Blunt Q&A: Cannabis Advocate Sarah Hanlon from Big Brother
By Jeff Klingman, theBluntness Feature Writer
Sarah Hanlon was a friendly neighborhood “hemployee" at Vapor Central in Toronto when she was cast to join the third season of Big Brother Canada, the spinoff of the global reality show phenomenon.
That beloved vape lounge epitomized the grey nature of cannabis legality north of the border circa 2015. Now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was then sweeping to power on a full legalization platform, but the law still hovered between entrenched medical acceptance and a place in the cultural mainstream. Hanlon decided to embrace her authentically sweet stoner image and emerged as a fan favorite, and the season’s eventual winner.
In the time since, Hanlon’s used her reality show renown to continue a career in cannabis media, as a host, advocate, and regular Jane bringing cannabis to the forefront of everyday Canadian life. Her latest venture is a podcast with co-host Ian Campeau called The High Life, launched via Leafly in 2018.
According to Hanlon, the show draws its deeper insights from a very simple aim. “What if we just talk to people who like weed? We just wanted to normalize it and show people, this is who uses cannabis. It’s not exactly who you might think it is.”
Hanlon hopes the show, now nearing the end of its first eleven-episode season, will be back for more. She’s become smitten with podcasting, either way.
“The medium in general is fascinating,” she says. “Once you get people talking, everything is there. Especially with cannabis it’s what we need, because we’ve just been essentially in echo chambers, even if we could find communities ourselves. It’s super awesome now that we can have these conversations.”
Our own conversation with Hanlon covers her experience of living as a pre-legal pothead in Ontario, the risks and rewards of being real on national television, and whether or not Canadian cannabis is building an industry that works for everyone.
What was the culture around cannabis like in Canada, pre-legalization?
It was very regional, I’ll say that. In bigger cities, like Toronto or Vancouver, it did feel quite accepted and much more normalized. Through the Prairie Provinces I personally felt very stigmatized and it felt isolated, not something you really talked about.
You would hear someone say that they liked the Doobie Brothers, or that they liked a certain artist or a certain restaurant in Calgary, even, and you’d say “Oh, maybe they smoke weed?” Certain things would trigger it for you.
In Toronto, how did you get weed? Were you using semi-clandestine delivery services like the kind you find in New York?
Yes, exactly. Also Backpage stuff, Instagram had obviously gotten huge, or just trading websites. Leading up to legalization, when Justin Trudeau won on the platform to legalize, people started opening up physical shops that were illegal.
But people felt like, oh, I have a little bit more free will there. And all those things are still there today, in exactly the same way, maybe a little more. Because the legalization process hasn’t caught up completely to the demand.
How did Vapor Central operate as a consumption lounge in Toronto before legalization?
Medical cannabis has been legal in Canada since 2001. Vapor Central operated on the assumption that people coming in were bringing legal cannabis, actually it’s illegal to ask someone to show their medical documentation for that cannabis.
Different laws were thrown at Vapor Central throughout the years. They always managed to be operating within the laws, except that legalization [was followed by] a lot of anti-smoking laws.
Vapor Central is still there, but it’s just vaporizing now, which is interesting. We have a Ontario Smoke Free Act. Where you couldn’t smoke cigarettes, you could also not smoke cannabis. That kind of was the nail in the coffin, legally, for a lot of these consumption lounges. Which sucks!
Vapor Central operated for 10 years in Toronto as a smoking lounge, people didn’t have a problem with it, people flew from all over the world to come and visit this place. I met people from Turkey, from Japan, from Saudi Arabia from Australia, and they came literally just to be able to smoke weed in a public place.
Then, as we legalized cannabis as a nation, we instill laws that make these places illegal. They are as vulnerable now as they were before legalization [more than] they ever have been before. Which is a real shame. There are bigger priorities, right?
Going through the casting process for Big Brother**, did you suspect that a “stoner” persona might help you stand out?**
It was really a roll of the dice that could have gone either way. They took a risk! Even now that it’s legal, I still have people say no to me, or say no to projects on like, its proximity to cannabis. It all depends on who that one casting director was and it could have gone either way, right? And they were supportive and they saw me for me, even after I said the cannabis thing. I’m so lucky it worked out.
Did you have doubts about presenting yourself publicly in that way?
Absolutely. I was comfortable, there were people in my immediate family and close friends who knew me, knew that I smoked cannabis. But it’s not like every single person in my life knew that I smoked weed on a daily basis. It was like, OK, now every single person is going to know. Every time you apply for a job, they are going to probably know, all that.
People have said it was brave, and I appreciate that. But I made a calculated choice and and it paid off. I felt an obligation, almost, because I wasn’t risking as much as other people would have been. I don’t have children, I don’t have a passion in my life that I felt would be hindered or squashed.
Pot use is most likely the first thing people you meet know about you now, Is that at all frustrating?
You know what? No. I mean, I am totally the person I am because of cannabis and I’m proud of that. So if someone is going to judge me on that? Cool. I’d rather them do it right off the gate.
Are you still approached often by pot smokers who saw you on the show?
I get messages every day from people still all these years later, and it swells my heart and means the world to me. But part of it breaks my heart, too. I feel like I’m such a low bar. Really?
People ask me questions about serious health things, and I feel so honored to be approachable in that way. But it sucks that we’ve done that to cannabis, where people see one person on a reality show. Think about all the reality shows we’ve had. How many are filmed in California and, really no one is smoking or talking about smoking weed? That’s a really low bar!
From what you’ve seen so far, do you think that the Canadian cannabis industry is taking the right steps to be an inclusive—in terms of diversity in hiring, in terms of gender equality—as it’s growing quickly from the ground up? Or is it making the old mistakes of some other entrenched industries?
That is a very interesting question. There are so many female-driven inclusivity programs, such as Women Grow, and a lot of talk about how we can get this right from the start. But I would say…probably the same mistakes are getting made. It’s very white, like incredibly white. Especially high up, it’s male and white.
I say this coming from Toronto, where it’s such a cultural mashup that white people don’t make up the majority of the city. It’s beautiful in that way. When you go to events, you feel it. You don’t really walk into events and see more than 50% white people.
But unfortunately, when I go to cannabis events, it doesn’t feel like Toronto anymore. It does feel much more white, and I say it in that way because in Toronto it’s very noticeable.
I see a lot of programs aimed at women, but maybe only one out of ten of them will mention genderqueer people or gender non-conforming people, or non binary people. Where are the programs and the initiatives for those people, or people of color?
We need to see white people at these massive licensed producers and cannabis grow houses in Canada, they have the money and they have the power to actually make these changes. I think that would be great for the industry.
Politicians, including Bill Blair, have admitted that the cannabis law has been used in such discriminatory and racist ways in the past. Unless that is a part of your company’s initiative going forward, I don’t think your correcting the mistakes of the past. Hopefully we’ll get there.
What have you learned from hosting The High Life**?**
Every episode, our guests have taught us something. For example, we flew in to Vancouver to talk to Andrea Dobbs, she has a dispensary out there with her family and her kids. She started using cannabis for perimenopausal symptoms, way later in life.
For me, someone who is really young and has smoked weed for ten years, talking to someone who came from that different perspective of needing it and trying to find it as a woman going thru menopause, going to dispensaries in Vancouver [was very interesting].
She was telling us the guy’s faces were turning red when she was talking about her cramps. Like, “Here, try this edible and get away from me.” So with her dispensary, she wanted it to be the opposite of that, very female focused, a non-intimidating atmosphere. She sort of started a trend with that in Vancouver.
Who’s your dream guest?
David Suzuki. So Canadian, right? Obviously we could learn a ton from him, and we’re convinced he’d be great to smoke a J with. He probably vapes or something, but I just know he’s a cannabis lover. He’s got to be.
Photos via Instagram