The Friendly Stranger has made a name for itself in the Cannabis industry as one of the original advocates for legalization. Now that the goal has been hit, where do they go from here?
We had a chance to interview Robin Ellins, the founder of Toronto’s Friendly Stranger to find out more.
What was the vision behind the Friendly Stranger when it first started?
Friendly Stranger was created as a vehicle to educate and raise awareness about cannabis and the need for legislative change around the plant. The laws made no sense and were criminalizing Canadians for choosing cannabis as their libation. Our goal was to legalize cannabis through our activism and knowledge dissemination and to squash all of the misconceptions and misinformation that surrounded the plant. Using a storefront allowed us to set up a focal point for the issue, talk openly about cannabis and the need for legislative change on a daily basis. It allowed us to build support for change while funding our activism.
How has the legalization of cannabis affected that vision?
It is rare that a company actually reaches their goals. Usually, goals are set as an ideal to work towards, but are not generally achievable. After a quarter-century working to legalize cannabis, the legislative changes we were seeking became a reality. What next? While our roots are based in activism, our core business has become a very strong brand within the cannabis culture. With cannabis being legalized, our dreams of one day becoming a one-stop-shop for cannabis and accessories has now become our new vision. We are looking to open Friendly Stranger – Cannabis Culture Shops all across Ontario, and later across Canada. We aim to bring the same level of service, selection, and knowledge to our new stores that our clientele has come to expect from us. Throughout our expansion, we will remain true to our roots and continue to be activists in the cannabis space, ensuring that all of the fine-tuning that legalization now requires is put into place.
What were some of the biggest barriers you had to overcome in the last 25 years?
In the first 8 years of operation, there was a strong push back against cannabis legalization. Between law enforcement and the archaic laws, doctors supporting flawed research, the ‘just say no’ approach to drugs, and the general ‘cannabis is for stoners’ mentality, we had a lot of work to do to clear the air around the plant. Beginning with industrial hemp we helped dispel the misinformation about cannabis. We debated openly on all major media outlets on radio, tv and in print. There were nonstop debates about the cannabis plant to which we were able to bring the truth to light and squash the lies and half-truths being purported by the opposition. Only once did the police become involved in our operations. Two months after the shop opened its doors, we were visited by police who threatened to shut us down and arrest us. It was our public outreach through local media and our arrival on the 6 O’Clock News that launched the cannabis issue into the public spotlight. Shortly after their visit, we met with the police and explained that we would never sell cannabis or break the law, but that we needed to be allowed to operate in order to change the laws that they knew first hand needed changing.
How did you stay focused and faithful in your mission through the adversity that comes with promoting a lifestyle that was, and to some extent continues to be, controversial?
Love. We knew in our heart of hearts that cannabis was an all-natural substance that offered relaxation, and holistic health benefits. In fact, the most dangerous thing associated with the plant was the chance of being arrested and branded a criminal for choosing to consume it. Our dedication was easy, we believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing, and at the same time, the outpouring of love and support from the community was overwhelming. Our goal was (and still is) to normalize cannabis use. When we began it was a closeted issue. People were afraid to talk about it or admit that they consumed it. We gave them a safe place to meet, discuss and belong to the cannabis culture, while we fought for the necessary changes.
Now that cannabis is legal there are a lot of new brands and companies coming into the market. How is the Friendly Stranger going to stand out?
Friendly Stranger will stand out in the cannabis space for a multitude of reasons. First, we are authentic. We have a genuine connection with the cannabis culture by having been there supporting and championing the culture for over 25 years. Almost all the new companies are just that, new. They have no back story and no genuine connection to the culture. While they may tout certain virtues and ideals, they are not tried and true, they are simply the sum of their brand developers and their marketing teams.
We will continue to innovate and lead the cannabis culture through our actions and activism. Our innovation in the space coupled with our experience and our unmatched service and selection will quickly differentiate us from the competition.
While other companies are chasing the dollar, we will continue to put the customer first. We will listen to their needs and wants and continue to guide them in their choices of cannabis and accessories that fit their personal lifestyle. We work hard to build lasting relationships and consider our clientele our friends.
Community is a huge part of your message, and you now have plans to expand. How will you maintain this sense of openness as you grow?
Having built a solid foundation of trust and loyalty within our current community, we will look to develop relationships in every neighborhood we expand to. We won’t just be opening a shop and hanging out a sign, we will be introducing ourselves to the neighboring businesses and the community at large. We will hold town halls and invite the public and local municipal leaders to meet and discuss what it means to have a Friendly Stranger open in their neighborhood. We also plan to give back. We are developing a unique program for each new location that will enable us to give back to our local communities.
Through extensive staff training and preparation, and our unique methodology, we can guarantee that the Friendly Stranger culture the public has come to know and love, will live and breathe in all of our new spaces. You will be able to walk into any of our shops and instantly feel at home.
What advice would you give to others who are just breaking into this market now?
Money isn’t everything. You can’t buy authenticity. You can’t steal dedication. Brands do not happen overnight. Set your sights high, walk the talk and follow through.
Activism was such a huge part of your mission, and you have now reached your goal of legalization. Where do you go from here?
As alluded to in another question, activism will remain a cornerstone of our business. While legalization is now a reality, it is not perfect. We take our role as leaders in the cannabis community very seriously. We are planning to take on many issues that need resolution inside of the cannabis legislation. Some of the hot topics that we are working on include: the over packaging of cannabis and its effect on the environment; parents not able to bring their children into the stores; cannabis vaporizers being treated the same as addictive nicotine vaporizers; people not being able to consume cannabis indoors, in an age regulated space, in the same way as they would alcohol in a bar.
While not a complete list, as you can see we still have our work cut out for us. We believe that by bringing Friendly Stranger to communities across Canada, we will be able to further break down the stigmas surrounding cannabis use, and help normalize cannabis. We are here to help, while providing a safe, friendly and welcoming environment to learn about, and purchase cannabis and accessories.
Visit the Friendly Stranger at 241 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON, M5V 1z4