Pubdate: Mon, 09 Feb 2015
Source: National Post (Canada)
Copyright: 2015 Canwest Publishing Inc.
Author: Brian Hutchinson
Page: C6


VANCOUVER - 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 prolificmarijuana producer
and distributor, with 33 illegal growing operations hidden across B.C.

In the late 1990s, before an informant ratted them out to police,
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. 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

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 he sells
his product for ''recreational'' use - 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. 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.

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
vicepresident of operations and in-house counsel.

On a recent morning visit to 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, 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 non-profit and some aren't."

None of the Vancouver dispensaries have 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.

Vancouver police spokesman Sergeant Randy Fincham says the city takes
a "a priority-based approach" to marijuana. Police 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
Vancouver Fire Department also make regular visits to the unlicensed

"We don't call them dispensaries," says Sergeant Fincham,
acknowledging that the term is, for many outlets, a semantic manoeuvre.

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."

Making a profit is not his main objective, he insists. But he's in
serious expansion mode, and he's looking for equity partners.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt