Pubdate: Sat, 27 Jun 2015
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Copyright: 2015 Times Colonist
Author: Jack Knox
Page: A1


Unregulated Dispensaries Rival Liquor Stores in Numbers

For those keeping score at home, Victoria now has 24 liquor stores 
and 20 marijuana-related businesses. OK, a few of the latter sell 
just paraphernalia, not pot. And you can argue the real comparison 
should be the number of medical-marijuana dispensaries versus the 
number of pharmacies, not liquor stores (though how many pharmacies 
sell just one drug?).

But can't deny the storefront marijuana-sellers - dispensaries and 
clubs - are coming on strong. Victoria now has 11 of them, in one 
count, almost all popping up in the past year or so. Victoria's 
Natural Way Dispensary opened at the Oak Bay junction two weeks ago. 
Another place is about to open on Fort Street. They're sprouting like 
weeds, as it were.

They're as unruly as weeds, too, spanning the spectrum from the 
near-evangelical, non-profit pot proselytizers at one end to thinly 
disguised dope dealers at the other.

"It's entirely unregulated," says James Whitehead. He should know, 
having opened a medical marijuana dispensary two months ago. He fears 
a race to the bottom in an over-saturated market, with the most 
unscrupulous vendors exploiting the Dodge City free-for-all to sell 
dodgy pot to whomever walks through the door. In a business where 
marijuana that wholesales for $3 to $4 a gram can retail for $10 to 
$15, plenty want in.

It's into this Wild West that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps waded this 
week, declaring an intention to follow Vancouver in adopting 
regulations. Ottawa might not like this de facto legalization, but 
municipalities can argue the feds created the mess by refusing to 
respond effectively to a series of Supreme Court butt-kickings. If 
pot shops are proliferating, it's because the cops won't waste their 
time on cases that the Crown won't prosecute, as history shows 
they'll get thrown out.

The change has been sudden, and obvious. Victoria's long-established 
non-profit compassion clubs, the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club and 
the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, have been around since the 
1990s, operating transparently but discreetly. Their storefronts 
offer little clue as to what's going on inside - the newbies shout 
their presence. One even has a billboard on the Pat Bay Highway. 
Victorians who equate buying marijuana with skulking around 
Centennial Square or the Whaling Wall now gaze at a surreal situation 
in which some of the most vocal opponents of the storefronts are the 
commercial growers licensed by the federal government. The latter 
argue they are being undercut by illegal competitors, since Ottawa's 
rules say licensed patients may buy only pot mailed directly from 
those commercial growers (noted that Tilray's giant Nanaimo operation 
announced the layoff of 61 employees Thursday).

Whitehead, who opened the Gorge Cannabis Dispensary two months ago, 
says he would like to have regulations to follow, but Health Canada 
makes no provisions for shops like his. So he bases his practices on 
Health Canada medical-marijuana user rules that say clients must be 
25 or older and the pot must be properly sourced.

Since many physicians balk at prescribing marijuana under any 
circumstances, the Gorge dispensary doesn't abide by the federal 
requirement that users always have a letter from their doctor.

Instead, Whitehead's staff first ask for proof that the user has been 
treated for a diagnosed medical condition, then contact the client's 
physician to see if there are medical reasons - schizophrenia or 
bipolar disorder, say, or the use of blood-thinners - pot should not 
be prescribed.

"We probably have one of the highest turnaway rates in the city," he says.

But he also says the customers he rejects can readily buy cannabis 
elsewhere, sometimes in a dispensary where all they have to do is 
flash photo ID. And that's not even getting into the outfits that are 
not in the medical-cannabis business at all, the B.C. clubs that will 
sell recreational pot to members as young as 16. This latter group - 
unlike the non-profit societies running the compassion clubs - 
operate with little scrutiny.

In essence, dispensaries set their own rules on who qualifies for 
medical marijuana. Some will call up a health-care professional on 
Skype to consult with the patient (even though the physicians' 
college frowns on that). Some charge big money to issue their own user permits.

At the eight-month-old National Access Centre - a bright, airy affair 
on Quadra Street - founder Alex Abellan figures his is the only 
storefront that complies with Health Canada, as it doesn't dispense 
medical marijuana on site. He also employs a pharmacist to advise 
clients. He thinks all medical marijuana should be tested for mould, 
pesticides or other contaminants. "The city needs to regulate the 
dispensaries," he says.

Whitehead, whose dispensary sits in a cluster of health-related Gorge 
Road businesses - among them a pharmacy and walk-in clinic that 
opened Friday - figures less than 10 per cent of what is sold as 
medical marijuana would qualify as such under Health Canada 
guidelines that say the product must be organic and produced to a 
consistent standard.

The system needs oversight, he says. Right now, that's been left up 
to the City of Victoria. Good luck with that.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom