It was barely 10 a.m. and Weeds Glass and Gifts marijuana dispensary was already buzzing. Three women in their early 20s cheerfully helped customers match pot strains to ailments while a fourth checked inventory with a clipboard. Right on schedule, a man carrying a black sports bag walked through the front door, said a friendly hello, and proceeded to a back room to meet the shop’s owner, Don Briere.
“You can see everything he’s got right here,” Briere said as the man began unpacking. There were six clear ziplock bags, each with a half-pound of dried marijuana inside, plus another three bags containing a combined 6,800 “canna caps”—gel capsules filled with concentrated THC extract.
“Everything is recorded; everything is tracked,” Briere said as he reached for a company invoice. Deliveries are mostly scheduled for set times at regular intervals. “It’s like running a restaurant or bar,” he added.
On April 28, Vancouver city council received a draft regulatory framework for medicinal-marijuana dispensaries. Now on its way to a public hearing, the document includes a new class of business licence specifically for marijuana storefronts, plus rules concerning the drug’s over-the-counter sale.
Absent from the proposal is any mention of supply.
If each of Vancouver’s more than 80 dispensaries sells between one and three pounds of cannabis per day—an amount a half-dozen operators told the Straight can serve as a rough average—the question of where it all comes from is a big one.
That means Vancouver’s marijuana shops collectively move 80 to 240 pounds of product every 24 hours, which dwarfs what’s sold across the entire country through Health Canada’s official mail-order system. Statistics provided by the federal government show that as of February 2015, Ottawa’s 25 authorized producers sell an average of 44 pounds per day.
The man delivering to Weeds Glass and Gifts told the Straight he grows under a personal production licence Health Canada issued under its old Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). (The MMAR was replaced by the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations [MMPR] in 2014, but individuals with MMAR permits can still continue to grow pending the outcome of a court challenge.)
Briere revealed he works with about 15 similar suppliers who all operate under the old MMAR licences. Because they only allow for personal consumption, it’s still an illegal source, he conceded. But Briere argued that they’re following the spirit of the law, if not the letter.
One of the city’s oldest dispensaries, the B.C. Compassion Club, buys from “five or six” illegal growers, said Jamie Shaw, a spokesperson for the group. She maintained that this doesn’t mean their suppliers are untrustworthy. Shaw noted that some have sold to the nonprofit under exclusive arrangements maintained for more than two decades.
“The B.C. Compassion Club has been working with these growers for a very long time,” she said.
Shaw, however, emphasized that the industry would welcome regulations covering the supply side, just as most dispensary operators have expressed support for the city’s proposed rules for sales.
“Our growers want a program that works, and if there was such a thing, they would jump on it,” she said.
Sensible B.C. campaign coordinator Dana Larsen told the Straight his club, the Vancouver Dispensary Society, isn’t as picky about a supplier’s legal standing because everybody selling bulk to a dispensary is breaking the law. The society buys from an assortment of growers, he revealed, some of whom hold Health Canada permits while others do not. “I would love to have our suppliers regulated in a better way,” he added. “That’s going to be the next step, eventually.”
Addressing concerns about organized crime, Larsen argued that your stereotypical biker gang simply isn’t present in Vancouver’s medicinal marijuana community. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never met anybody who was a Hells Angel or who was involved in any kind of violence or anything like that,” he said.
According to VPD spokesperson Const. Brian Montague, police have raided nine storefronts since the industry entered its phase of rapid expansion about three years ago. He said that although the VPD has found evidence organized crime is taking an interest in dispensaries, none of those nine police actions were primarily in response to such a link.
“If we believe there is a relationship with organized crime, of course that would play a role in our decision of whether or not to conduct enforcement,” Montague said. “But while illegal, some of these businesses are generally operating in a very responsible manner. So you don’t want to paint them with a broad brush.”