The first time I was introduced to cannabis was probably through my father if we’re being honest. I remember finding Zig Zag papers scattered and the green plant scattered across a table, as his nimble fingers and worn hands would roll together a joint. He would never smoke in front of me, but growing up I became fascinated by this process of joint rolling. This lead me to Queen Street West as a teenager, where I nervously walked into The Friendly Stranger, a shop that touted itself as a cannabis culture shop. I was probably 16 years old at the time, and so afraid to be in the store but the person behind the counter was friendly and engaged me, openly and honestly. I didn’t buy anything that day, but The Friendly Stranger has always been part of my cannabis journey.
Robin Ellins at the company’s 25 year anniversary party
Robin Ellins, co-founder of The Friendly Stranger, discloses that after running into trouble with the law himself for possession of cannabis, he decided he wanted to take an active stance in making the plant legalized explaining, “the whole purpose behind the store was to help guide our society towards legalizing cannabis.” Day-in and day-out, he and his staff used the store as a platform for communicating just how valuable cannabis could be to the public. “The whole core behind us is education and awareness-raising. That’s why we’ve survived as long as we have.”
Celebrating their 25th anniversary this year, The Friendly Stranger has a lot to laud. Ellins shares that for years, people who smoked, did so quietly and in fear. But now with legalization, it has come full circle. “We will often see moms bringing their kids into the shops because we’re showcasing the culture.” For them, a big part of The Friendly Stranger experience is shopping through their expansive smoke accessories, and chatting with their staff on-site to get the most education possible on what you need. Ellins notes that their concept since day one has been simple: make the average head shop, which has the stigma of dirty or inaccessible, a place that is fully approachable and one where you feel like you don’t feel ashamed walking in. “We were much more about making friends and connecting with the public. Over time, enough people understood what was going on.” The company recently obtained capital of $10 million from a privately-held firm and plans to expand the brand across Canada. Ellins envisions up to 50 stores—and that’s just in Ontario alone.
Recently on 10/17, Ellins and his team held a party for their 25th anniversary, and it was a glorious occasion filled with a bud bar. “It’s very interesting just to have lived through these past 25 years and watched these changes take place,” noting that the public’s perception around cannabis has been huge. But he admits, there is still a lot more work to be done. “There’s a different stigma happening, and that’s a big part of our platform going forward. Breaking that down, and working with people to expand and help push that activism forward.” Things he and his team plan to focus on are helping people understand how cannabis fits into their lives, how to consume responsibly and the health benefits. For now, Ellins wants to celebrate this moment of legalization and shares, “It’s a massive change, historic, and I don’t think the average Canadian truly understands what that means for us as a society.”
(Story by Contributing Editor, Ama Scriver)