The Growing Dispensary Business

A first rush of illegal cannabis dispensaries is thriving despite murky regulation—and an ambiguous future.

April 20, 2015

By Stacey McLachlan / Photo: Chrystian Guy

Buddha barn is spa-like: it’s soft on the senses. Soft music plays. The walls are painted a soft green. Jessika Villano, the Kitsilano dispensary’s founder, is soft-spoken as she softly perches on a soft lounge chair. She’s been in the compassionate care business since Valentine’s Day, setting up shop after seeing how homemade cannabis-infused treats and lozenges helped her mother with an undisclosed ailment; prior to that, she worked as a mortgage broker and helped manage her family’s collection of apartment buildings. Her customers are treating depression, anxiety, or Crohn’s disease, or dealing with the side effects of chemo. They’re grateful she’s there to help—even though, technically speaking, she’s breaking the law to do it.

She’s not alone. From just five dispensaries in 2010, the number of shops that sell marijuana for medical use in Vancouver has risen to over 45. (Dana Larsen, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, estimates we’ll see 200 in the city by next year.) B.C. pot is an industry guessed to be worth over $6 billion, and altruism aside, these shops, which sell to people with prescriptions or naturopath recommendations, want in on the ground floor. The Healing Tree opened a first location in the Downtown Eastside in March 2013; just 15 months later, a second opened in Mount Pleasant. “It’s better to get your foot in the door now than to wait and see,” says Tracy Po, the company’s marketing coordinator.

The industry remains illegal in the eyes of the federal government, and though it’s tolerated by the city and the Vancouver Police Department – hesitant to stand in the way of patients’ constitutional right to medicine—dispensaries can’t get business licences. They do, however, adhere to zoning bylaws and fire regulations, and even pay income taxes to keep things as above-board as possible. “They’re not operating within the law,” insists VPD spokesperson Const. Brian Montague. “But we’ve got a priority-based approach to policing, and these shops are low priority unless public safety is a concern.”

For every dispensary playing by the industry’s unspoken rules, there’s another pushing the boundaries of the city’s tolerance. Weeds Gifts and Glass owner Don Briere has brazenly stated that he’ll sell to anyone from his eight stores, even without a medical note. Budzilla on Kingsway was recently raided for selling THC-infused candies that looked a little too appealing to kids. (Staff and customers were released without charge, but further investigation is pending.) East Van’s Mega Chill Lounge is a caricature of stoner culture, offering a free “dab” (concentrated hash oil) to the member who beats the current Ms. Pac-Man score at the store’s arcade cabinet, and sister shop Mega Ill serves up pizza topped with pot. But for “good dispensaries,” says Po, common sense is all that’s needed to keep the police happy. “As long as we’re keeping it as legitimate as we can, we aren’t really on their radar.”

For Buddha Barn’s Villano, the future of marijuana retail is exciting less for its financial promise than for how it might shift pot into the mainstream. She’s hesitant to speak negatively of her industry but eager to distance her business from the “shady” side of cannabis culture. She says she’s anxious to get a business permit and to work with correctly licensed producers. “I think that British Columbians are honest, law-abiding people,” she says. “A lot of people would be more inclined to help themselves with cannabis if it were legalized.” And until that happens: “I’m just going to vote for our mayor over and over again.”

Originally published November 2014.

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