How do you sell cannabis vape devices you’re not allowed to show the customer? Turns out it’s hard

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An explainer on the health effects of cannabis
WATCH: A doctor discusses cannabis and your health – May 22, 2019

Vape devices can be expensive.

The Pax 3 — Bluetooth enabled with over 60 temperature settings and a vibration notification when it’s up to temperature — will cost somewhere north of $300.

So it’s not surprising that when someone walks into a store in the Culture Rising head shop chain in Brampton and Mississauga, Ont., thinking of buying one, they want to look them over first.

The problem is that’s not allowed.

Local health inspectors from Peel Region have made it clear that customers are only allowed to see a vape device after they’ve gotten out their wallet and paid for it.

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As you would expect, this doesn’t make them any easier to sell.

“It killed my sales by about 30 per cent right away,” says owner Nilsson Gonsalves.

Several visits from inspectors and written notices have reinforced the point, and Gonsalves has decided he has no choice but to comply.

“I had to conceal them — put them in cabinets and treat them like packs of cigarettes and only reveal the packaged product after the customer has paid for it. We’re expected to sell them out of a catalogue or on a computer screen,” he says.

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Health group urges Ontario to keep vapes out of sight from minors

Local health inspectors are enforcing provincial law, says Peel Region public health official Louise Aubin.

There’s a prohibition on vapour products being displayed at retail sale,” she explains. “The Smoke-Free Ontario Act says that no person shall, where vapour products are sold or offered for sale, display or permit the display of vapour products in any manner that would allow the consumer to handle them or to see them.”

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Dry-flower vaping heats cannabis to the point that the THC is active but at a temperature low enough that it doesn’t burn. It often seen as healthier than traditional smoking, given that burning material isn’t being inhaled.

But as in so many other areas, prohibition has made cannabis hard to study, and we know less than we would like about how unhealthy traditional cannabis smoking is and how much less unhealthy dry-flower vaping might be.

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“With respect to the use of vaping, the studies are still coming in, and so the science still isn’t completely clear in terms of a harm reduction kind of scenario,” Aubin says. “You’re still inhaling chemicals that are part of the combustion process. We’re still trying to understand the health effects of using these kinds of products.”

In any event, the devices aren’t familiar to many people, which means that to make the sale, Gonsalves has to take the time to explain them.

“They’re not inexpensive, and the primary market is elderly people, who don’t like electronics to begin with. They really need their hand held. I need to take it apart and show them how to use it, very literally,” he says.

“Honestly, that’s the best part of my job — teaching grandmas how to use a vaporizer.”

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Culture Rising’s most expensive vape device, a German-made volcano that looks a bit like a kitchen tool that can’t quite be identified, sells for $749 after tax.

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Since they’re easy enough to buy online, offering the chance to talk to a human is really the only edge Gonsalves has.

“If you think about it, it removes the only advantage I had over Amazon because now I can’t even do the in-person dialogue,” he says. “Because we can’t offer any endorsements or recommendations — we can’t even really comment on the product.”

The main point of the restriction is to try to stop children and teens from smoking or vaping, Aubin says.

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“It’s around denormalizing tobacco, cannabis, e-cigarettes so that children under the age of 19 don’t see it, they don’t have access to it, aren’t using. That’s the age group that most people, if they’re going to be addicted or users of these products, that’s when they tend to initiate,” she explains.

(Another approach to vaping cannabis involves oil. Oils for vaping aren’t yet legally available in Canada, though you can buy vape devices that can work with oil when it’s available. Buyers of oil made for ingestion are warned not to try vaping it.)

Gonsalves says he’s covered the windows and doesn’t let people under 19 into the stores.

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“With the operator choosing not to allow minors in, that’s an operator’s decision to do so, but in order to ensure that there’s consistency across the board between establishments, the law has set a standard across the board,” Aubin says.

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Specialized vape stores are allowed to sell vape devices more openly. But to qualify as one, at least 85 per cent of sales must be from selling vape devices and related products, like e-juice, and Gonsalves says his vape sales are closer to 35 per cent.

Because a tobacco-based vaping store also sells the juice, they can get up to 85 per cent of sales between the two categories. But a store selling vape devices for cannabis is selling them to people who have to buy the cannabis somewhere else.

Gonsalves says he’s caught in a law that was designed for tobacco.

“One of the threats is that they would revoke my tobacco licence. I don’t even have one,” he says.

“The word ‘tobacco’ appears so many times in the legislation. It’s clearly designed to target that and the e-juice vaporizers.”

Under the strict letter of the law, licenced cannabis retailers in Ontario aren’t allowed to display vape devices either, Aubin wrote in an e-mail.


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