Why buying pot has never been easier

Inside Canada’s completely out of control marijuana business

<p>Photograph by Sarah Palmer; Photographs by Della Rollins</p>

Photograph by Sarah Palmer; Photographs by Della Rollins

Photograph by Sarah Palmer; Photographs by Della Rollins
Photographs by Della Rollins and Claudette Carracedo

At the very least, nobody can accuse Canada Bliss Herbals of trying to conceal what it’s selling. The sign outside the company’s newest store (its third location, in the heart of Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood) features a red Maple Leaf—with a green marijuana plant smack in the middle. “Living life in wellness,” the slogan reads.

Walk through the door, and any lingering doubt about what’s for sale goes up in smoke.

Much like a jewellery store, a glass display case features a wide selection of wares: freshly picked bud, divvied up by the gram and sealed in tiny plastic baggies. A black chalkboard lists every aromatic variety, from “Organic Love Potion” to “Redwood Kush” to “Rock Star Bubba.” One of the latest additions to CBH’s menu, “Opium Kush,” comes highly recommended. “I just tried that last night,” one employee, standing behind the display case, tells a customer. “I really enjoyed it.”

Cannabis oils and edibles are also in stock. The toffee shortbread cookie, for “pain relief and relaxing,” even lists the calorie count (121).

At first glance, there is nothing unique about this particular marijuana shop. Although it may come as a surprise to some, dozens of similar dispensaries have operated—in open defiance of the law—for many years, mostly in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, where early advocates of medicinal marijuana blazed the initial trail. Illegal cannabis dispensaries have become so commonplace in Vancouver (there are now close to 110, a higher tally than Tim Hortons outlets) that city council is attempting to bring them into the fold, choosing to license and regulate rather than raid and arrest.

But in the months since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won the October election—in part, on a platform to legalize weed after nearly a century of prohibition—other parts of the country, especially Toronto, have witnessed a surge in storefront dispensaries as so-called “ganja-preneurs” try to stake their claim in a soon-to-be-sanctioned racket worth billions of legitimate dollars. The Kensington Market district alone has 14. All told, Toronto boasts four dozen dispensaries and counting, each one cashing in on the legislative grey zone created by the Prime Minister’s promise—yet to be implemented—of transforming the marijuana trade into a regulated, taxable industry. (Although there is no official count of Canadian dispensaries, the number is believed to be above 200, from Chilliwack, B.C. to Guelph, Ont., to Cole Harbour, N.S.)

Related: The right (and wrong) way to legalize cannabis

“This ‘in-between period’ is a concerning period,” says Toronto Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs his city’s drug strategy implementation panel. “You have a vacuum, and many entrepreneurs are seeking to fill that vacuum illegally without fear of reprisal.” Simply put, Cressy says, everyone is waiting for Ottawa to unveil its master pot plan (a process that still hasn’t been assigned a definitive timeline) while pretending the Criminal Code doesn’t exist. “There is very little we can do,” he says. “Until we have a new federal piece of legislation, we’re in this position.”

Marijuana is pictured in a vending machine at the BC Pain Society in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday August 29, 2014. The society, which sells marijuana and supplies, is the first of its kind to integrate gift cards to be used at one of their 3 marijuana dispensing vending machines. (Ben Nelms/CP)
Marijuana is pictured in a vending machine at the BC Pain Society in Vancouver, B.C., on Friday August 29, 2014. (Ben Nelms/CP)

Some of the new stores, which claim to be medicinal, are barely even pretending to cater to “patients.” British Columbia’s long-standing medical dispensaries are no more legal than the latest batch, but they at least require somewhat concrete evidence of a person’s ailment, whether it’s an actual prescription or a letter of diagnosis from a doctor. Many of the newcomers are not nearly as strict. At some stores, an empty pill bottle is confirmation enough of a sickness. At others, a sworn statement from the customer will do, as long as it is signed by a notary public (who has no real idea if the person is telling the truth).

At Canada Bliss Herbals, a Maclean’s reporter paid $50 for a “doctor consultation,” which turned out to be a meeting, via Skype, with a licensed practical nurse in Surrey, B.C. When the reporter explained that he suffered from severe lower back pain, the nurse said he could become a member of CBH, and immediately purchase any product, on the grounds that “you’re self-medicating and you’re doing it under your own guidance.” No prescription required. No actual proof.

A few minutes later, the reporter walked out of the shop with two grams of marijuana; one was $9, the other $14. Minus the credit-card machine—and the warning label stuck to the baggie: “Keep out of reach of children”—it was a fairly typical drug deal.

With legalization looming, does it really matter that some dispensaries already appear to be selling recreational weed to any adult who wants it? And can you blame them, considering the obvious legal void that now exists? “The genie is out of the bottle,” says Kirk Tousaw, a Vancouver Island lawyer who has spent his career challenging the constitutionality of Canada’s marijuana laws. “The reality on the streets, the reality on the ground, has outstripped where we are legislatively, and the government is playing catch-up.”

And not nearly fast enough, says Benedikt Fischer, a senior researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Legalizing marijuana could prove to be one of the most dizzying social changes the country has ever seen, and it is critical that the government figure out, sooner rather than later, who will be allowed to sell it, how the market will be enforced, and what safeguards will be adopted to keep the drug away from teenagers. Equally important is a coherent strategy on how to fight the inevitable increase in cannabis-impaired driving.

“We’ve been in this weird transition for some time now, and quite frankly, it makes a mockery of good law and regulation,” Fischer says. “It’s why we really need to get to work and define where we’re going and what the new reality is. We have to come out of this lawless kind of state where everyone does what they want and no one knows what the rules are.”

A protester lights a joint during a 4-20 marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, April 20, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
A protester lights a joint during a 4-20 marijuana rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, April 20, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick, CP)

Indeed, the rules have never been hazier. Officially, marijuana remains a controlled substance, which means it’s still a crime to grow, sell or possess. But medicinal marijuana is legal, with an important caveat: a patient with a valid prescription must obtain the drug, via registered mail, from one of Health Canada’s approved growers. At last count, more than 50,000 people do just that, receiving their doctor-approved weed from one of 30 licensed producers (LPs).

That distribution system is now bracing for a potential explosion, with Liberal MP and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair tapped to oversee a task force that will examine the best way to “legalize, strictly regulate and restrict access to marijuana in a careful and orderly way.” The Prime Minister himself has said it’s unfair that hundreds of thousands of Canadians carry criminal records because of simple cannabis possession, specifically pointing to the example of his late brother, Michel, who was charged with marijuana possession shortly before his 1998 death in an avalanche.

Exactly what the Liberals’ weed plan will look like is anyone’s guess at this point, as is the timeline. Blair has yet to announce the members of his task force, and no deadline has been assigned to their consultations. It will likely be at least a year, if not more, before any specific legislation is revealed. In the meantime, though, this much is certain: would-be players from all walks of industry are jockeying for position in a lucrative market believed to be worth $5 billion, if not more.

Licensed producers insist they are best equipped to provide the legal recreational supply, citing their state-of-the-art facilities and strict growing regulations. (In January, the industry group that represents LPs called on Ottawa to crack down on the ever-expanding dispensaries, whose products come from “unknown sources with no quality control.”) Major drug store chains have also entered the fray, arguing they should be the ones to handle retail sales. Others, including Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, say it should be liquor stores doing the selling.

The dispensaries, as always, are pushing the issue—with action, not words. Forever on the fringe of the law, traditional dispensaries insist they provide crucial access to patients, and should remain in business as part of a legalized recreational framework. In February, a Federal Court judge seemed to bolster that claim, ruling that medicinal users should have the right to grow their own stash (or assign someone else to grow it for them.)

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“I think there is a place for dispensaries whether they are in the Liberals’ plan or not, because I don’t think they’re going away,” says Tousaw, one of the lawyers on the case. “Absent some sort of massive, almost police-state tactics, it is going to be awfully hard to shut them all down as a practical matter.”

Look no further than Vancouver. After tolerating dispensaries for two decades, the city has recently moved toward a regulatory regime that requires stores to pay a licensing fee ($1,000 for non-profit compassion clubs, $30,000 for everyone else). Though still illegal, businesses will be allowed to remain open if they meet certain criteria, including being 300 m from a school. In the meantime, the Vancouver Police Department says it will continue its policy of investigating only those dispensaries accused of selling to minors or posing a public safety threat. Since 2013, Vancouver police have executed just 11 dispensary-related search warrants.

“There is a misconception out there that the police have the authority to shut these businesses down,” says Const. Brian Montague, a spokesman for the force. “That is not the case. The Criminal Code gives the police the authority to arrest people, detain people, to seize evidence, to bring someone to court, but it doesn’t give us the ability to board up a business and shut it down. It is the city that regulates land usage.”

Criminal investigations are also very costly and time-consuming, Montague says, and the department must always weigh how best to deploy finite resources. Last year, when a local anti-marijuana activist complained that the cops are “failing in their duty to maintain law and order” by not shuttering every dispensary in Vancouver, the force examined how long it actually takes to conduct a single dispensary investigation. The answer? 560 hours of police time, or the equivalent of one officer working full-time for three months. “We have to prioritize,” Montague says.

Throw in the added uncertainty triggered by the Liberals’ marijuana pledge, and the blurry line between legal and illegal is essentially non-existent.

“I’ve never experienced a situation like this where there are pending changes to the law coming, and even before the laws are changed people are stepping ahead of the new regulations,” says Saskatoon police Chief Clive Weighill, who is also president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. “This is a real precedent-setter in Canada.”

Weighill says police in most parts of the country are continuing to enforce the law as it stands; in recent months, dispensaries have been targeted in Halifax, Nanaimo, B.C., and his home city of Saskatoon. But his association has also publicly urged the Trudeau government to remind Canadians that marijuana remains illegal—and to release any details it can about the pending regulatory regime.

“If the citizens of our country are saying we want to move to a legalized framework, then let’s do that,” says Tom Stamatakis, president of the Canadian Police Association, which represents Canada’s 41,000 frontline officers. “But let’s create the rules and make sure everyone understands what they are. Now, it’s inconsistent.”

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Just ask Dana Larsen. A vocal cannabis activist who operates a Vancouver dispensary (and who ran for B.C.’s NDP leadership in 2011), Larsen spent much of April on a cross-country tour, giving away hundreds of thousands of marijuana seeds to anyone willing to grow the plants in public. He was arrested only once: at a stop in Calgary. After a night in jail, Larsen was released on bail conditions, including one that prohibits him from possessing any drug without a prescription—unless he’s on the job.

“I run a marijuana dispensary, so at work I’m allowed to possess and use and buy and sell illegal drugs, but not anywhere else,” he says, highlighting the obvious irony. “All the dispensaries in Canada are illegal, as are all the seed banks and all the massive marijuana rallies. The marijuana movement is actually Canada’s largest-ever civil disobedience campaign in terms of how many hundreds of businesses are openly defying the law and how many municipalities are allowing that to happen. These laws are still on the books, but you wouldn’t know it.”

Especially, for example, if you walk into the B.C. Pain Society in Vancouver—the first medicinal dispensary to sell its weed in a vending machine. “We are not technically illegal; we are 100 per cent illegal,” says owner Chuck Varabioff. “I don’t bulls–t anyone. What I am doing, according to the Criminal Code is illegal, but I am willing to take that chance, because I am helping people.”

If this is the final stage of the disobedience campaign, it is driven as much by profit as ideology. Even if most dispensaries are shut out of the legalized world—in favour of liquor control boards, for example, or Shoppers Drug Mart—there is still plenty of green to be made in the interim.

“We want to be a national brand,” says Don Briere, one of B.C.’s most recognized dispensary owners. The 64-year-old is most remembered for the headlines he garnered in 1999, when the RCMP busted up what was then the largest illegal grow-op in the province. Freed from prison long ago, Briere is now the driving force behind Weeds Glass and Gifts, a chain of dispensaries that has recently expanded to Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa, with plans to open up storefront franchises in Montreal and Halifax.

Don Briere, the owner of the Weeds Glass and Gifts chain, is seen here at the Burrard and Davie location in Vancouver on January 13, 2015. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/CP)
Don Briere, the owner of the Weeds Glass and Gifts chain, is seen here at the Burrard and Davie location in Vancouver on January 13, 2015. (John Lehmann, The Globe and Mail, CP)

Few have pushed the cannabis envelope further than Briere. In previous media interviews, he has said he would sell recreational marijuana at his supposedly medicinal dispensaries, essentially daring police to arrest him. But he insists to Maclean’s that his stores are preparing for the eventual recreational market, not jumping ahead. “We would be happy to sell recreational but we’re not doing it,” he says. “We’re trying to co-operate with everybody. We’re trying to show that we’re responsible people.” (Weeds is one of the shops that requires only a pill bottle, and matching ID, before selling to a customer.)

Briere says he expects to sell upwards of $7 million worth of cannabis this year, with a profit margin of 16 per cent. “Business is very good,” he says. “But the market in Vancouver is saturated.”

Like Briere, Ryan Williams also sees dollars signs in Toronto, where the city has no dispensary by-laws in place, and where the police, like those in Vancouver, are operating on a “complaint-generated” basis. Williams, 31, launched his first Canada Bliss Herbals in Vancouver last April; his two Toronto locations opened earlier this year, with two more on the way in May. “We are still in that grey area on the verge of legalization,” he says. “I wanted to be a little bit ahead of the curve.”

At first, Williams insisted that every customer needs a letter of diagnosis from a doctor in order to become a member of his club. When Maclean’s explained how that certainly wasn’t the case when its reporter dropped by to sign up—that, in fact, it took nothing more than a verbal declaration that he was “self-medicating”—Williams remained adamant his store is in the medicinal marijuana business, not the recreational one.

“I know that we run a tighter ship than a lot of these other places,” he says. “I know one particular chain of dispensaries, I’m not going to mention any names, if you just have a pill bottle with your name on it then they’ll sell to you. There are ones where you can just walk in and they’ll sell you a joint on the spot. That’s not the case with us. We do our homework to make sure that somebody’s got a diagnosis, that they’re actually medicating for something.”

Of course, that distinction makes no real difference. Medicinal or not, Canada Bliss Herbals is still illegal—like every other dispensary. The real question is: When marijuana does become legal, at some point, is this how the landscape should look?

“Even somebody who believes in legalization, like myself, doesn’t believe for one second that it should be an entrepreneurial opportunity for corner stores across the city to sell pot,” says Cressy, the Toronto councillor. “We have failed if we do that.”

Not surprisingly, Kirk Tousaw disagrees. People concerned about the proliferation of illegal dispensaries need ask themselves one question, he says. “Does that same person become concerned every time they pass a liquor store or a bar or a place where tobacco is being sold?” he asks. “I doubt it. And yet cannabis is dramatically safer than alcohol as a social substance, dramatically safer than tobacco as something you smoke. So if you’re concerned about cannabis but not those other substances, then I think you’ve got to take a look in the mirror and maybe understand that your concerns aren’t based in reality.”

As for the real intentions of certain dispensaries, some of the old-school operators are the first to say that not all are created equal. Dieter MacPherson, executive director of the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club, one of the country’s oldest dispensaries, says although full legalization “can’t come soon enough,” sellers who are clearly in the recreational market should not hide behind a medicinal veil. “If someone is interested in selling recreational marijuana, and they’re willing to stand by their scruples and break a bad law,” he says, “they should do it loudly and proudly.”

Says Tousaw: “I think the time has come for these pioneers to say: ‘Look, we think cannabis is perfectly fine to sell and we’re going to sell it to any adult that walks in our doors.’ You know what? I would defend that in court in a heartbeat.”

For now, court is the furthest thing from Ryan Williams’s mind. He is focused on his expansion plans, including the half-dozen franchisees who have signed up to join him in the Greater Toronto Area. “I think it’s in the public’s best interest for the dispensaries to be the business model that [the government] rolls it out on,” he says. “At the end of the day, though, I’ve come to accept the fact that: ‘Who knows?’ We could end up getting put out of business, or it could go in our favour and we’re all going to be billionaires.”