I ran the HotBox, Toronto’s first cannabis consumption lounge, for 20 years—now it’s closing
“Woody Harrelson spent a week hanging out in the space, smoking weed and playing chess. Bill Murray and Tricky dropped by”
When Abi Roach opened Kensington Market’s iconic HotBox Shop and Lounge back in 2000, the city had a radically different relationship with the cannabis industry. Roach ran the HotBox—which later became Toronto’s first cannabis consumption lounge—through a shifting legal landscape for two decades, until she finally sold the store in 2020. Last week, the HotBox’s new owners announced that the institution would be closing up shop on October 1. Here, Roach explains how she created a community hub for the city’s stoners long before our streets were brimming with dispensaries.
—As told to Nour Abi-Nakhoul
I smoked my first joint when I was 14 and quickly became involved in Toronto’s cannabis community. In the ’90s, I sold jewellery on the street at Queen and Soho, by the Black Bull Tavern, and at all kinds of hippie concerts and festivals—Santana shows and Lollapalooza. My shtick was that people could trade me money, cannabis or an object with a cool story behind it for a piece of jewellery. I met all kinds of people doing that, from roadies to Paul McCartney and Stevie Nicks. I also learned a lot about cannabis culture. I knew I could never sell weed, so the question became how I could serve the community in other ways while making a living.
At 19, I was wrapping up an entrepreneurship course and had the opportunity to take out a government business loan. I decided to use that loan to do what I love—smoking weed—and opened up a head shop. At the time, even that wasn’t legal, but I was just a kid and I had no idea what I was doing. All of my friends wanted to be lawyers and doctors and vets, but my biggest dream was to be a merchant in Kensington Market. So, in 2000, I opened the doors of the HotBox, initially called Roach-O-Rama, right at Nassau and Augusta. The store had a colourful, graffiti-emblazoned face and display cases with countless pipes, bongs, rolling papers and all the other accessories you needed to be a stoner. I went on to run the shop for two decades.
In the beginning, the thought of expanding the shop into a consumption lounge never crossed my mind. Then, in 2003, I went to Vancouver and stopped by what’s now known as the New Amsterdam Cafe, the very first cannabis lounge in Canada, which opened in 1998. And then I visited Jamaica—a whole island where it was perfectly normal to buy and smoke weed, where nobody batted an eye if you lit up a spliff. Both of those experiences made a mark on me. At the time, I was splitting the store’s building with some college students who lived in the back. It was too expensive for me to take over the whole space. When I came back from Jamaica, those students gave me two weeks’ notice. I couldn’t afford to open up 2,000 square feet of retail, so I thought, Why don’t I open up a lounge and see what happens?
I met with a law professor to talk through the legalities and found out that, as long as I wasn’t selling cannabis, I might be charged with aiding and abetting possession, if anything. So I went for it. If worse came to worst, I figured they would just shut us down and I could reopen the head shop and try again. Medical cannabis had only recently become legal, and I took advantage of that. We couldn’t ask customers coming in for their medical records because we weren’t doctors, so we just assumed that everybody who showed up was there for medicinal purposes. Because there weren’t any regulations, we operated in this weird, complicated limbo between legal and illegal. Of course, it was risky given the precarious legal situation, but my privilege was that I was a really cute young disabled Jewish woman, so I was seen as non-threatening. I could do all these things that I would never have gotten away with if I were a dude with a beard or a person of colour.
Everyone always imagines that I sat around all day smoking weed, but I never consumed any cannabis at work. People assume that running a cannabis lounge is some mystical thing, but it really was a business like any other—essentially a store and a coffee shop. The thing that made it unique and exciting was the people. After we opened, we got old hippies coming by who were like, “This is like Rochdale College—this is great.” We had regulars who came into the HotBox every day for years. One, whom I’ll call Trucker Dan, was a cancer patient who was there first thing in the morning up until close. He was a beautiful person, told amazing stories and survived cancer a few times before passing away from it back in 2021. We had lots of celebrities come through the place too: Woody Harrelson spent a week there, hanging out, smoking weed and playing chess. Bill Murray and Tricky dropped by. All kinds of people came through. It was a community: that was the glue that held the HotBox together through the years. At the HotBox, it didn’t matter if you were Woody Harrelson or Trucker Dan or a student doing your coursework.
In the early days, there was still a lot of paranoia among cannabis consumers around being arrested. Cannabis consumption was such a closeted activity back then that people thought we were an undercover operation—that we had cameras set up everywhere and were taking pictures of them. We never had any arrests or other conflicts with the police, but some officers really didn’t know what to do about us, and there were many moments when we nearly got shut down because someone complained about us to city council. I never expected to get involved in politics, but I had to fight to stay open. Over time, I learned how to work with different politicians. Mike Layton was a great supporter, and I collaborated closely with Joe Cressy. They taught me things I didn’t know about politics, and I taught them things they didn’t know about cannabis and cannabis consumers.
My philosophy has always been that, if you step an inch over the line, the line will move with you, but if you step two feet over the line, you’ve gone too far and you’re in trouble. A lot of the work that I did through the HotBox and through my advocacy nudged that line further and further and helped us get to where we are now. Over the years, I did a lot of lobbying and advocacy around cannabis consumption, and you can see the results today: Ontario is one of the only provinces where you can smoke a joint anywhere you can smoke a cigarette.
As Kensington changed, we changed with it. When we first opened, European Quality Meats was still there, and the streets would be crammed with people shopping for groceries. People would come to the market to get groceries, then they’d swing by the HotBox to hang out. In the mid-2010s, there was a big boom of illegal dispensaries in the market. We didn’t actually sell cannabis, so we became the hub where you would go afterward.
Toward the end of my time with the HotBox, in the late 2010s, the gentrification of Kensington intensified: there were $4-million houses and fancy stores coming in. People couldn’t afford to live there, and we could barely afford to do business there, which is when things became really difficult. I was forced to move: I now live in what I call “the suburbs,” a few blocks away on the other side of Spadina. On the weekends, tourists started to come in from out of town and gawk at us. They didn’t want to buy anything or hang out, they just wanted to look at the weirdness. That became really alienating.
When the province announced the cannabis licence lotteries, in 2018—where you had to throw your name in a hat for a chance to win a chance to operate as a cannabis store—things became untenable. The HotBox had some investors at that point, and they told us that, if we didn’t win this totally random draw, they were going to pull out. A couple of lottery winners later wanted to sell us their golden tickets for $5 to $10 million, and I definitely didn’t have that. I didn’t think it was right that I would have to pay some random person who had paid $50 to throw their name into a hat after all the work I had put in for 20 years.
In 2020, I decided to sell the company and the brand to Friendly Stranger, a head shop brand that’s been in the city since the ’90s. I remember Robin Ellins, the original owner, selling his pipes alongside me while I sold my jewellery before he had a physical store. On a personal level, I felt like I had achieved my goals with the HotBox. Over the years, I had built an empire around the brand: a magazine, a hydroponics store and even a B&B in Jamaica. And I got to do some amazing things and meet some incredible people over the years. It was time for a different adventure, so now I work with the Ontario Cannabis Store, helping to transition people into the legal market.
I heard through the grapevine that the new owners were looking to sell the HotBox. I found out that they were closing it down the same way everyone else did: when they announced it on social media in late September. It saddens me, but I understand. The HotBox had been there for over 20 years, and rents are expensive, and times have changed. In any case, my memories are there forever, and my legacy is there forever. Twenty-two years is a long time for any business to stay open—it was a real Toronto landmark.