Dispensary halts ‘free cannabis’ flyer delivery after police warning

A medical marijuana dispensary’s flyers advertising “free premium cannabis” have caught the attention of Victoria police, who warn the practice could amount to trafficking.

But the dispensary’s owner said that, in an unregulated landscape, there are no clear rules around advertising and promotions.

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James Whitehead, who owns Gorge Cannabis Dispensary on Gorge Road East, said that he hired someone to put the flyers — which touted “free premium cannabis” next to a pot leaf and under the business’s name — on car windshields and in coffee shops around Cook Street Village and James Bay.

Shortly after the flyers went out, someone sent a photo of the flyer to Victoria police’s Twitter account, asking if it was allowed. When police visited the store, Whitehead told the officer he would stop distributing the flyers immediately.

“My intent in putting the flyers out was to make sure people … knew there was also a dispensary in town that is part of an integrated health-care centre,” Whitehead said, pointing out that his store, staffed with a pharmacist and a naturopath, is next to a walk-in clinic, an addictions counselling centre and a pharmacy. He said he only sells medical marijuana to people over 21 with a prescription.

Whitehead said the deal was that new members could get one free gram of marijuana when they bought one gram.

The problem with the flyer, said Victoria police Insp. Scott McGregor, is “there’s nothing on the pamphlet that ties this to medical marijuana … [or] that this was intended for people with medical needs.”

McGregor said Whitehead was given a warning that “your actions could be perceived as trafficking, so you need to stop.”

Medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal but the City of Victoria has said it’s not an enforcement priority for police. There are about 20 marijuana-related businesses in Victoria and many of them operate without a business licence.

There are two liaison officers with Victoria police assigned to medical marijuana dispensaries to ensure they’re not operating completely unchecked.

“We’ve told them that, if you’re going to do this, you have to be forewarned that you could be subject to enforcement action,” McGregor said.

But with limited police resources, McGregor said officers are more concerned with busting drug dealers selling heroin or crack cocaine than shutting down pot dispensaries.

Victoria police also haven’t had the courts on their side. The department’s 2009 raid of Owen Smith’s apartment where he was baking pot cookies and cannabis-infused product was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court in Canada, which in June unanimously ruled that cannabis oil and salves are an acceptable form of medicinal marijuana.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has said the city is looking at following Vancouver’s lead and regulating medical marijuana dispensaries.

Whitehead said until there are clear guidelines, dispensaries operate within a system that essentially says: “Go ahead and figure it out for yourselves. We’re only going to tell you what the rule is after you break it.”

“We do everything we can do to be legitimate in an unregulated industry,” he said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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