B.C. solicitor general warns illegal cannabis outlets: Close if you want a licence

On Wednesday, there will be just one government store and no private retail outlets licensed to sell non-medical cannabis

B.C. Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has advised illegal cannabis dispensaries to close their doors if they want to get a government licence to operate a retail outlet.

Farnworth made the comments in advance of recreational cannabis use becoming legal on Wednesday.

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The medical marijuana dispensaries that Victorians have become used to actually operate outside the law. They might have business licences from the city, but none is sanctioned by senior government.

“My advice to them is that there are new rules coming in place on Oct. 17 and they should start to abide by those rules,” Farnworth told reporters at the B.C. legislature.

“We’ve said that existing dispensaries can apply and they know the process. Many of them are already in the process and a number of them have already shut down. So I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The new retail model will rely on a mix of government-run and private marijuana stores, but in all of B.C. when the new law takes effect Wednesday there will be just one government store — in Kamloops — and no private ones licensed to sell non-medical cannabis.

Of 173 paid applications for a retail store licence received by the province, 62 have been referred to local governments. Of those, 35 are in jurisdictions ready to consider applications for a non-medical cannabis retail store.

“My expectation is that you will see more stores opening up in the months ahead,” Farnworth said.

The government will be the only entity also offering online sales.

Asked if stores that continue to operate outside the law will hurt their chances of getting a licence, Farnworth said: “Let’s put it this way. A number of stores have indicated that they want to become legal and many of them, I’ve noted, are taking steps to ensure they have that ability by applying, and by recognizing that it’s probably in their interest to shut down their operations and that’s what’s happening.”

In Victoria, a number of dispensaries are closing shop to wait for provincial approval to sell cannabis.

Gorge Medijuana, The Green Hart, Green Buddha Medicinals and two Farmacy dispensaries are closing their doors, hoping to be back in business once a provincial licence is approved.

On Monday, a notice was posted on the door at Green Buddha Medicinals on Bridge Street under the heading “Weedpocalyse 2018.” It advised customers that the store was closing until further notice. “We hope that by doing this we will be able to return to serving you our valued customers as quickly and as soon as possible,” it said.

The store manager, who identified himself as Miguel, said he was sad the dispensary was shutting down, even if temporarily. “It feels like they’re not prepared at all,” he said of the government.

Products at Gorge Medijuana were 40 and 50 per cent off. Merchandise was also on sale at The Green Hart. “People have been coming in to stock up,” said Debbie Crookes. “We have 6,000-plus medical users and they are really concerned their medicine will not be available to them until the government is ready.

“A lot of people aren’t aware we have to close in order to stay compliant. They’re also not aware their medicine will not be available from their regular sources.”

Allan Lingwood, chief compliance officer for Farmacy, said the dispensaries have always been compliant as medicinal cannabis dispensaries. If approved, they will reopen as non-medical cannabis retail.

“We have more than 30,000 members as medicinal cannabis dispensaries so all of our members have a need to access cannabis,” said Lingwood. “Currently, there is a profound desire to continue to treat our patients, but acknowledging that when we reopen, we will not have patients. They will be customers. It’s very difficult.”

At some cannabis retail stores, it will be business as usual.

Alex Robb, director and general manager of five Trees dispensaries in Victoria and two in Nanaimo, said he intends to keep the businesses open. “It’s my estimation of the situation that there won’t be any licensed storefronts in B.C. probably for a matter of weeks, if not a month,” said Robb. “Our storefronts were set up and licensed in the first place to provide access to cannabis for medical reasons and people really do rely on us as a service. There are many people out there who are treating their pain or other conditions with cannabis. If every store closes down, awaiting licensing, they’re not going to have a place to go to get the products that they need.”

Robb said he believes the company has the support of the municipality.

“There has been discussion from them that there should be a grace period for places to remain open while they await licensing.”

Most of the products sold at Trees dispensaries are produced by small Island growers who were authorized for medical marijuana. “We will maintain the grey market stock on the shelves until we receive pre-approval. At that point we will clear off all the shelves, await our inspection and we’ll get our licence and we’ll be able to purchase from the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch.”

Lotusland Cannabis Club, Burnside Dispensary, Ocean Group, and Leaf Compassion Cannabis Dispensary have also indicated they will stay open.

Farnworth said all applicants for a retail licence will have to undergo an extensive background check to make sure they have no links to organized crime, money-laundering, loan-sharking or other criminal enterprises.

The government will move to shut down illegal outlets once more legal stores are up and running. “As more and more legal stores open, then enforcement will ramp up,” Farnworth said.

He said a number of local governments are waiting until after the municipal elections on Saturday to deal with applications for cannabis outlets.

“Local governments are the ones that get to decide what they want,” he said. “A number of communities have made it clear to me that they only want a government store. Some of the communities have said that they don’t want any government stores. A number of them have said that they expect to have a mix of both government and private.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

lkines@timescolonist.com

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