Pubdate: Sun, 09 Jul 2017
Source: North Shore News (CN BC)
Copyright: 2017 North Shore News
Author: Jane Seyd


The greening of a grey economy

Down in North Vancouver's Lower Lonsdale, just a couple of blocks in
from the neighbourhood's bustling main drag, the LotusLand Cannabis
Club's storefront proudly displays its green logo in a stripe across
the front windows. The words "British Columbia's finest," almost look

Inside, through a set of double doors that help keep the smell of
marijuana off the street, there's a chalkboard with daily specials
behind a large gleaming display counter. The light and airy atmosphere
feels a bit like a high-end coffee or chocolate shop. Except it's not.
On top of a low table in a seating area, there's a tray with Zigzag
rolling papers.

"Indica, sativa or hybrid?" one of the staff asks a man who's walked
in off the street. For a mid-week afternoon, there's a steady stream
of customers.

Some are buying regular bud, others choosing from an array of
"edibles" including brownies, granola and Nanaimo bars.

"If you can eat it, they're going to put marijuana in it," said Steve
Morrow, the manager of the store on shift this afternoon.

Cookies behind the counter sell for $11.

"We only recommend you take tiny bites of that," said Morrow. "We
recommend you only take an eighth of a piece."

Strains of marijuana behind the counter are colour coded to indicate a
sativa or indica - or a hybrid - strain.

Moby Dick is a popular sativa. "It's supremely energetic. Very
clear-headed. It's good for getting stuff done," said Morrow.

So is the Purple Space Cookies indica hybrid. "The vast majority of
people who shop here consider it one of the best strains," he said.
"When we get that one in, people go crazy."

LotusLand is one of two storefront marijuana shops on this street
alone and one of five currently operating in the City of North Vancouver.

Most have opened in the past year and a half, buoyed by the federal
government's promise of legalized marijuana.

Selling marijuana from any retail storefront - for either medicinal or
recreational purposes - is still illegal in Canada, and decisions
about how it will eventually be distributed haven't been made yet. But
with legalization on the horizon and a reluctance to crack down
aggressively on pot shops, a number of retail owners have been
prepared to take a risk in order to get a toehold on the North Shore.

"A lot of this is testing new frontiers," said Michael Wuest, owner of
the Weeds store at 991 Marine Drive near MacKay Road.

Wuest's was the first storefront to open up on the North Shore, in
April 2015. Wuest's background is in the hotel and restaurant business
and in natural foods stores. The Weeds store in North Vancouver came
about after he met Don Briere, a B.C. pot pioneer who's been described
as the "Tim Horton's of cannabis." Briere, now in his mid-60s, was
once a prolific marijuana grower, and was jailed for those activities.

These days Briere's pot empire includes franchising Weeds stores to
local owners like Wuest.

There is competition in the marijuana market. LotusLand, for instance,
is part of another chain run by the Vancouver-based pot entrepreneur
Robert Davis.

There have also been links between the WeeMedical dispensary on East
First Street in North Vancouver and the Green Tree marijuana
dispensary chain.

Wuest said the idea behind Weeds is to get marijuana out into the
open, along with making a profit. "We want people to come in and talk
with us and see what we have to offer," he said. "We don't hide
anything. We don't black out our windows."

In Wuest's store, there is steady foot traffic checking out the
tincture-infused drinks in the cooler, the colour-coded plastic totes
of Pink Kush and Rock Star. Behind the counter, an employee is
diligently making "pre-rolls" or joints, that sell for about $6 each,
with the aid of a hand roller.

Wuest describes the current state of marijuana laws as "a grey area."

Getting in on the ground floor of regulation is part of what the
current storefronts are about, he acknowledges. "Why wouldn't we?" he
said. "We wanted to be ahead of the curve."

"They want to be there first and gain the recognition in the market,"
said Werner Antwiler, a UBC professor in the Sauder School of
Business, who has studied the marijuana industry. "I understand the
business logic."

There is also a risk. "They're not playing by the rules here," said
Antwiler. "They're kind of hoping the police and municipalities aren't
enforcing it."

For most storefronts, the gamble has paid off so far.

Although the North Vancouver RCMP detachment is aware of the pot
shops, officers have taken a hands-off approach.

"There is no cookie cutter approach which would apply to marijuana
dispensaries," said Cpl. Janelle Shoihet, spokeswoman for the Lower
Mainland's RCMP E Division headquarters, in an emailed statement.
"Each one has to be looked at and a risk assessment conducted, to
determine what action would be appropriate and when."

"They're in charge of enforcing federal law," said North Vancouver
City Coun. Rod Clark. "The fact they're not jumping up and down and
having officers at the door of these establishments means somewhere in
their system common wisdom has taken hold."

Officially speaking, that view isn't shared by the City of North
Vancouver. "There's this period of time when (marijuana storefront
owners) feel they're operating in a grey zone," said Gary Penway,
director of community development for the city. "There's nothing
really grey about it. It's not permitted."

When the two Weeds stores opened, "They were licensed to sell glass
and gifts, not marijuana," said Penway. "They had a condition on their
business licences specifically written in to them not to sell
marijuana. . . . Then we found they started to dispense marijuana as

In the case of each marijuana storefront, the municipality has
notified both business owners and property owners that the operations
are illegal, and has issued up to eight $100 tickets per store for
operating without a business licence. Recently those fines were hiked
to $400 a ticket.

One of the storefronts - the CannaClinic at 156 Third St. -
subsequently closed. Most, however, did not. That's left two Weeds
stores, LotusLand, WeeMedical and the Herban Art Collective in
business in the city.

"There's sort of a mood where it is going to become legal and retail
stores might become part of the distribution system," said Penway.
"The reality is we just don't know that."

Last week, a lawyer for the two Weeds stores argued in front of
council that the city has no good reason to deny them business
licences, pointing out the municipality hasn't received complaints
about people harming themselves or "things that really matter."

Coun. Linda Buchanan didn't agree. "What matters to me is that people
are operating under the federal regulations . . . and not what we
think they're going to be," she said.

Coun. Rod Clark said he doesn't view the pot shops as a big

"You have to sort of step back and look at the situation as a whole.
The Liberal government campaigned on legalizing marijuana in the last
federal election," he said.

Clark said there's an argument to be made for turning a blind eye to
the storefronts.

"In the majority of cases, people want to go through the door because
it makes their life better," he said.

Clark said there are many municipal regulations on the books that
aren't stringently enforced. "I can't see spending a whole lot of
energy and certainly not taxpayers' money enforcing something that we
know is going to have a limited horizon," he said.

The reaction has been decidedly different in the District of North
Vancouver. When the Green Tree Dispensary Society opened a storefront
at 1370 Marine Dr. in September, and started advertising marijuana
strains like Bubba Kush on Facebook - "Great for crushing stress while
coercing happy thoughts into the brain for a great good mood feeling.
22% THC . . ." - the municipality moved in.

A cat and mouse game played out over several months, with property
owner Randy Leong refusing to hand over a copy of the lease before
being forced to do so by a court order.

At the end of May, the district was granted a court injunction,
forcing Green Tree owner Jason Liu to close the doors and Leong - who
had been receiving $3,300 a month in rent - to seek a new tenant.

Make that two of them.

Grace Dedinsky-Rutherford, a massage therapist with a specialized
practice for medical patients, had been a tenant in the building for
more than a decade. When the storefront first set up,
Dedinsky-Rutherford said she wasn't concerned. "Some of my clients do
use medicinal marijuana," she said. "I wasn't being prudish about it."

But then the heavy smell of marijuana bud began permeating her office
every day, giving her headaches and making her nauseous, she said.

Her patients also started feeling uncomfortable as fights broke out
outside the storefront. "There were a lot of unstable people who were
frequenting the place," she said.

After six months of complaining to the landlord with no result,
Dedinsky-Rutherford moved her practice - two months before the court
shuttered the dispensary.

Carol Walker, chief bylaw officer for the District of North Vancouver,
said the municipality will continue to take action against any
dispensaries that open illegally.

In West Vancouver, there have been a couple of inquiries about
marijuana storefronts, but nobody has applied for a business licence
or opened up a store, said spokesman Jeff McDonald.

"It's like any other kind of business. You need good people to run it
and you need good product and you need a good location," said Wuest,
who adds population density and proximity to transit probably play as
big a role as the political climate in storefronts opening in the city.

Ultimately, though, it's a political decision whether to force the pot
shops to close - or not.

"Given that there will be new regulations coming probably within the
year, there's a limit to how much in legal costs municipalities want
to spend," said Penway.

At Ray Nikiel's Weeds store on East First - a storefront set up next
to a Szechuan restaurant and a beauty spa - a customer on a recent
afternoon considered which strain of "the flower" to buy, eventually
settling on Pink Kush.

Bags of bud come in one-gram, four-gram or 11-gram

It's a far cry from high school kids buying "eighths" behind the smoke

Selling grams is part of an attempt to avoid the associations of the
black market. "Joints," made behind the counter by employees, have
become "pre-rolls," sold individually for $5 to $7 each.

Owners are cagey about both how much pot they sell and where it comes
from. There's good reason for that, as it's not legal for either
licensed growers or others to sell marijuana to storefronts.

"There's a variety of sources, which I can't get into," said Wuest.
"I'm one of the main buyers for this company. We do due diligence on
everything we buy."

Wuest said all his marijuana comes from B.C. "There are people growing
everywhere," he said. "It's not hard to find."

Large licensed producers are supposed to supply marijuana only to
those who are approved by Health Canada to use it. In the wake of
court decisions, others have licences to grow their own pot, or to
grow it in a limited way for other medicinal users.

It's possible those suppliers are selling to dispensaries, said Neil
Boyd, a Simon Fraser University criminologist who has studied
marijuana legalization.

It's also likely some storefronts are being supplied by the black
market, he said.

Figuring out who will be allowed to supply a legalized marijuana
industry is one of the details yet to be worked out in the next year.

Medicinal use of marijuana has been the foot in the door to
respectability for a plant once demonized as "the devil's weed."

Storefront operations in North Vancouver continue to embrace the
medicinal side. Most refer to their stores as "dispensaries" and their
products as "medication."

Marijuana has been promoted medicinally as combating nausea and
stimulating appetite in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy,
easing joint and chronic pain, helping with epilepsy seizures, sleep,
anxiety, multiple sclerosis and a host of other ailments, including
cancer tumours.

Handouts in the Weeds store on East First give detailed information
about cannabinoids (CBD), one of the active ingredients in marijuana
used in medicinal products that is not psychoactive.

There are also recommended doses for products like "Phoenix Tears" - a
highly concentrated oil.

Sonya Donnelly, a cancer patient, is one of those who use marijuana

"My doctor recommended it," she said during a visit to LotusLand. "It
makes me want to eat and it also takes the nausea away."

Donnelly takes marijuana both through edibles and by smoking it. "It
helps tremendously," she said, adding, "I think it should be legalized."

Marijuana has legitimately been linked to beneficial effects on a
number of medical conditions. But because pot has been illegal,
research through the gold standard of randomized double blind placebo
studies has been limited.

In some cases, stores make claims for their products "for which they
have no evidence," said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health
officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

More rigorous research and standardized doses would be among the
benefits of legalization, she said. "People should know what they're

Daly said she's not worried about pot shops opening up. "Marijuana is
widely available whether or not you sell it from retail outlets," she

But there is still concern in the medical community about possible
adverse health impacts of marijuana, particularly on youth or people
with psychiatric illness. Some doctors have linked marijuana to
development of psychotic symptoms and schizophrenia in youth who are
at risk of mental illness.

Those physicians are concerned pot is being promoted to those most at
risk, said Daly.

"It's more harmful on the developing brain. It can affect cognitive
development," said Daly.

Since legalization in some American states, edibles have in particular
been linked to increases in childhood poisonings.

That is concerning given some of the edible products - marijuana
gummies shaped like Lego bricks, for instance - that are currently
being sold from storefronts could appeal to children, said Daly. "This
is what tobacco companies used to do years ago with candy cigarettes,"
she said.

In the City of Vancouver, edibles are officially banned from pot
shops, except for oils and tinctures.

"Right now at storefront outlets on the North Shore they are selling
those products," said Daly.

A strong education program is something doctors want to see with any
legalization plan, she added.

"We have to acknowledge that when you make a substance legal, do you
normalize it and increase use?" she said. "The two most powerful
psychoactive substances are alcohol and tobacco, which are the two
legal products. They're both much more widely used than any illegal

The line between medical and recreational use of marijuana is already
blurry. Some storefront operations require customers to declare
medical conditions they are using marijuana for. Most don't, or
consider a symptom like "stress" more than adequate.

"Where do you draw the line?" said Nikiel. "Someone goes home and
downs a couple of beers to relieve stress. Is that medicinal? If
someone goes home and smokes a joint, is that medicinal? I would say
yes. What's the difference?"

"If someone goes home and puts back a 40-ouncer, you're past the
medicinal stage. It's the same thing with weed."

For marijuana dispensaries, a key issue still to be decided is how pot
will be distributed. Sale in government pot stores, in liquor stores,
in drug stores and in small storefronts are all possibilities and it
will be up to the province to make final decisions.

Bowinn Ma, the newly elected NDP MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale,
said no decisions have been made yet, although veteran MLAs Carole
James and Mike Farnworth did visit Washington State last year to find
out how legalization had been put in place there.

"We're still open to all the various options," she said. "We're still
in the process of studying best practices."

Marijuana dispensaries like those in North Vancouver are just one
group lobbying to get a piece of the action.

"All the big drug stores want it. The liquor stores want it . . . and
we want it," said Nikiel. "We started it and we're doing it for the
right reasons."

There are already debates about what is appropriate. A federal task
force examining the issue recommended against putting pot in liquor
stores, although some see that as unnecessarily cautious.

"In Caulfeild there's a liquor store next to a pharmacy," points out
Boyd. "Nobody's suggesting that's a problem."

 From a health perspective, "My position would be it's much better in a
government outlet," said Daly - because government outlets have better
controls on preventing purchase by minors.

Nikiel said it makes more sense to him to allow people who are already
familiar with marijuana and with pot customers to sell it. "That's
more helpful than to walk into a store and deal with a random
pharmacist or beer seller," he said.

Boyd's guess is there will be a hybrid model across the country -
which will include some government outlets and some smaller private

Ultimately it will be up to both the province and municipalities to
make that decision. "It's a big pie and suddenly everyone sees that
and they want to jump in and get a little crumb for themselves," said

Those who have long been a part of the push for legalization say there
should be a place for them after July 1, 2018.

"It's easy to jump on the train once it's going, but it's hard to get
it going," said Nikiel. "When you're pushing the train, it's a lot
harder than jumping on it when it's moving."
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