Where are they now? Abi Roach, Hotbox Café

Published on December 12, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Jesse Milns/Leafly

We chat with some of the most prominent figures in Canadian cannabis about the highlights and lowlights of the first year of legalization. In the fourth installment of this series, we chat with Abi Roach

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Abi Roach has been a fixture in Canadian cannabis for two decades, and was a vocal advocate for the legalization of recreational cannabis years before it happened.

Roach oversees several business initiatives but is best-known as the owner of the iconic Hotbox Café in Toronto’s Kensington Market. She is also executive chair of NORML Canada, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of cannabis consumers.

She recently sat down for a talk with Leafly. Here is a condensed version of that interview.

How has your professional life changed since legalization?

To be honest, it has been more challenging than I thought it would be. I thought it would be easier to make the transition into the legal space. The regulatory changes have been severe. The changes to the Smoke-Free Ontario Act have made a huge impact.

They have created many problems for my business. Here’s one example: We had to stop allowing people to smoke or vape in our café because it’s an enclosed space.

Has the Smoke-Free Ontario Act been the biggest problem for your business?

No, the introduction of the lottery system has been the biggest problem. At first the provincial government said we could get operator licenses so we started moving forward. We got investors and we got two more leases. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was all roses.

Two days after we finalized the most expensive lease, the government introduced the lottery system. We ended up losing a lot of money.

There were others who had it worse. Some companies had purchased 75 leases before the lottery system was introduced.

The Ford government wasn’t prepared for the legalization of cannabis.

You don’t seem thrilled with the Ford government…

Reality is, the Ford government wasn’t prepared for the legalization of cannabis. Their approach has been to forget about small businesses and consumers. They have chosen instead to let KPMG and the big banks do their thing. The lottery approach to retail was just lazy.

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The lottery system goes against [the stated goal] of legalization—to improve public health. The worst thing for public health is to have random people enter the cannabis retail space—people who are only about the money and who often end up selling to big licensed producers.

The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) wasn’t ready for legalization either.

Look at Alberta. It has about 300 approved retailers. Most of them are small business owners and companies whose sole interest is cannabis retail. They know cannabis inside and out.
That is not the case in Ontario. Some of the lottery winners here knew nothing about the industry.

What’s next for you?

Well, the Ontario government is murdering my business one policy at a time.

I’m trying to hold on until the licensing process opens up in the province. But I’m at the point where I have to start re-thinking my entire business. I try to roll with the punches and work closely with politicians but it’s difficult because the province seems to make changes on a whim.

We’re now focusing on developing the Hotbox brand, which is a 20-year-old legacy brand. We’re developing a line of prerolls, ingestible products, and a line of accessories.

It would sadden me to lose our brick-and-mortar presence but I have to think about what is best for me personally.

I’m now executive chair of NORML Canada, which is a great vehicle to push forward and help cannabis become regulated in a fashion that works.

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Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin
Randi Druzin is an author and journalist in Toronto. She has worked at several major media outlets, including the National Post and the CBC, and has written for dozens of publications, such as The New York Times, Time magazine, ESPN The Magazine, and The Globe and Mail.
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