Weedy wondering

I spent three weeks in Vancouver over Christmas. Everywhere i went, there seemed to be marijuana dispensaries unabashedly in evidence, despite uncertain legal status and an active bylaw crackdown. I was curious, because Tofino has received a few inquiries about starting one up, and the people i talk to think a dispensary or two would not jar Tofino’s image in either its own or the world’s eyes.

Nonetheless, it took me several days to work up the nerve to go into one of them. I wasn’t thrilled about being caught on video frequenting such an establishment — even just “for research,” as i rationalized it to myself.

There seem to be two different characters of storefront in Vancouver: the “head shop,” aimed at the open, unrepentant recreational user, with a retail storefront and window display of pipes, t-shirts and a wide variety of merch for your herb-using enjoyment — and, often as not, a pungent cloud billowing out whenever someone opens the door.

The opposite type aims for a medical-office vibe: glass-fronted, white, clinical, one long desk inside with a doorway into the back rooms where mysterious “processing” must go on, and one or two neatly-dressed staff — as welcoming and unthreatening as possible. I gather the appearance is less for clients’ benefit, as the people entering and leaving didn’t look much different from the head-shop clientele, and more as camouflage against bylaw attention. There was no smoking or pot use in these outlets, they are strictly for buying product.

 

I chose the latter to investigate, and over the next week checked out half a dozen shops. I found the staff (almost all young women) friendly and helpful, knowledgeable, real believers in their industry, and pretty darn good sales people.

A woman at Eggs Canna on Commercial Drive talked to me for half an hour. She had transitioned into marijuana after two decades as one of the few women in Vancouver’s video-game industry, because she loved “getting in on the ground floor of industries that are going to explode.” A keener, she was enrolled in Kwantlen College’s medical marijuana program (who knew?).

The shop, like most i visited, was part of a small chain, and membership based. You fill out a form with name and contact info, declare what medical condition you need the marijuana for, and get a (free) membership that entitles you to buy weed. It sold by the gram, prices ranging from $7 to $12. That shop was notable for its twin vending machines: one dispensing pre-packaged weed of various strains in amounts ranging from $20 to $100 and, beside it in a classic Cheech-and-Chong image, another vending machine stocked with chips and candy bars.

The shops honour each others’ memberships, so if you have a card from one you can just show it to get a membership at another outlet. They were firm that there be a “medical requirement,” but varied a lot in how that was established. One chain required a credible reference from a medical professional — not necessarily prescribing medical marijuana, but indicating a medical condition that is though to be helped by marijuana (e.g. chronic pain, cancer, glaucoma, anxiety, etc.). Another shop displayed a “suggested list” of a couple of dozen conditions that i could choose from to establish my “need.”

The only exception was a Hastings Street shop, Crosstown Dispensary, where all i needed was a picture ID (not recorded) to buy over the counter.

The Commercial Drive shop was the only one i visited that had also established a “recreational membership,” which doesn’t require a medical justification. They claimed that possession of a membership card meant that, within Vancouver at least, the police would not seize your stash or otherwise hassle you. This chain had three outlets, and claimed it was one of only eight dispensaries that are properly licensed, out of 84 in Vancouver.

 

At first i didn’t mention my council connection, thinking it would turn people off talking to me. I quickly learned it had the opposite effect: They all had strong opinions on every aspect of the industry and were not shy about sharing. A couple gave me their contact info and said to get in touch with any questions.

There was much speculation on how the industry would evolve after legalization. The owners were legitimate businesspeople — one a former BC Cancer Society nurse; another boasted that just the Main Street shop (there were seven in the chain) had 4,000 members, and its Victoria location (Weeds Social Club, “right across from City Hall”) had 15,000 — huge numbers. Some alluded to feeling pressure from gang connections, and most stressed the importance of running a clean, respectable business.

On the topic of where they get their product, everyone was vague or evasive. They protected their supply chain; some hinted that licensed home growers supplied them. I didn’t get the impression of a robust, controlled supply chain — not surprising, given the uncertain legal situation.

Almost all the dispensaries only sold the plant itself, plus maybe a limited number of extracts or oils. The whole area of edibles seemed to be problematic, in terms of dosage, supply, and possibly FoodSafe rules. One, however, Cafe420, had a bewildering list of oils, butters, salves, concentrates, resins and other formulations i’d never heard of.

On the topic of being an official medicinal pot user, one owner said there are “any number of companies out there” that, for a fee of $200 or so, will get you a prescription for medical marijuana (if you have a legitimate need), but that most people don’t find it necessary to jump through those hoops.

 

Thinking of Tofino, overall my impression is that it’s vitally important to get the right operator for any dispensary that might open here. If done right, it doesn’t seem to have a negative impact, and is just another storefront on the street. One big choice (perhaps the biggest) is between a dispensary model (sales only) and a “compassion club” where people actually use the herb.

Tofino, at present, does not include marijuana dispensaries in its zoning or business bylaws, as it is not a legal business (yet). There’s a lot of money to be made, however, which means that many people are willing to risk the law and set one up. Which means that many jurisdictions, like Vancouver, were caught with no regulations to control what became a burgeoning business sector, and are frantically playing catch-up. The suggestion is to get some regulations in place before they are required. Ucluelet is reportedly working on a bylaw, and i’ll be watching eagerly for that. In the meantime … it’s on the radar of staff and council.

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