company has also had to pony up for several fines, although they have successfully contested the vast majority.

It is unclear if larger chain stores that offer pot leaf-branded merchandise like Sephora are subjected to this level of scrutiny. The MSSS did not respond to requests for comment.

Quebec is the only province with this kind of ban

The inability to score a weed-print bandana may not seem like a public health issue, but the effects of the ban may be more far-reaching. The ban prevents access to books and education that cannabis consumers may need to make informed decisions.

“What people don’t realize is, yeah, we pulled t-shirts off the shelves, but we also pulled books,” Mennillo said. “So if you’re new to the idea of cannabis consumption and want to inform yourself more traditionally, you can’t walk into a store and just buy a book.”

Mennillo envisions a Quebec where the provincial government and retailers like Prohibition have a more collaborative relationship with a stronger focus on education than enforcement. 

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Emma Spears

Emma Spears is a Toronto-born reporter currently based in Montreal.

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