Trees Cannabis closes all Victoria stores after another raid

The provincial government’s pot police continued their crackdown on illegal cannabis stores on Thursday, closing and seizing products from Trees dispensary on Yates Street and raiding an illegal store in Kamloops.

The raid by the Community Safety Unit, which follows a similar raid on Trees Cannabis’s Alpha Street store on Wednesday, prompted the company’s chief executive officer to suspend operations at the three remaining Trees stores in Victoria.

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Two unlicensed Trees stores in Nanaimo will remain open this weekend, said Alex Robb.

“We are now planning what to do because there are no provincially licensed stores in Nanaimo,” he said. “We don’t want to incur a larger fine, so we’re making a strategic decision on what to do in Nanaimo.”

During Wednesday’s raid on Trees of Eden on Alpha Street, Robb told enforcement officers he was planning to close all his Victoria stores on Aug. 16. The unit, which falls under the Policing and Security Branch of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, carries out compliance and enforcement activities against unlicensed cannabis retailers across the province.

“I told them I needed to give my employees notice and make sure they have time to get on employment assistance. I also wanted to make sure medical users in Victoria could stock up on products that are not available in the licensed system, such as CBD and THC pain patches and topical products,” Robb said.

When the officers suggested Trees Cannabis close all its stores Wednesday, Robb countered that two weeks was more reasonable, but failed to persuade them. “They clearly had their plans already made.”

Trees Cannabis has given notice of termination to more than 150 staff. The company is offering to top up employees’ EI earnings to 90 per cent of their current pay for the next four weeks, Robb said.

It was hard to lay off so many people, he said. “It’s a difficult thing to do.”

Robb said the company, which has been providing cannabis for medical purposes for five years, continued to operate while awaiting its licence approval in order to provide access to “high quality, locally sourced” products while the legal system was being built.

“It was clear in October that it would take many months for provincially licensed storefronts to roll out,” he said. “The province has now forced our hand.”

Trees Cannabis intends to open licensed retail stores as soon as its applications are approved.

Robb said the enforcement officers told him they were not just targeting Trees stores, prompting him to warn Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club founder Ted Smith: “They’re going to come for you, too. They’re going after any unlicensed store.”

On Wednesday, Smith said he’s “pretty certain” the club will be raided. “We’re probably one of the few that actually plan on getting raided because we just don’t see a way around it without just shutting our doors voluntarily.”

CSU investigators visited all unlicensed stores in May and June and warned that while their first visit was educational, they would be seizing all products when they returned, Robb said.

The province has a year to determine a fine based on the amount of product seized. Trees could be facing a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the next year, Robb said.

In June, Victoria had four legal cannabis stores. Staff at those stores were reluctant to comment on the crackdown on Wednesday.

The Community Safety Unit has been doing education and increasing enforcement across the entire province, said Colin Hynes, spokesman for the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General.

“Enforcement actions will continue. They’re not going to stop,” said Hynes. “There are 44 officers and four regional offices. They are throughout the entire province.”

In October 2018, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth warned that as more legal stores are opened, enforcement against illegal stores would be ramped up.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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