Pubdate: Thu, 30 Mar 2017
Source: Pique Newsmagazine (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 Pique Publishing Inc.
Author: Nicola Jones
Page: 34


Medical marijuana shops in the Sea to Sky are gearing up for a future
of legalized weed.

When you walk into Grass Roots Medicinal in Squamish you only get
access to the waiting room. There, a small counter offers bongs and
other glassware for sale. All the good stuff - the grass the store
gets its name from - is locked up behind a second door, out of reach.
To get there, you have to sign up to become a member, which means
providing some proof of an ailment that cannabis might help you with.

"We are strictly medicinal," says co-owner Don Fauchon, who offers to
unlock the door and give me a tour. Inside lies a plethora of
products, spread out in an atmosphere as clean and clinical as a
pharmacy. There are dozens of glass jars of cannabis flowers, running
from "daytime" selections that will keep you alert and creative, to
others that will sink you into the couch, most for $10 a gram. There
are sodas infused with cannabis, gluten-free cookies, and even dog
treats (popular for owners who need to make a long trip and want their
dog to be chill for the ride, says Fauchon). There are syringes of
expensive oil concentrates that can be dropped onto ice and swallowed
like a pill, and amber-coloured 'shatter' that looks like hardened
sap. There are suppositories, to bypass the liver and avoid a high.

The staff is keen to find just the right product for each of their
nearly 1,000 members. While I'm there, for about an hour on a Saturday
afternoon, a dozen customers come and go; the staff know all their
names on sight.

Grass Roots (in a new building on Tantalus Road, across the street
from London Drugs) has a business licence to operate in Squamish,
Fauchon tells me, costing them $5,000 a year. Even so, they are still
technically illegal, as are all dispensaries in Canada. Although you
can use medical marijuana in Canada, there's only a few ways you can
legally get it: You can register with Health Canada to grow it
yourself; have a friend grow it for you; or buy it online from one of
a handful of licensed producers (there are 23 of these in Ontario, a
handful in other provinces and just eight in B.C., including the
Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp). Anyone else, including Grass Roots,
is operating in a hazy area: medical marijuana is legal, but the
dispensaries are not.

This hasn't stopped storefronts from sprouting up. At least four
dispensaries have opened (and some have shut again) in Squamish over
the last few years. Up the road in Pemberton, an offshoot of
Vancouver's SWED Society is trying to open doors - they have
permission to sell glassware and paraphernalia, but not marijuana, as
the Village of Pemberton just passed a bylaw to prohibit dispensaries.
Google Maps lists more than a dozen shops in Vancouver (others have
been shut down). Olympic gold medal-winning snowboarder Ross
Rebagliati at one point planned to open a couple of Amsterdam-style
weed coffee shops in Whistler. Although that fell through, he now runs
a medical marijuana company called Ross's Gold, with a flagship store
in his home town of Kelowna.

All these shops are now awaiting a seismic shift in the landscape:
Canada is going legal.

In April, the Liberal party is expected to announce legislation that
will legalize marijuana by July 1, 2018. This follows Prime Minister
Justin Trudeau's 2015 campaign promise to "legalize, regulate, and
restrict access to marijuana," to help keep it "out of the hands of
children, and the profits out of the hands of criminals."

Weed shops are surely bound to start popping up in B.C. like, well,
weeds. Yet so much is still up in the air. Will a limited set of
products, made by limited producers, become available only at
government-run shops like liquor stores? Or will a craft-cannabis
culture be supported, like the craft-beer industry? How will the
government keep track of how strong and pure the marijuana on offer
is? And will an increase in retail cannabis mean more people will
start using, or start younger?


For now, the legal grey area for medical marijuana means that things
are very much in flux.

When I went looking for WeeMedical Society across from the local
Wendy's in Squamish, people in the neighbouring stores told me the
dispensary had been shut down a few months ago. Just down the street
from Grass Roots, next door to the Wiggin Pier fish-and-chip shop, the
discrete Kaya Clinics has a sign saying it is open. But when I ring
the doorbell, the manager unlocks the door to tell me he can't
actually sell any cannabis right now. This place has a clean and
clinical feel but with the addition of a Buddha fountain tinkling away
in the corner. The owner declines to speak to me.

Squamish's director of community planning, Jonas Velaniskis, explains
in an email that Kaya Clinics "is located in an area where marijuana
dispensaries are not permitted as a land use pursuant to the zoning
bylaw. A business licence for a dispensary cannot be issued in this

The only other dispensary in operation is in downtown Squamish, right
at the end of 2nd Avenue, down past the community garden and library.
You can smell 99 North before you see it. "Customers say it smells
like heaven," says the woman behind the counter. She declined a formal
interview and asked me not to take photos. Like Grass Roots, 99 North
did brisk business while I was there, with half a dozen walk-ins over
a half-hour on a Saturday. They are in the process of trying to get a
business licence, according to Velaniskis.

This place looks more hippy than clinical in a cozy wooden shop next
to a yoga studio. A medical cross decorates its storefront, but you
don't seem to need a doctor's note here; the Squamish zoning bylaws do
not differentiate between medical or recreational marijuana sales,
Velaniskis explains: "For clarity, the bylaws allow marijuana sales
for non-medicinal purposes. The bylaws permit 'marijuana dispensaries'
in certain zones and subject to a number of significant conditions
(such as proximity to schools)."

One customer tells me plainly she uses it recreationally. "Well, I get
a headache when I have a hangover," she laughs. She can get it from a
dealer in bigger quantities for a cheaper price, she says, but she
likes the selection at 99 North. (She declined to be named for this
story). Others are clearly buying it for medicinal reasons, including
one customer I met who says he uses it for post-traumatic stress
disorder. The owner of 99 North declines to speak to me, saying that
because of the nature of the business, he would need to consult his
lawyer first.

Whether you need a medical reason - and the way you might prove that -
is extremely variable from one dispensary to another. "If you're being
prescribed a pharmaceutical, then you could probably benefit from our
products," says Grass Roots assistant manager Tori Enns. "We like to
keep the umbrella wide." Some shops require a note from a doctor or
they ask customers to describe their condition and symptoms in detail;
others simply provide a list with boxes to tick, offering options from
Multiple Sclerosis to "neck problems" or "sexual dysfunction."

In general, if the shops are few, discrete, responsible, and even
licensed, then the police seem to leave them alone. "I think the
police like us because we put a couple of dealers out of business,"
laughs Fauchon, though he adds that could be just a rumour. Grass
Roots has revoked a few memberships, says Fauchon, when they caught
customers handing their products over to a friend. The police
threatened to shut 99 North soon after it opened in 2014, but two
years later it is still open. "The bottom line is that marijuana is
still illegal," says Whistler RCMP operations NCO Scott Langtry.
That's pretty much all the police will officially tell me; Squamish
RCMP declined to comment about whether or why any dispensaries were in
operation in their jurisdiction.

The biggest obstacle seems to be not the police but local councils.
Since Squamish passed a bylaw allowing dispensaries to apply for
business licenses in July 2016, SWED Society optimistically assumed
that Pemberton might do the same, says local manager Ginny Stratton;
they invested in artwork and display cases for their store. But
Pemberton's council instead decided to join Whistler in not permitting
dispensaries. Pemberton's council told SWED they could apply for a
Temporary Use Permit, but only if and when the federal legislation
changes. The latter part of that condition could take years. So, for
now, the SWED shop has brown paper taped over its windows and the door
is locked.

Ironically, the only legal producer in the corridor, Whistler Medical
Marijuana Corporation, declines to speak with me. The company grows
about 1,000 plants, according to a 2016 CBC story, and lists prices of
$9 to $13 per gram on their website. In March WMMC founder Chris Pelz
told Pique that they are set to expand with a new growing facility in
Pemberton in 2018. Like all legal producers, they do not sell from a
storefront; customers have to register and order online. Dispensary
proponents argue that the licensed producers fail patients by not
being able to have a face-to-face consultation about their products.


For doctors, the system as it stands is frustrating, says Nick Fisher,
one of the physicians at the Pemberton Medical Clinic. There is a huge
spectrum of marijuana products with different percentages of
cannabinoids: compounds like Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which hits
the brain, and Cannabidiol (CBD), which doesn't get you high.
Different formulations have different effects, just like tequila might
wake you up and gin might make you cry. Yet doctors can't "prescribe"
a given formulation, or say how often it should be taken or in what
concentration; they just sign a piece of paper saying a patient can
use medical marijuana. "That makes us uncomfortable," he says.

The medical clinic gets about a dozen requests to sign such forms each
year; in the handful of cases that Fisher has signed, it has been
based on a long-term relationship with a patient where he can see that
other options aren't working. In some cases that's because
pharmaceuticals are so expensive. Nabilone, a synthetic cannabinoid
that can be prescribed for pain relief, might set a patient back
$1,000 a month, says Fisher. "I remember wanting to prescribe it for
someone and they said: 'No, I'm not paying that. I can grow it in my

In other cases, available pharmaceuticals come with nasty
side-effects. "You look at marijuana and think, why not? Are the side
effects going to be worse? Probably not," says Fisher.

There can be problems. "Cannabis use disorder" is basically cannabis
addiction; heavy users may experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety
or nausea. Fisher says he sees a couple of people with that problem
regularly in Pemberton's emergency ward. Marijuana use has been linked
to schizophrenia in some studies, but an academic review on that topic
says it's not clear if the drug triggers the illness, or if people
with the illness simply tend to like the drug. The same goes for links
between marijuana and alcohol use and lower intelligence; it's hard to
say what is causing what.

The benefits, on the other hand, could be big. "Medicinal marijuana
has an amazing potential, but very few randomized controlled trials,"
notes Fisher. A 2015 review in JAMA, one of the largest international
peer-reviewed medical journals, found solid evidence that marijuana
helps people with nausea that stems from chemotherapy, chronic pain,
neuropathic pain, and spasticity from Multiple Sclerosis. For a lot of
other conditions for which marijuana tends to be promoted (including
Parkinson's disease and Tourette's Syndrome), trial results have been
conflicting or inconclusive. Legalizing marijuana, notes Fisher, will
hopefully spur more studies that examine the specific compounds that
have the best effect for specific diseases or symptoms.


Fortunately, Canada isn't the first country to legalize medical or
recreational marijuana. We have other examples to look to. Uruguay is
the only country to have fully legalized the sale, cultivation and
distribution of cannabis, which it did in 2013. In the Netherlands,
surprisingly, it is still technically illegal. While the drug remains
illegal at the federal level in the U.S., individual states are
permitted to draft their own laws within certain limits.

Colorado is perhaps the perfect case study for B.C. Like here, it's a
mountainous area with its share of ski bums. Colorado also has the
distinction of being the first state to permit sales of recreational
marijuana as of 2014 as an adjunct to a long-standing medical
marijuana law dating back to 2000. As of 2015, Colorado had more than
500 medical dispensaries.

Making these transitions wasn't exactly easy, says Andrew Freedman by
phone from Colorado, where he was formerly the state's director of
marijuana coordination and now runs Freedman and Koski Inc., a
consulting business to assist communities with the transition to
legalized marijuana.

"You need an entire regulatory system overnight, and that's unique.
Usually it's an evolving process to regulate a product. Lab testing,
pesticide use, potency, public-health studies: most of those things
exist over a long period of time, but none of it exists for
marijuana," Freedman says.

"I think we were fairly fearful of dramatic consequences, but we
haven't seen those," he says of Colorado's move to legalization. "It
has been a fairly smooth road. Not that there weren't a few bumps."

The Rocky Mountain Poison and Drug Center saw a 70-per-cent boost in
calls related to marijuana in 2015 compared to 2013. And soon after
Colorado's 2014 legalization, there were two deaths linked to
marijuana edibles: one person committed suicide, and another allegedly
killed his wife after ingesting marijuana cookies and candy.
Accidental overdoses are also a concern with food products, such as
hash brownies - particularly for kids who might not know what they're
eating from Mom or Dad's stash.

What about usage? Right now, about half of Canada's youth report that
marijuana is easily accessible, and Canada has the highest rate of
adolescent marijuana use of any developed nation. That said, the
percentage of people who say they've used it in the last year is
higher in both the U.S. and New Zealand than in Canada.

Perhaps surprisingly, state-wide surveys in Colorado show that kids
don't start using more of the drug because it is more widely
available. If anything, there is a small decline in youth use. "I'd
say it's way too early to tell what's really going on," says Freedman.
Since it is illegal for kids to buy marijuana in Colorado, their
access to the drug hasn't really changed. But the legalization for
adults could make the drug more desirable. Conversely, as marijuana is
legalized, perhaps it loses its allure of being forbidden - and
becomes less desirable.

"Public-health officials say that changing attitudes takes a long
period of time, so that's going to take a while to come through," says
Freedman. "It's too early to say what will win out."

Other jurisdictions have not witnessed a surge in usage after
legalizing marijuana. Across the pond in England, for example, a study
of their decriminalization legislation in 2004 found no increase in
marijuana usage, or in crime or anti-social behaviour. Other studies
have shown that, in general, an uptick in the number of medical
marijuana dispensaries tends to be related to a decrease in crime -
perhaps in part because people might drink less alcohol if they have
better access to pot. But the statistics are confusing, and while some
people swap booze for pot, others tend to drink more when they get

There's no solid evidence that marijuana is a "gateway" drug to harder
drugs. In fact, it's possible that making marijuana more easily
accessible might drive people away from bad habits. One recent study
in 50 U.S. states over a 10-year period found a 25-per-cent reduction
in opioid-related overdose deaths in those states that had medical
marijuana laws in place, compared to those that didn't.


Likely the biggest problem with either medical marijuana or
recreational marijuana seems to be not knowing exactly what's in the
product. Lab tests can determine how much THC and CBD is in any given
product, and whether it is contaminated with bacteria, mould or
residual pesticides. But that testing is expensive, so not everyone
does it.

Right now, the handful of licensed producers must abide by regulations
set by Health Canada. Producers are responsible for their own testing,
either by performing it themselves or farming it out to a trusted lab,
and they must maintain records for potential audits. Health Canada
makes both scheduled and surprise inspections. Since 2013, there have
been 11 voluntary recalls of products from licensed producers across
the country (at least one from the Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp. in
2014), because of mould, bacteria, or mislabelled amounts of THC or

To date, Health Canada has only required licensed producers to test
for residues of 13 approved pesticides. Some critics say that's a
problem since other pesticides - including one called myclobutanil
that turned up in some of Colorado's dispensary cannabis - are known
to be used by growers. Health Canada tells Pique they will undertake
"random testing of product from all licensed producers for
myclobutanil and other unauthorized pesticides." The Whistler Medical
Marijuana Corp. says its product is certified organic, and doesn't use

Meanwhile the dispensaries, being illegal, aren't subject to any
formal regulation. And while a storefront owner might have the best of
intentions, they might not know exactly what is in their product.
Fauchon says that Grass Roots uses a Health-Canada-certified lab on
Vancouver Island to perform tests for them, and has never had a
product test positive for contamination.

But a 2016 Globe and Mail investigation of Toronto cannabis
dispensaries found three of the nine shops from which they purchased
product wouldn't have passed Health Canada safety guidelines. Three
dispensaries tested positive for excessive amounts of bacteria, and
one dispensary tested positive for yeast or mould. A similar report in
Vancouver found that only six of 22 dispensary samples would have
passed Health Canada tests.

Jonathan Page, an adjunct professor of botony at the University of
British Columbia, opened his own cannabis testing company, Anandia
Labs, in August 2016 to help meet anticipated demand. So far, his
customers include eight licensed producers from across the country,
and dozens of private growers who want to know what's in their own
plants. It costs between $500 and $1,000 to test a batch, Page notes,
so private growers typically opt for the cheaper tests for potency,
and test their plants just once.

"I think Health Canada should have realized some time ago that
patients in some parts - Vancouver in particular - get their cannabis
from dispensaries. There's variable quality control in that market.
Testing could help to improve that situation," Page says. Although the
government doesn't permit certified labs such as Page's to conduct
testing for illegal dispensaries, he suspects that some of the private
growers who use his services are selling to the dispensaries, so those
products would at least have a measured amount of THC, for example.
Other growers or dispensaries might be testing "under the table" at
other labs.

The system, says Page, doesn't acknowledge the realities in B.C.,
where cannabis cultivation has long been a huge business. A federal
government Task Force on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation in 2016
said it would prefer a system that allowed for small, medium and large
companies, including mom-and-pop producers. "But that's not what we
have now," says Page. "There's a worry that everyone will get shut
down except for the big producers." It's a hard club to get into:
Health Canada has had 1,611 applications from those interested in
becoming licensed producers, of which only 38 have been approved.

Fauchon, who is also chairman of the Cannabis Growers of Canada
organization, says he is already talking to politicians and
petitioning to keep the "little guy" included in future systems.
"There are probably about two dozen around here, just growing a little
extra in their basements," says Fauchon. A recent Cannabis Growers of
Canada study found at least 13,500 small-to-medium growers in B.C. If
they're not allowed to continue a "craft cannabis" industry, Fauchon
says, then a black market will persist even after legalization.

Regardless of how the laws and regulations pan out, marijuana use
seems unlikely to explode. Page says he grew up on Vancouver Island
with a lot of marijuana around, and now, he says: "My life is kind of
centred around cannabis." But he hasn't become a pot head. "People
assume I'm a big user, but I'm not," he says. "Alcohol is my drug of
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