Customers of Victoria’s marijuana dispensaries have to rely on pot luck. While the bottle of Pinot Grigio at the liquor store shows where the wine was grown, the alcohol content and whether it contains sulphites, customers are not told where the marijuana sold at local dispensaries is coming from.
“No store will tell its clients exactly where they get it from,” said James Whitehead, owner of medical marijuana dispensaries in Sooke and Victoria. “It’s not like a vineyard where they say: ‘Here it is on the vineyard map. Go drive by and have a look.’ There are no tours of the grow facilities. They are clandestine operations.”
If a dispensary is primarily interested in profit, it may purchase heavily fertilized marijuana that is inexpensive and grown in large quantities, Whitehead said. Shops may also choose to sell this inferior marijuana at a large markup under the guise of medical marijuana, when it is essentially recreational marijuana.
Medical marijuana, used therapeutically for pain control and appetite stimulation, is grown to a higher quality standard, Whitehead said. Some dispensaries are being supplied by high-quality producers of medical marijuana who grow organically or use methods similar to those used by licensed producers, he said.
In the past, under Health Canada’s Medical Marijuana Access Regulations, medical-marijuana patients knew exactly where their marijuana was coming from.
“They were permitted to grow it in their backyards or their basement and were in control of all aspects of production — what they fed it, how much water they gave it, how long they dried it, what strain they grew. People were obtaining very-high-grade cannabis that provided therapeutic benefit at a very low cost,” Whitehead said.
Under Health Canada’s Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, Canada’s 31 licensed producers get their cannabis tested for heavy metals, biological impurities and pesticides, and have to label the TCH and CBD content, the two main ingredients in the marijuana plant.
But Victoria’s 32 dispensaries, which range from the pristine and luxurious to thinly disguised dope dealers, are unregulated. Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps hopes city staff will bring a draft business bylaw regulating dispensaries to council this month.
In the meantime, where the marijuana comes from is a major issue, Whitehead said.
“If the liquor store told customers: ‘Bill brews it up in his backyard, trust me it’s safe,’ you might have some concerns you’re going to go blind if you drink it. Unfortunately, cannabis services are doing exactly the same thing. They’re saying: ‘Here’s a bunch of marijuana. We promise it was grown in x, y, z way. Please believe us.’ ”
Consumers who are not educated or who are new to cannabis have to rely on what the dispensary tells them, Whitehead said. It can be hard to tell good-grade cannabis from bad-grade cannabis just from looking at it.
Information about who grows cannabis is a trade secret, he said.
“If you start telling people who grows and where it’s being grown, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble with people you don’t want to be in trouble with,” Whitehead said.
“There is definitely an element of organized crime involved in the production of large quantities of cannabis on Vancouver Island, and that element extends into the ownership of the dispensaries as well.”
Testing of marijuana in dispensaries in California, Washington and Colorado has found some pot to be very high in biological impurities and pesticides.
Some online reviews of local dispensaries indicate the same thing might be happening here. Customers are complaining about bad, dry, disintegrating bud, or marijuana with a heavy chemical aftertaste. Some pot shops are dropping the ball on quality and consistency, say their critics.
At least half the dispensaries in Victoria are direct outlets for growers, who have an interest in dispensaries upping the return on the product they grow.
Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall said it’s anybody’s guess where the marijuana being sold in the illegal dispensaries is coming from.
“According to police, a fair number of the suppliers are still run by criminal outfits. But I would guess that some are also run by growers who aren’t Hells Angels or Vietnamese syndicates,” Kendall said.
The health authority does not believe the product is coming from Health Canada’s licensed growers because they would be risking their licences if they supplied illegal outlets, Kendall said.
Some growers have been growing for years in little boutique operations, just like vineyards, and do know the potency and test the product, Kendall said. For example, Vancouver Island’s Compassion Society would probably have a source it thought it could trust.
“But there’s nothing to stop a fly-by-night operation opening up, and you have to take the word of the person who is selling to you, that they’ve got it from a reliable source,” Kendall said. “That’s the important thing — there’s no way objectively of anyone in the city or the health department checking on that.”
Victoria police say they are working with the city to ensure that the health and safety of the community is protected.
In a statement, police said officers and city staff have been in contact with all of the dispensaries, “letting them know that continuing to sell in our community opens them up to enforcement action.”
The priority for enforcement will be outlets that sell to youth, cases involving violence or the presence of weapons, and those where there is any indication of organized criminal activity, police said.
Staff at some local dispensaries stand by their products, saying they hire knowledgeable staff and their products are safe and have been tested.
An owner at Victoria’s Natural Way medical marijuana dispensary on Fort Street said the store is getting its marijuana from medical marijuana producers on Vancouver Island.
“They’re the ones that are under the old code called MMAR [Medical Marijuana Access Regulations],” said Jeremy, who did not want to give his last name. “They are the ones who are able to grow it for themselves and their patients, and we just work with them because we know they have years of experience and know how to do it the proper way.”
The marijuana is inspected for mould and pesticides, he said. All the products in the store are labelled for THC content, the psychoactive chemical that makes people high.
“We want to make sure that our clients get the right dosage and don’t get too high or too low because people can have reactions if they get too high,” Jeremy said. “We want to make sure everyone has the proper level.”
Marijuana at Oceangrown Medicinal Society on Cook Street comes from growers who test their products through the federal government, said Natasha Simpson.
“They send samples to them and get the test results back. We never sell product that we don’t know what’s in it.”
A couple of the growers are silent partners in the dispensary, and the silent partners know the other growers, Simpson said.
“My information is very slim. All I know is they test their product and most of the product is veganic or organic,” Simpson said. Vegan gardening uses no animal products or byproducts.
“The majority of dispensaries that I know and are in contact with are amazing people. They are small-business owners who just want to help their community.”
For his part, Whitehead is calling on city council for oversight as it contemplates a dispensary business bylaw.
“Imagine saying: ‘This is Bob’s farm at 123 Sooke Rd. He uses this fertilizer and this soil mix. We’ve tested it and here’s a video of his production room.’ ”
Several dispensaries declined to be interviewed or did not return phone calls.