Marijuana smoke wafted through the heart of Montreal's downtown shopping district Wednesday as hundreds of people lined up to purchase legal cannabis for the first time at Quebec's state-run shops.
Hugo Senecal, 39, emerged to cheers as he brandished a brown paper bag containing three different strains and a couple of pre-rolled joints, one of which he immediately lit up on the street.
He and his friend Corey Stone arrived at 3:45 a.m. and waited over six hours to become the first customers allowed into the discreet beige and green storefront on Montreal's Ste-Catherine Street when the doors opened at 10 a.m.
"It's actually the end of prohibition," said Stone, 32.
"There's no police officer around. Everyone is leaving us alone."
Senecal said the staff was courteous and the price — about $136 for 20 grams — was slightly lower than what he would pay elsewhere.
He said he would not necessarily switch over from the medical provider he already uses, but he had wanted to be part of a "historic" moment.
"Worth the wait," he said as smoke swirled around his head.
Sarah Cantin and Ahmed Bakr rolled in on bicycles, waving a red-and-white cannabis leaf flag that had been signed by several of their friends from as far away as Egypt, Dubai, and San Francisco.
After living overseas in countries where people are still jailed for smoking marijuana, Cantin said Wednesday was a shining moment for Canada.
"I'm proud of my government," she said. "To come back to live in a place where they look to the future and don't just see the negative parts (of cannabis smoking.)"
The downtown Montreal store was one of 12 that opened across the province on Wednesday, according to the subsidiary of the provincial liquor corporation that has exclusive rights over sales.
An online store was also up and running. Spokespeople for the cannabis corporation were not granting interviews Wednesday. They said a report on first-day sales would not be available until Thursday.
Large crowds were visible outside stores across the province.
In Quebec City, about 100 people braved the wind and the rain to check out the government's supply.
"When you've been buying in secret for 50 years, and now it's legal, it's a big change," 66-year-old Andre St-Gelais said.
On Montreal's St-Hubert Street, the customers who emerged from another of the city's cannabis stores expressed satisfaction with the service and prices.
"The employees seem well trained and you can see they know what they're talking about," said Olivier Ferro, who bought an assortment of dried cannabis flowers, capsules and pre-rolled joints.
The upbeat celebrations outside the stores took place against the backdrop of cannabis laws that are among the strictest in the country.
Sales in Quebec are restricted to government-run stores, and private cultivation is not allowed, in contrast to many other provinces.
Many cities have chosen to ban smoking in all public places, and Quebec's newly elected government has promised to raise the smoking age to 21 from 18.
Stone expressed hope that legalization would eventually dissipate the "huge stigma" that still surrounds cannabis smoking.
"You can see it in the people walking by," he said outside the downtown Montreal outlet. "Some are smiling, but some are shaking their heads."
The provincial cannabis corporation said it would be offering some 110 products — from containers of pre-rolled Tsunami brand joints to small vials of cannabis oil.
In a set-up closer to a pharmacy than a wine boutique, customers were asked to show their IDs before being led out of public view to select from the products kept behind a counter.
Quebec's major labour unions, meanwhile, were battling it out in an effort to unionize cannabis employees on their first day on the job Wednesday.
Three unions had representatives on site at the Quebec stores, seeking signatures for union drives.
One union — the Quebec Federation of Labour-affiliated United Food and Commercial Workers Union — announced that stores in Montreal and Rimouski had already signed on with it to unionize.
The Canadian Union of Public Employees — also affiliated with the QFL — and the Confederation of National Trade Unions were also angling to sign up employees, who earn a starting wage of about $14 an hour.
Provincial and Montreal police Wednesday afternoon reported no problems, on the roads or elsewhere, related to the first day of legal cannabis sales.
-- With files from Sidhartha Banerjee, Stephanie Marin and Caroline Plante