Pubdate: Mon, 09 Feb 2015
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2015 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Brian Hutchinson
Page: A1


63-Year-Old Marijuana 'King' Seeks Weeds Franchisees

This city has its own Prince of Pot, cannabis promoter Marc Emery. 
But he's minor royalty next to Don Briere. Or Donald Joseph Briere, 
as he's known inside the Canadian justice and penal systems. He was 
once this country's most prolific marijuana producer and distributor, 
with 33 illegal growing operations hidden across B.C.

In the late 1990s, before an informant ratted them out to police, Mr. 
Briere and his cohorts were growing and selling two tonnes of pot 
annually. "That's a lot of weed," he laughs. "We were outlaws. My 
share was $5 million a year."

He made B.C. bud famous. And he paid a price. Mr. Briere was 
convicted in 2001 on charges that included drug cultivation, 
possession for the purpose of trafficking and possession of a 
prohibited firearm. He was sentenced to four years in prison. While 
on parole in 2004, he was busted again, this time for running an 
illegal marijuana shop on Vancouver's hipster high street, Commercial 
Drive. For that blatant infraction, he was convicted and sentenced to 
another 2.5 years behind bars. Mr. Briere is now 63, and with all the 
legal hassles and two heart attacks behind him, one might think he'd 
have retirement in mind. Far from it. The irrepressible pot 
impresario is back in the marijuana trade, making his mark in retail.

He's selling potent cannabis products from a chain of eight stores he 
has opened - and has managed to keep open, despite admitting his 
product is recreational, not medicinal - over the past 20 months in 
Vancouver. Weeds Glass and Gifts does a brisk business.

He's got six more shops on the way, including new outlets in Surrey, 
North Vancouver, Whistler and Sechelt, a vacation paradise just up 
the coast. Mr. Briere says he's also looking at potential stores in 
Toronto and Montreal.

These aren't dimly lit backrooms where shifty-eyed dealers slip 
greasy dime bags into the pockets of nervous adolescents. Business is 
conducted openly, inside shops on busy streets. They have regular 
store hours. Mr. Briere compares his Weeds outlets to Tim Hortons 
Inc., the ubiquitous doughnut and coffee provider. The products are 
fresh and plentiful. The quality is consistent, and so, he hopes, is 
the customer experience.

He's hired a full-time accountant, and recently took on a young 
Vancouver lawyer, Ian Ramage, who now serves as the chain's 
vice-president of operations and in-house counsel.

On a recent morning visit to Mr. Briere's flagship store in downtown 
Vancouver, customers selected bags of dried marijuana and edible 
cannabis products from dozens of trays. One fellow paid $5 for a 
heavy hit of highly concentrated cannabis oil, served from the 
store's "dabber bar." In the back office, Mr. Briere used a 
microscope to examine new product. "Quality control," he explained.

Officially, Weeds sells marijuana to people with medical needs only. 
Customers are required to obtain a membership card; for that, they 
must produce a note from a qualified health-service provider, 
confirming they have a legitimate ailment - from multiple sclerosis 
to insomnia to headaches - that might be soothed with cannabis. Weeds 
employees will refer potential, non-card holding customers aged 19 or 
older to a local naturopath.

Weeds doesn't yet own the local market; competition is fierce in 
Vancouver. There are now 61 so-called medical marijuana dispensaries 
in the city, according to the Vancouver Police Department, with more 
opening all the time. Medical marijuana is astonishingly popular, in 
a city reputed to be a fitness and health leader.

Three years ago, there were just a few dispensaries in Vancouver , 
and maybe a handful of others in the rest of Canada, says Jamie Shaw, 
president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis 
Dispensaries, an organization that promotes and aims to regulate the 
sale of cannabis for medical purposes. Now there are approximately 
100 across the country. "There's been really crazy growth in the last 
year or two," she says. "The only thing they have in common is they 
all dispense cannabis. Some are nonprofit and some aren't."

None of the Vancouver dispensaries has been issued city business 
permits. It's a curious situation: Unlicensed, unregulated marijuana 
stores operate throughout the city, but few people - aside from 
prohibitionists, of whom there are almost none anymore - seem concerned.

VPD spokesman Sergeant Randy Fincham says the city takes a "a 
priority-based approach" to marijuana. VPD officers know where all 
the pot shops are and they make regular visits, but they won't 
consider disturbing an operation unless there's a complaint made and 
public safety is at risk. For example, police will intervene if a 
store sells marijuana to minors, or is deemed unsanitary. Inspectors 
from Vancouver Coastal Health, the local health authority and the 
Van-couver Fire Department also make regular visits to the unlicensed 
stores. "We don' t call them dispensaries," says Sergeant Fincham, 
acknowledging that the term is, for many outlets, a semantic manoeuvre.

Mr. Briere acknowledges that some customers have no medical use for 
his marijuana, and he agrees that his stores aren't all about health 
care. "Of course not," he says. "We're setting this up to be 
recreational, full-on recreational."

Besides, he says, marijuana "is far safer as a recreational drug than 
anything that's out there. I don't know anybody who smokes a joint 
and commits suicide."

It's not the most alluring sales pitch, but Mr. Briere has a dozen 
more pro-pot arguments, and they boil down to these three: Times have 
changed; marijuana is no longer considered the devil's weed; 
enforcing cannabis laws is a huge waste of money.

Making a profit is not his main objective, he insists. But he's in 
serious expansion mode, and he's looking for equity partners. Mr. 
Briere owns three of the Weeds stores outright and he maintains a 
minimum 50% stake in the other "franchises."

All that's required to partner up in a Weeds outlet is a capital 
investment of at least $40,000, a good location and a willing 
landlord. Mr. Briere says he' ll look after the access to product. He 
supplies his stores with marijuana from local growers, folks with 
Health Canada-issued personal production licences and other licensed 
producers, of whom there are thousands in B.C. alone.

The federal government introduced new rules last year in an effort to 
restrict all marijuana production to a small number of highly 
regulated, closely inspected grow facilities. But a constitutional 
challenge launched by personal production licence holders has led to 
a temporary court injunction, and pending court decisions, which 
means that for now, small-time growers will continue to supply Mr. 
Briere and others with their marijuana.

It's not how the old system was meant to work, and it could end some 
day. The supply might dry up. Mr. Briere says he'll be ready. "I plan 
to start growing this summer," says the undisputed King of Cannabis.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom