After long delay, legal pot shops open in Victoria

Victoria’s first two legal pot shops have opened, six months after cannabis was legalized in Canada.

The Original FARM on Douglas Street and Cloud 9 Collective on Fort Street both operated in the grey market but shut down for months after legalization as they waited for provincial and municipal approval.

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FARM and Cloud 9 raced for the title of first licensed cannabis shop in Victoria, with Cloud 9 opening its doors for a soft launch at 4 p.m. Sunday, just ahead of FARM, which touted its grand re-opening for 9 a.m. Monday.

“Right now, we’re both arguing over who is the first,” joked FARM’s chief compliance officer, Allan Lingwood, who stressed the important thing is that Greater Victoria customers finally have legal access to cannabis after a long period in limbo.

“We’re actually pretty excited, because we’re the first and that’s a great title to have,” said Cloud 9 owner Brandon Arsens. “Now, forever we’ll be existing as the oldest legal dispensary in Victoria.”

The two Victoria stores are among three provincially licensed cannabis shops on the Island, the first one being Port Hardy’s Stellar Jay Organics, which opened its doors April 1. There are 18 licensed cannabis stores across the province, more than half of which are located in the Interior and Northern B.C.

After receiving stamps of approval from Victoria council, both shops were inspected by officials from the Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, the final step in the months-long process to obtain a provincial licence.

“It’s been a waiting game,” said Arsens. He said the store’s application package was just under 1,000 pages. “We’re just happy to be open, more than anything else at this point.”

Cloud 9 is in a former jewelry store, meaning it has shatter-proof glass and state-of-the-art video surveillance, Arsens said.

Some unlicensed grey-market stores continue to operate in Victoria, despite the fact that the city and province said that could jeopardize the stores’ provincial approval process.

“We wanted to play by the rules,” Arsens said. We’ve been playing by the rules since the beginning.”

B.C.’s Ministry of Public Safety said an enforcement team has begun investigating and visiting unlicensed cannabis stores across the province. Before closing any illegal stores, the enforcement officers will educate cannabis operators about the new laws, penalties and consequences of violating federal and provincial rules, the ministry said.

Licensed stores must obtain their product from B.C.’s Liquor Distribution Branch, the wholesale distributor of non-medical cannabis. The provincial application, which includes a detailed security screening and financial integrity check, costs $7,500 and Victoria’s municipal rezoning process costs $5,000.

Less than an hour after FARM opened its doors, Brad Allen stood at the polished marble countertop and spoke to a “budtender” about the various cannabis strains, The dried product, which ranges in price from $8.99 to $15.99 per gram, can be selected using a large touch screen embedded in the counter, and CBD oils are visible through a lit display case. Allen, who uses cannabis to treat irritable bowel syndrome, said he was a FARM customer before the store shuttered and is happy to be able to return and buy cannabis legally.

Allen said it’s frustrating it took six months after legalization for Victoria to finally get a licensed cannabis store.

“I don’t understand that, really. I think [the regulators] were a little hard on them,” he said.

FARM, which was the first cannabis retailer to be granted a business licence under the City of Victoria’s regulatory regime, hit a snag in the approval process because the store at the corner of Douglas and Johnson streets is in a heritage building. It was caught between provincial rules that require cannabis retailers to be behind frosted glass and heritage regulations that require clear windows.

The compromise was plastic blinds, decorated with black and white historic photographs, that obscure the view from the street but still allow light to filter into the shop.

FARM’s second retail store on Hillside Avenue has received “fit and proper” designation from the province, but cannot open until after a public hearing before Victoria council on April 25.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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