Pubdate: Sat, 16 Jul 2016
Source: Ottawa Citizen (CN ON)
Copyright: 2016 Postmedia Network Inc.
Author: Jacquie Miller

The Pot Tour

Patients Can Get Anything They Want at Ottawa's Illegal Marijuana Dispensaries

Inside Weeds Glass & Gifts on Bank Street, store manager Nick Dumond 
spots a man outside, smoking a joint.

"Hey, man, are you smoking in front of my store?" he yells. "I'm 
trying to run a clean business here! This looks bad! Children could 
be walking by!"

The toker had just left the store after dropping off pamphlets from 
the Cannabis Rights Coalition and imparting news of an upcoming rally 
hosted by the cannabis "community." "Sorry," he says sheepishly. "I 
medicate everywhere."

Weeds is one of five storefronts that have popped up in Ottawa over 
the past few months illegally selling marijuana. All of them say they 
cater to medical marijuana patients, helping people with everything 
from arthritis to anxiety.

To the west, in a Carling Avenue building set up to look like a 
doctor's office, staff in neat white shirts sell medication with 
names such as Rockstar and Pink Bubba.

"This is a medical dispensary," Dumond says proudly, standing in his 
shop, behind rows of glass cases that contain dried marijuana buds, 
cookies, brownies, candy, oils, capsules and concentrates. He says he 
chases away the "yahoos" and potheads who wander in, trash-talking 
about drug dealers or trying to buy marijuana for non-medical 
reasons. They can get their pot anywhere on the street, he says.

Meanwhile, five minutes away, down at the courthouse on Elgin Street, 
people charged for the crime of possessing or trafficking in 
marijuana continue to grind their way through the justice system.

Welcome to the dying days of the war on pot.

The federal Liberals' plan to legalize and "strictly regulate" 
marijuana promises to keep profits out of the hands of organized 
crime and pot out of the hands of children. The government has 
appointed an expert panel to consider how that will be done. 
Legislation is supposed to be introduced in the spring of 2017.

All the big questions are up in the air: Who will be allowed to grow 
marijuana and where will it be sold? In shops or "dispensaries"? At 
pharmacies or the LCBO? Or perhaps by mail in discreet packages, the 
legal method now allowed for medical marijuana users? Various 
interests are jostling to shape an industry that will bring in 
billions when recreational marijuana is dragged out of the 
semi-underground world and into the bright lights of legal commerce.

In the meantime, potpreneurs have rushed into the void, opening 
hundreds of "dispensaries" across the country. Some see them as an 
unstoppable flood in a country where about 11 per cent of people over 
the age of 15 admit to using marijuana. Others don't see the point of 
spending tax dollars to crack down on them when legalization is on the horizon.

Federal politicians have warned that drug laws against possessing and 
selling marijuana still apply, and the dispensaries are peddling 
products that are illegally obtained, untested and possibly unsafe.

But in Ottawa and other large cities across the country, police and 
city officials struggle with what to do about the flourishing illegal 
trade. In Toronto, police and bylaw officials have raided nearly 50 
shops, laying charges for drug trafficking and zoning violations. 
Vancouver and Victoria have tried to control shops by licensing them.

Ottawa officials aren't saying much about what, if anything, they 
will do about the dispensaries. Police say they are aware of them, 
but can't talk about "ongoing investigations." Ottawa Mayor Jim 
Watson made himself unavailable to comment. However, Coun. Mathieu 
Fleury, whose ward includes two dispensaries on Montreal Road, says 
he expects officials will soon take action to shut them down.

Most of the dispensaries across Canada focus on the medical side of 
sales because they feel they have some "wiggle room" there, says 
marijuana industry consultant Eric Nash. Medical marijuana is legal 
in Canada, but only for patients with a doctor's prescription who 
obtain it from a producer licensed by Health Canada, sent by mail.

There is a huge variation among the dispensaries, says Nash. "When 
you hear the term Wild West, well, it pretty much is."

They range from long-established "compassion clubs" in B.C. with 
staff who are knowledgeable about the medical benefits of marijuana 
to the Toronto Cannabis Culture shop co-owned by crusader Jodie 
Emery, which sells pot to anyone who's 19 or over.

Many of the shops hope to dive into the recreational market. Don 
Briere, the owner of the B.C.-based Weeds chain, says stores are 
being set up across the country in anticipation of being able to sell 
marijuana legally.

In Ottawa, the dispensaries vary in how they screen customers, what 
services they provide and how they display their products.

Here is our walking tour of the dispensaries that have popped up in 
the capital so far.


A Bank Street boutique

Weeds Glass & Gifts Where: 224 Bank St. There is another location at 
77 Montreal Rd.

The website pitch: "We believe that customers should be able to 
obtain cannabis in a safe and welcoming environment. Not everyone 
likes to shop online, so we continue to operate retail stores at over 
10 locations across Canada where you can see our beautiful glass in 
person, inspect your product before you purchase, and be helped by 
knowledgeable and friendly staff."

Nicholas Dumond, manager of Weeds Glass & Gifts, employs a mixture of 
self-education, empathy and street smarts to guide the people who 
walk through the door to the type of medical marijuana that might 
help them. Medical marijuana users can legally obtain their 
medication by mail from producers licensed by Health Canada.

But Dumond's shop relies on customers who prefer his selection and 
advice. If people come in drunk and unruly, or try to "abuse" his 
system by using fake medical-marijuana cards, Dumond says, he kicks 
them out. He wants the store to be clean, peaceful and safe, he explains.

"We try to class it up a little. We're in the Parliament's backyard, 
so I couldn't Mickey Mouse this."

Weeds Glass & Gifts sells capsules similar to this one featured on 
the company website, which is described as "perfect for a quick high 
on the go. Get the pleasure of your favourite sativa high without 
having to sneak away to take a puff of a joint. These 20mg THC 
capsules (in a coconut-oil base) offer a discrete no scent way of 
getting your daily dose, with the ease of just swallowing a pill!"

And how is Dumond, who worked in carpentry as a master stair builder, 
qualified to advise people on the medicinal use of marijuana? "I've 
done a lot of research," he says. People also tend to be well 
informed, he adds. "People are very intelligent now, they have 
YouTube, they have the Internet."

Many customers are desperate or disenchanted with conventional 
medicine, he says. "They don't know what to do anymore."

How long, Dumond asks rhetorically, does a conventional doctor spend 
with a patient? Ten minutes? He turns to his staff and asks how long 
they spend talking to a customer on a first visit. Twenty minutes. 
Thirty minutes. Sometimes longer.

"See!" he says triumphantly.

Dumond is energetic, waving his arms, moving about, alternatively 
pugnacious ("Do you know why Napoleon invaded Russia? Do you? 
Cannabis!" he says, explaining how the war in 1812 was all about the 
hemp trade) and sweetly confiding ("Do you want to see a picture?" he 
says, showing cellphone pictures of his two adorable young kids). The 
conversation skitters from what strains of marijuana are best for 
day-time and night-time use to management lessons from the 
construction industry - "I had 40 guys working under me" - and his 
own many medical conditions, nine of which he says can be helped by 
medical marijuana. Dumond even used cannabis-infused cream to help 
him walk on a broken ankle. He's had 14 operations, Dumond says, and 
Stage 4 cancer.

Dumond doesn't drink alcohol and is careful about his health, downing 
blueberry shakes, extolling the healing power of antioxidants, 
acupuncture and Chinese cupping. Marijuana from the street makes him 
sick. The cannabis sold at his shop is "lab inspected," he says, 
shipped from growers in B.C.

"You need to know your s-," he says. "You know how you know your 
stuff? By being treated for years by the medical community."

Scientists could "sit at a frickin' desk for 20 years and figure it 
out, but you have to have a little street knowledge."

This dried marijuana called "Super Kush" is sold at Weeds Glass & 
Gifts on Bank Street. Here is how it's described on the Weeds 
website: "When you're looking to wind down and relax, Super Kush is 
there to lend a hand. Daughter of Northern Lights #5 and Hindu Kush, 
Super Kush is a very clear-headed indica. This strain is best for 
users who would like to ease stress without being stuck on the couch. 
An all-around easy strain for beginning cannabis users, Super Kush is 
mild in effects."

Dumond says he guides customers in the right direction. Take the 
wrong type of cannabis, he warns, and "when people talk to you, 
you'll just giggle." He describes one blend that provides excellent 
pain relief "with a little bit of happy."

That mix of therapeutic and pothead terminology is typical among the 
product descriptions on the corporate website for Weeds, which calls 
itself Canada's largest chain of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Take the dried weed called GrandDaddy Purps. "Its potent psychoactive 
effects are clearly detectable in both mind and body, delivering a 
fusion of cerebral euphoria and physical relaxation," says the 
website. "While your thoughts may float in a dreamy buzz, your body 
is more likely to find itself fixed in one spot for the duration. ... 
Like most heavy indica varieties, Granddaddy Purple is typically 
pulled off the shelf to treat pain, stress, insomnia, appetite loss, 
and muscle spasms."

"Head rush, euphoria, relaxation, calm," says the description for 
Rockstar, which is a "shatter," or high-potency marijuana 
concentrate. "Feel like a rockstar from the comfort of your own home!"

The conditions that can be helped by the use of cannabis are 
extensive, says Dumond, listing a few: PTSD, HIV, AIDS, epilepsy, MS, 
fibromyalgia, chronic pain, nerve trauma, muscle pain, anxiety and depression.

Many pharmaceuticals have worse side effects, he says, echoing a 
common refrain from advocates about the relative harmlessness of cannabis.

Consider Cipralex, a common anti-anxiety drug whose side effects can 
include sexual dysfunction. If someone on that drug finds that "it's 
not working in the bedroom," says Dumond, they can switch to 
marijuana, and "you'll be walking in here holding hands."

'The White Whale shatter sold at Weeds Glass & Gifts on Bank Street 
is described on the company website as "a very unique and rare find. 
Very potent long lasting effects that are sure to have you buzzing for more!"

Still, Dumont is worried about legalization. People might not be 
educated or cautious in the use of cannabis, he says. "People are 
like, 'OK! Cannabis for medical purposes? Let's go try it!' Then Dad 
is there with his cannabis brownie, having an anxiety attack."

Dumont realizes the police could raid his shop any time. "I just 
don't care anymore. I'm here to help people, medically."

He's reluctant to have his photograph taken, though. "Will the 
article be positive?" he says, saying he doesn't need bad publicity.

Dumond also manages a Weeds store on Montreal Road that opened in 
February. The Weeds chain is owned by Don Briere, often called the 
"king of pot" in B.C. for his 25-year campaign to legalize marijuana.

Briere says he may open one or two more stores in Ottawa.


Local and organic, just like the farmers' market

Capital City Cannabis Clinic Where: 2446 Bank St.

The website pitch: "Professional, locally tested and safe. An 
alternative way to improving your health. Your health is our 
priority. Clients at CCCC can rest assured that all our products are 
tested to ensure the highest standards in medical cannabis. Our goal 
is to improve quality of life though the use of cannabis as medicine 
where conventional treatment has not provided relief. "

Patrick Lavigne says everything he learned about business he learned 
from growing marijuana for the black market: supply and demand, the 
importance of satisfying customers, cost containment. He was 
successful, earning enough from his grow operation to set up three 
legitimate businesses: a driving school, a martial arts studio and a 
dog training business. He lost it all by age 25, when he was busted 
and served three months and 17 days in jail for cultivating marijuana 
for the purpose of trafficking.

He makes no excuses, saying he was young, stupid and heavily 
influenced by growing up poor in the Heatherington neighbourhood. "I 
grew up in a place where drug dealers were cool and idolized, and I 
had some money problems.

"I thought being a millionaire was very important, and I wanted to do 
it quickly. I've since changed my views."

Lavigne says his criminal record has ruled out a lot of jobs. 
"Probably I would have been a high school teacher," he says. He loves 
teaching and went on to operate another martial arts studio. He also 
continued smoking pot and growing it in smaller quantities, but 
secretively. He didn't think some of his martial arts clients would approve.

But times have changed enough that today Lavigne is the manager and 
the personable guy behind the takeout counter at Capital City 
Cannabis Clinic, a store in a strip mall at Bank Street and Hunt Club Road.

Like any small businessman, Lavigne researches his product, is aware 
of trends, and is getting ready for emerging new markets. He runs a 
side business selling medicinal products, such as cannabis infused in 
coconut oil capsules, at Tupperware-style home parties.

Lavigne says there is a big market in Ottawa for marijuana that is 
locally grown. "Twenty five per cent of our product is local and 
organic. That's what people want."

Customers appreciate quality products, he says, comparing it to 
buying a gourmet chocolate bar rather than one from the gas station. 
"It will be a boutique market. Ottawa is kind of that way. It's a 
very rich city, a lot of people work for the government. Everybody makes money.

"Farm to table, that's how I like to eat. More and more I'm meeting 
people who are like-minded. Older people, smarter people, even people 
who were a little bit more recreational and creative when they were 
younger, now are only interested in the medicinal portion."

This marijuana sold at Capital City Cannabis Clinic is described as a 
"medi plant. Local, organic, high C.B.D. Great reviews!"

Capital City Cannabis has a take-out window, and there's no sign of 
the product that's stored in the back room. Lavigne has little 
patience for some of the "activist" dispensary owners in Toronto, who 
flaunt their wares and ignore police warnings to close.

"The people who are being busted are the dummies who say 'It's not 
right! So we'll do what we want!'" says Lavigne. If Ottawa police or 
city bylaw officials asked him to cease operating, he'd "close the 
doors and go home."

The clinic has 138 patients, and unlike some other dispensaries, will 
only sell to medical-marijuana users already registered with 
producers licensed by Health Canada, he says.

It may be called a clinic, but the shop's Facebook page features a 
celebratory tone. It offers buy-one-get-one-free sales, discounts and 
cheery alerts about new products.

"Good news!!" said one post on April 9. "Delicious black hash from 
Morocco. Come and get it."

" Oh my ... it's beautiful," gushes another post with a picture of 
some shatter that arrived for "your 420 pleasure," a reference to the 
pro-pot rallies held on April 20. "To celebrate our special week, we 
are letting this spectacular product out the door for just 40 dollars 
a gram. See you soon."

This "shatter" sold at Capital City Cannabis Clinic was advertised as 

During a recent visit to the clinic, Debbie, 52, dropped by for her medicine.

Debbie, who didn't want her last name used, says the store is safe 
and the staff knowledgeable. It's convenient, too, since she has a 
new puppy and makes stops at the pet store and vet next door.

"I'm just about ready to go off the anti-depressants, and I'm off the 
sleeping pills," she says cheerfully, explaining how marijuana has 
helped her mental health. A year ago she asked her doctor about 
prescribing marijuana for the stress that had her off work, but he 
refused. "He said it's crap." So she had a consultation with a more 
receptive doctor via Skype, arranged through a consultant in Perth, 
and got herself registered as a legal medical marijuana user. She 
also purchases pot from a legal producer who sends it through the 
mail, but the strain she wanted was sold out.

"That's why I come here."

Cannabis works better than the heavy-duty sleeping pills her doctor 
prescribed, which had her out cold for 15 hours at night and drowsy 
for the rest of the day, says Debbie. "I don't think this is just an 
excuse to smoke marijuana. It's really helped me."

Debbie says she's happier these days, and thinking of going back to 
work. Her new puppy has also brought a lot of joy into her life, she 
says. "Part of it's the dog, and part of it's this," she says, 
clutching her bag of medicinal pot and waving goodbye.


The doctor's not in at this dispensary

The Ottawa Medical Dispensary Where: 903 Carling Ave.

The website pitch: "Devoted to providing safe access and high grade 
medical cannabis to medical patients in Ottawa at a competitive 
price. ...We believe that medical cannabis is one of the safest 
therapeutic remedies available to patients."

The sign outside the Ottawa Medical Dispensary includes a picture of 
the caduceus, the universal symbol for medicine, and a photograph of 
a kindly man in a white coat with a stethoscope. "Your health is our 
priority," says the slogan.

The waiting room, with its row of chairs and green-and-white walls, 
resembles a doctor's office.

That's deliberate, says Shady Abboud, co-owner of Ottawa's first 
marijuana dispensary, which opened in November. "We set it up just 
like a doctor's office," explains Abboud, who is dressed in a white 
shirt. "That way it's more discreet. I don't want to disturb anyone. 
We're not in anyone's face.

"We are seeing medical patients, we are providing medical products, 
that's the (decorating) theme we're going for."

The medicine being dispensed, with names like Purple Kush and 
Trainwreck, is in a back room.

Abboud, an MBA grad from Carleton University, left his job in 
corporate sales at Staples to jump into the marijuana business. He 
says most of the people who walk through the door are middle-aged and 
their most common complaint is pain, whether from accidents, 
injuries, bad backs or cancer. Marijuana also provides miraculous 
relief for patients suffering from irritable bowl syndrome, Crohn's 
disease, epilepsy and Tourette Syndrome, he says.

Cannabis beats opiates, he says, relating the story of a cousin with 
a bad back who got hooked on prescription pain-killers and lost his 
job and his wife.

The majority of the 1,000 customers signed up at the dispensary are 
on disability or low income. It's rare for them to take a full 
month's prescription at once, says Abboud. An average prescription is 
three grams of marijuana a day. At $10 a gram, that's $30 a day or 
about $900 a month.

Most are signed up with Health Canada licensed producers, but they 
like coming into a store. "You can see the product first, consult an 
expert, build a relationship," says Abboud. The dispensary also 
"fills in the gaps" of the legal distribution system, he says. 
"Before us, if your package didn't come in the mail, you were out of 
your medicine."

There have been no complaints from neighbours, he says.

Abboud says he employs six people, pays HST, and feels that he's 
helping people. He realizes the police could be at his door, but that 
prospect doesn't seem likely to him. "We're doing a good deed here," 
he says. "It's kind of hard to imagine something bad would happen to us."


 From iced tea to monster hash behind the glass case

Green Tree Medical Dispensary Where: 290 Montreal Rd.

The website pitch: "GreenTree carries a wide selection of premium 
medicinal products including medical marijuana, edibles, pipes and 
vaporizers from licensed growers. We offer economical pricing as well 
as store specials."

When a reporter wandered into Green Tree dispensary and began 
browsing the packages of cannabis-laced iced tea crystals displayed 
in a glass case, staffer Tyshanna Bryant was quick to help. "Those 
will get you high," she said reassuringly.

She offered a membership card and a form to fill out that asked about 
previous medical cannabis use. Usually Green Tree dispensaries have a 
video hookup to a doctor, but the system isn't working yet, she 
explained. Ottawa's newest dispensary also appears to have the most 
relaxed customer screening.

The Green Tree Medical Dispensary is Ottawa's newest marijuana store.

Sales are open to anyone who is signed up with a Health Canada 
licensed producer; anyone with a membership at another dispensary; 
anyone with a doctor's prescription for a condition marijuana might 
treat; or anyone who has a condition that might benefit from 
marijuana, she explained.

When Bryant was hired at a Green Tree outlet in Toronto three months 
ago, she said she didn't even smoke pot herself. But she's an 
enthusiastic convert to marijuana's medical benefits for everything 
from chronic pain to leukemia. She said she's done some reading on 
the subject, but has also learned from customers. "We have people 
coming in with tumours on the side of their heads, in wheelchairs. 
They're very grateful the dispensaries are open.

"It's a comfortable, safe environment to purchase their medicine."

Bryant tells of the customer with a tattoo on his back depicting a 
cannabis leaf and the phrase "RIP mom." His mother had been diagnosed 
with fatal cancer, but she lived another 12 years after taking 
marijuana, said Bryant.

Anorexia? "We have a strain that will have you eating your fridge."

"You'd be surprised how many miracle stories I've heard."

Cannabis is a "beautiful plant" that causes no harm compared to 
alcohol, says Bryant. Even her mother uses it to help with the pain 
she endures after five car collisions.

Would Bryant ever advise a patient that marijuana might not help 
their condition? She pauses to consider. "No.

"The only time people have a bad experience is when they get cannabis 
on the street."

What about studies that suggest that early and frequent marijuana use 
harms the developing brain of young people and is associated with an 
increased risk of psychotic episodes and schizophrenia, especially in 
people with a family history of that mental illness?

"I can kind of see what you mean," she says, adding that "generally 
speaking, I think indica (a strain of marijuana) is best suited for 
people with schizophrenia.

"I'm telling you, it makes you so relaxed! You can't fight it."

The store offers dried weed, candy, cookies, brownies, and drink 
powders at reasonable prices because it's in a low-income area, says Bryant.

At 21, Bryant has been given the responsibility of helping set up the 
Ottawa store. She says she's not allowed to identify the manager or 
owners of the company. But she's paid good wages and benefits, she 
says. "I'm very proud about what I do. I love that I can help people 
and provide things that can heal them."

Of course, if police raid the store she could face charges of drug 
trafficking. That's what happened to several of her fellow "bud 
tenders" in Toronto, says Bryant. She's glad to escape the "chaos" 
there. And she plans to head back to school in the fall.


Down at the courthouse, marijuana use is still a crime

A middle-aged man named Michael emerges from Courtroom 9 at the 
Ottawa courthouse on Elgin Street, steaming mad. He's one of several 
people on the docket on a recent day charged with possession of marijuana.

The charges were dropped, he says, waving a sheet of paper saying he 
must do 15 hours of community service. "I'm pissed off I had to come 
here for seven grams of marijuana." He says he knows three other guys 
who were also caught with pot, but police just flushed it down the 
sewer and let them go. "It's wasting money on the court system. And I 
had to get a lawyer."

Michael said he fell off a roof 15 years ago - "I was lucky to be 
alive." He was prescribed morphine and OxyContin for the pain, but 
both made him "miserable, angry and mean.

"I just threw it all down the toilet one day and I smoke marijuana, 
because it kills the pain."

Michael says it's crazy he was charged with possession while Ottawa 
stores are openly selling marijuana. "I can walk down to Montreal 
Road and go into a place called Weeds and buy whatever I want," he 
says. "Police haven't been hitting those places."


By the numbers

59,967: Number of people registered to legally receive medical 
marijuana by mail from producers licensed by Health Canada

33: Number of producers licensed by Health Canada to sell medical marijuana

420,000: Number of Canadians aged 15 or over who reported using 
cannabis for medical purposes in 2011, according to a Health Canada survey

5: Number of dispensaries in Ottawa selling marijuana illegally

2,040: Approximate number of members registered to buy marijuana at 
Ottawa dispensaries. Some people may be registered at more than one dispensary

$7 billion: Estimated annual black market trade in marijuana in Canada
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom