Abi Roach, Grey-Market Cannapreneur, Preps for the Legal Future

(Courtesy of the Hot Box)

Abi Roach lives her life on the edge of the law. As the founder of Toronto’s popular cannabis lounge the Hot Box Café (tagline: “Serving potheads since ah…we forgot”), she’s become exceptionally familiar with the grey zones of current marijuana legislation.

“That’s the highlight of my life, to have the freedom to be me and make my customers happy by giving them what I love.”

“I’ve lived my life and operated this business by the white-grey line of the law,” Roach tells Leafly. “Whatever they throw at me, I’ll figure it out. Nothing I’ve ever done has been legal and nothing I’ve ever done has been illegal. Where there’s a will there’s a way.”

The cannabis advocate and business owner spends a lot of time talking to local politicians and lobbying for the rights of cannabis users. It’s a role she stepped into out of necessity nearly two decades ago when she opened her first head shop.

Now, Roach runs a mini empire that includes Hot Box, a hydroponic store she co-runs next door, Spliff magazine, and a bud-and-breakfast and tour company in Jamaica. Unsurprisingly, she’s also a member of the Cannabis Friendly Business Association. And as Canada moves towards the legalization of cannabis, Roach suspects her overflowing plate will only get fuller.

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From Street Fairs to a Kensington Storefront

Roach’s introduction to the world of cannabis started with hemp jewelry. Originally from Israel, Roach moved to Canada with her family as a tween, after her dad was offered a job in computer engineering. While attempting to assimilate to Canadian culture, she changed her name to Abi, which rhymed with her real name, and was partially inspired by the Beatles’ album Abbey Road. (The Roach part, also not her real name, came later.) Though she knew little English upon arriving in her new country, Roach says she picked it up in a matter of months, and now has no trace of an accent.

After regularly getting busted by the cops for illegally hawking her wares, Roach became a roaming kiosk.

As a teenager, she grew bored of her remote neighbourhood, so on weekends she’d head to Queen Street, which was a hub of stylish independent boutiques and popular bistros. There, she met a group of rogue vendors who’d illegally sell their wares on the corner of Queen and Soho. It didn’t take long for Roach to discover her entrepreneurial spirit, setting up a blanket on the street corner and hawking handmade jewelry. She soon learned about hemp, through other vendors who used the material to macramé necklaces and bracelets. Roach quickly cottoned on to the fiber’s other uses, thanks to a vendor named Robin Ellins, who now owns the Friendly Stranger head shop.

“I used to vend beside him and learned from him all about the informational side of cannabis,” she says.

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After regularly getting busted by the cops for illegally hawking her wares, Roach became a roaming kiosk. She’d show up at concerts, raves, and events with her jewelry, and often cannabis, to sell or barter. Sometimes, she’d swap her goods for an interesting story.

“It helped me perfect my retailing art over the years,” she says.

After years of unconventional hustle, Roach eventually went to art school, followed by a stint studying audio engineering. As the only women in her class, Roach felt isolated and decided it wasn’t the path she wanted to follow.

Roach now runs a mini empire that includes Hot Box, a hydroponic store she co-runs next door, Spliff magazine, and a bud-and-breakfast and tour company in Jamaica.

When she learned about a subsidized business program through Jewish Vocational Services, she applied and got accepted. Her pitch was for a music promotions company, but Roach mainly wanted to learn how to write a business plan.

After she completed the program, she took out a university fund her parents had set up in Israel and used it, along with her business plan, to apply to a bank for a government co-sign loan to start a business. She decided that business would be a head shop, since there weren’t many in the city at the time. To her surprise, the bank approved her pitch.

“I was totally open about what I was going to do, which was sell bongs and pipes and rolling papers,” she says. “They gave me the loan.”

In 2000, Roach-A-Rama was born. The head shop was located on a sleepy street in Kensington Market. After a discouragingly slow year, Roach was ready to close and find a new path, but a storeowner around the corner on Baldwin Street asked if she would be interested in sharing his space. She decided to give it another shot.

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The new location proved to be blessing, with a spike in sales and customers. In the two years she worked out of the Baldwin location, she visited Jamaica and Vancouver, regions that had a more relaxed attitude towards smoking cannabis in public spaces.

“I went to [Vancouver cannabis lounge] Blunt Brothers and I was so impressed you could just show up, bring your weed, and smoke it,” she says.

When her retail-space partners announced they’d be pulling out of the lease with two weeks’ notice, Roach sprung into action. She applied for a food license, renamed her business The Hot Box, and turned the space into a lounge, which would eventually move to its current location on Augusta.

Fighting for Space to Safely Smoke

These days, Roach spends a lot of time meeting with local politicians about how Ontario’s cannabis legislation will affect businesses in the city. As it currently stands, the Ontario government will have a monopoly over cannabis sales, with all privately owned dispensaries and cannabis lounges deemed illegal.

“By eliminating lounges, you’re pushing people into more dangerous situations. You need us to stay open.”

Roach is working hard to get the message out that cities need private spaces for people to smoke their cannabis. She says the government isn’t keeping the streets safer by removing cannabis lounges, since they’re much more than places to hang out and consume weed.

“We also provide education, and by eliminating lounges, you’re losing that aspect of it,” she says. “You’re pushing people out into the streets and alleys, and their cars. You’re pushing people into more dangerous situations. You’re creating an unwelcoming environment for tourists and an uncomfortable home situation for families. You need us to stay open.”

Ontario recently passed its Cannabis Act with no amendments—any dispensaries operating illegally can face fines up to $1 million. As for cannabis lounges, the topic remains in bureaucratic limbo. The province has generally addressed cannabis in Bill 175, all-encompassing legislation that includes a prohibition on smoking in public places. Since lounges fall under that category, smoking cannabis inside one will technically be breaking a by-law.

Roach says the City of Toronto moved a motion that would give the Board of Health time to examine the impact cannabis lounges have on public safety.  Until that happens, nothing will change, and Roach appears unbothered when talking about how these impending changes will affect her business.

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“Everything takes time,” she says. “Even for them to come and hand out fines, that will take time. And there are loopholes we can use to get around—but I’m not going to reveal anything like that.”

As for the future, Roach plans to continue fighting for the rights of cannabis users while expanding her brand. Although she describes her business as “one of these stupid companies that never took anyone’s money and has built everything from nothing,” she suspects that will change over time.

“Now we’re on a different level and I’m ready to find the right person who wants to invest in this brand,” she says. “Our next mission is to find that perfect union.”

If she had to do it all over, there’s nothing Roach would do differently. When asked about career highlights, she says everyday is a highlight because she simply loves what she does.

“I can do whatever crazy things I want to do,” she says. “There is no board, or boss to tell me what to do. That’s the highlight of my life, to have the freedom to be me and make my customers happy by giving them what I love.”