Ashley MacIsaac waited near 26 years for this day so he was determined to be the first.
The first person in Cape Breton to buy pot legally, that is.
At 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, the legendary Cape Breton fiddler arrived alone at the NSLC store in Sydney River, the only location to buy cannabis legally on the island, and camped out, waiting for the outlet to open. Ensuring he’d be first in line, he pledged to stand outside the store and he had no intention of sleeping.
Wednesday, the day marijuana became legal across Canada, stands as a monumental day for a man who for a quarter of a century has been an outspoken advocate for decriminalization.
"For so many years I’ve performed in so many places and did smoke marijuana or eat cannabis," said the Creignish native, who in the summer of 2001 was charged with marijuana possession. He escaped a fine and ended up with an absolute discharge.
"In all those cases I was a criminal, so here I was shaking hands with the Queen, and I’m a criminal. Here I am performing for cabinet ministers, and I’m a criminal. Here I am performing for square dancers in West Mabou, and I’m a criminal.
"I don’t think it should be lost of the efforts that have been made by the government, although not perfect. I’m going to be the first one to buy legal dope in Cape Breton and when I buy it I won’t be committing a criminal offence. I don’t have to feel like a criminal Wednesday morning. For that in itself, I appreciate the Prime Minister’s efforts in making this dream of mine a reality."
Over the years marijuana has been a comforting companion in MacIsaac's life, helping him to overcome physical and emotional challenges, and at times providing a creative spark.
“It’s enriched my life for medical reasons, alleviating from constantly pounding my feet during performances. It's helped me in cases where other people take pills, for that confidence I needed in times when I was extremely shy or nervous about performing. It’s enhanced my ability to step back outside of myself a little bit and think about what I’m doing creatively. The end game as a musician has always been to entertain people and I think I’ve done pretty good for someone who has been using marijuana since I was 17."
The three-time Juno award winner has also developed two strains of cannabis of his own that he hopes to sell to the NSLC. Each is named after two of his hits: Sleepy Maggie (the mellower choice) and Devil in the Kitchen (the higher THC option) and he perfected them with the help of plant geneticists back in Ontario, where he lives. He’s in early talks with a licensed grower in Nova Scotia, the name of which he's required to keep confidential, having close ties with NSLC.
"They have a lot of things on their plate dealing with other clients of NSLC and they are an actual licensed grower. But I was basically told, 'As soon as you can see us, come see us.'
“I would like to start here because I’m from here. There’s a very personal side to this for me. I’m here for a couple weeks so we'll see what happens. Maybe it will take 20, 30, 40, 50 years, or maybe I’m dead before there’s a brand that’s connected to me.
"I’m in my first year at this so I’ll be patient. It took three years for me to make my first record and I’m still touring and making music."
If it doesn't work out in his home province he said he'll pursue the Ontario cannabis market.
MacIsaac says he would have liked to have seen smaller craft dispensaries be tapped to supply some of NSLC's initial order of cannabis. All of the cannabis currently for sale at NSLC outlets comes from Ontario.
MacIsaac says it's a logical approach, especially in the early days of legalization. He figures the Crown corporation is being extra careful about getting product from legitimate sources. MacIsaac remains optimistic that as time goes on craft dispensaries will become licensed and granted a piece of the cannabis revenue pie. He also believes the black market will remain strong for the foreseeable future.
Besides, he says, such dispensaries in the province must attempt to adapt to a legal recreational market.
"They might have to consider they’ve been given an opportunity for many years to operate, even if they had been arrested or closed at different points, to make a lot of money for a considerable time. Now that it’s a legal industry, a new industry there’s going to be hoops and steps that the Nova Scotia government feels are the best steps for it to take. Anybody who really believes in the power of cannabis, who really loves the product and sees what it can do, can find a way. I don’t think there are any reasons to be against the government other than the mistakes that will be made in the roll-out."
As for his own cannabis products, MacIsaac has big ambitions that he’s hoping to realize some day.
"My guess and my desire is that there is 20 NSLCs selling a kilogram of my dope a week once I eventually get it launched," said MacIsaac. "That's 1,000 kilograms a year, that’s a million grams. That’s not an awful lot if you consider the amount of consumers that are out there."