Jack Knox: Victoria’s pot shops growing like a weed

For those keeping score at home, Victoria now has 24 liquor stores and 20 marijuana-related businesses.

OK, a few of the latter sell just paraphernalia, not pot. And you can argue the real comparison should be the number of medical-marijuana dispensaries versus the number of pharmacies, not liquor stores (though how many pharmacies sell just one drug?).

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But can’t deny the storefront marijuana-sellers — dispensaries and clubs — are coming on strong. Victoria now has 11 of them, in one count, almost all popping up in the past year or so. Victoria’s Natural Way Dispensary opened at the Oak Bay junction two weeks ago. Another place is about to open on Fort Street. They’re sprouting like weeds, as it were.

They’re as unruly as weeds, too, spanning the spectrum from the near-evangelical, non-profit pot proselytizers at one end to thinly disguised dope dealers at the other.

“It’s entirely unregulated,” says James Whitehead. He should know, having opened a medical marijuana dispensary two months ago. He fears a race to the bottom in an over-saturated market, with the most unscrupulous vendors exploiting the Dodge City free-for-all to sell dodgy pot to whomever walks through the door. In a business where marijuana that wholesales for $3 to $4 a gram can retail for $10 to $15, plenty want in.

It’s into this Wild West that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps waded this week, declaring an intention to follow Vancouver in adopting regulations. Ottawa might not like this de facto legalization, but municipalities can argue the feds created the mess by refusing to respond effectively to a series of Supreme Court butt-kickings. If pot shops are proliferating, it’s because the cops won’t waste their time on cases that the Crown won’t prosecute, as history shows they’ll get thrown out.

The change has been sudden, and obvious. Victoria’s long-established non-profit compassion clubs, the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club and the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, have been around since the 1990s, operating transparently but discreetly. Their storefronts offer little clue as to what’s going on inside — the newbies shout their presence. One even has a billboard on the Pat Bay Highway.

Victorians who equate buying marijuana with skulking around Centennial Square or the Whaling Wall now gaze at a surreal situation in which some of the most vocal opponents of the storefronts are the commercial growers licensed by the federal government. The latter argue they are being undercut by illegal competitors, since Ottawa’s rules say licensed patients may buy only pot mailed directly from those commercial growers (noted that Tilray’s giant Nanaimo operation announced the layoff of 61 employees Thursday).

Whitehead, who opened the Gorge Cannabis Dispensary two months ago, says he would like to have regulations to follow, but Health Canada makes no provisions for shops like his. So he bases his practices on Health Canada medical-marijuana user rules that say clients must be 25 or older and the pot must be properly sourced.

Since many physicians balk at prescribing marijuana under any circumstances, the Gorge dispensary doesn’t abide by the federal requirement that users always have a letter from their doctor.

Instead, Whitehead’s staff first ask for proof that the user has been treated for a diagnosed medical condition, then contact the client’s physician to see if there are medical reasons — schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, say, or the use of blood-thinners — pot should not be prescribed.

“We probably have one of the highest turnaway rates in the city,” he says.

But he also says the customers he rejects can readily buy cannabis elsewhere, sometimes in a dispensary where all they have to do is flash photo ID. And that’s not even getting into the outfits that are not in the medical-cannabis business at all, the B.C. clubs that will sell recreational pot to members as young as 16. This latter group — unlike the non-profit societies running the compassion clubs — operate with little scrutiny.

In essence, dispensaries set their own rules on who qualifies for medical marijuana. Some will call up a health-care professional on Skype to consult with the patient (even though the physicians’ college frowns on that). Some charge big money to issue their own user permits.

At the eight-month-old National Access Centre — a bright, airy affair on Quadra Street — founder Alex Abellan figures his is the only storefront that complies with Health Canada, as it doesn’t dispense medical marijuana on site. He also employs a pharmacist to advise clients. He thinks all medical marijuana should be tested for mould, pesticides or other contaminants. “The city needs to regulate the dispensaries,” he says.

Whitehead, whose dispensary sits in a cluster of health-related Gorge Road businesses — among them a pharmacy and walk-in clinic that opened Friday — figures less than 10 per cent of what is sold as medical marijuana would qualify as such under Health Canada guidelines that say the product must be organic and produced to a consistent standard.

The system needs oversight, he says. Right now, that’s been left up to the City of Victoria. Good luck with that.

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