National Cannabis Region: Illegal pot stores pop up across Ottawa

 JACQUIE MILLER, OTTAWA CITIZEN
More from Jacquie Miller, Ottawa Citizen
The pot is sold from glass jars at Ottawa's newest marijuana dispensary, Green Tree, on Montreal Road. JACQUIE MILLER / OTTAWA CITIZEN

The pot is sold from glass jars at Ottawa’s newest marijuana dispensary, Green Tree, on Montreal Road. JACQUIE MILLER / OTTAWA CITIZEN

Two Canadian marijuana dispensary chains have moved into Ottawa, opening three stores and planning more. Stittsville is also about to get a marijuana dispensary, which will bring to six the number of store-front businesses illegally selling marijuana in Ottawa.

The newest shop, Green Tree Medical Dispensary, opened on Montreal Road on Sunday with a selection of dried buds, cookies, candy and marijuana-infused drinks on display in a glass case.

The Ottawa stores all cater to medical marijuana patients. Medical marijuana is legal in Canada, but only for patients with a doctor’s prescription who purchase it from growers licensed by Health Canada, who send the medicine by registered mail.

Ottawa police said they are aware of the dispensaries. But they aren’t saying what, if anything, they will do about them. “We are aware of their locations and we are looking into the matter,” said spokesman Const. Chuck Benoit. “We can’t get into any details of possible ongoing investigations.”

Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury warns that police and city bylaw officers are investigating. “When it is appropriate, we will close them down,” he said, adding that “I would expect some action in the near future.”

Fleury said they are closely monitoring the situation in Toronto, which cracked down after Mayor John Tory said he was concerned about marijuana shops popping up everywhere. Toronto police raided 47 dispensaries in the last six weeks after owners ignored warnings to shut down. After a major raid in May, 90 people were arrested and police laid 186 charges of possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking and 71 proceeds of crime charges. City bylaw officers also laid 79 charges for zoning violations and selling food without a licence.

“This is the direction we are looking into,” said Fleury.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson was “unavailable” to comment, said his spokesperson, who provided this statement: “Under the current legislation, Ottawa Police has the authority to enforce the law if it is breached, and investigate public complaints as they arise.”

The federal government has promised to legalize and “strictly regulate” recreational marijuana. But until that happens, drug laws remain in force, warned a recent statement from the ministers of Justice, Health and Public Safety. “The possession, production, and trafficking of marijuana remains illegal. This includes storefronts selling marijuana, commonly known as ‘dispensaries’ and ‘compassion clubs.’ These operations are illegally supplied and provide products that are untested, unregulated and that may be unsafe.”

But new dispensaries continue to open in major cities across Canada.

cannabis

Ottawa’s latest, Green Tree on Montreal Road, is part of a chain with 20 outlets in Toronto and Vancouver, said a 21-year-old staffer working there Tuesday. Tyshanna Bryant said the chain plans to open another five stores in Ottawa and Gatineau, with possible locations on Bank and Preston streets. She said she was not allowed to provide the name or contact information for the owner.

The store employs “compassion pricing” because it’s in the low-income Vanier neighbourhood, she said. “We give them a bit of a break.”

The dried marijuana on display in glass jars, with names like Blue Amnesia and Afghani Kush, ranges from $2.50 to $14 a gram. It’s $4 to $20 for the edibles, which include chocolate chip cookies, candy, chocolate bars, ice tea powder and pop.

Bryant said about 10 neighbours have already dropped by with positive comments. “It’s not in a dark alley. It’s a nice, friendly environment.”

Green Tree dispensaries usually provide doctor consultations by video, but the system hasn’t been hooked up yet, said Bryant, whose title is “bud tender.”

On Tuesday, customers were asked to fill out a form listing their medical symptoms and history of cannabis use, and promising to use the products only for their own medical purposes.

One customer who walked in Tuesday ordered the Monster Hash and considered a blend of dried marijuana called Moby that Bryant recommended. “This one is a sativa (strain),” she explained. “It will give you energy, make you want to clean up your house.”

Cannabis cookies for sale at Green Tree Medical Dispensary on Montreal Road, a marijuana store. Jacquie Miller

Cannabis cookies for sale at Green Tree Medical Dispensary on Montreal Road, a marijuana store. Jacquie Miller

Bryant listed who is eligible to shop at Green Tree: anyone who is registered with a marijuana producer licensed by Health Canada; anyone who is a member of another dispensary in Ottawa; or anyone with an ailment that may be helped by marijuana.

The products are from Vancouver, “all organically grown, so there are no chemicals to harm people,” she said. Bryant wasn’t sure of the source, saying that was handled by head office.

It’s not easy to locate that office, though. The website for Green Tree lists two stores in Nanaimo, B.C., and one phone number. The person who answered the phone, Krista Wise, said the two addresses are now WeeMedical Dispensary Society outlets. When told they are listed on the Green Tree website, she was baffled. “That’s weird.”

There may be some overlap in ownership between Green Tree and WeeMedical, said Wise. She said she was not allowed to give out information about the WeeMedical owners, including their phone number or location, but promised to pass along a request for an interview. “Sometimes they’re hard to get ahold of because they’re always running around.” Wise said WeeMedical owns six stores on Vancouver Island, seven in Ontario and five or six in Vancouver.

The store also sells cannabis iced tea and powdered drinks. (JACQUIE MILLER)

The store also sells cannabis iced tea and powdered drinks. (JACQUIE MILLER)

Two emails sent to WeeMedical bounced back as undeliverable. Green Tree did not immediately respond to an emailed request for information.

A B.C.-based chain, Weeds Glass & Gifts, has also moved into Ottawa with two stores on Montreal Road and on Bank Street downtown.

Weeds is owned by Don Briere, often dubbed the “king of pot” in B.C. He has spent 25 years campaigning for the legalization of marijuana and been jailed three times for growing and selling cannabis. The chain has eight outlets in B.C., one in Quebec City and two in Toronto, said Briere in a phone interview from Vancouver. He closed five stores in Toronto due to police raids there, but plans are underway to open two new ones.

Briere said he may open one or two more stores in Ottawa.

Coun. Fleury said he hopes the federal government does not allow marijuana stores when it legalizes pot. He’s concerned that clusters of shops would open in low-income areas like Montreal Road, similar to how pay-day loan businesses congregate there.

Coming soon is a sixth Ottawa dispensary, on Iber Road in Stittsville. There will be an open house to launch Magna Terra Health Services, probably later this month, said majority owner Franco Vigile. Vigile said he talked to Coun. Shad Qadri and the community policing officer for the area to assure them the business will operate safely and responsibly.

Qadri, in a telephone interview, said he advised Vigile to check with city bylaw officials. “At this point in time, the drug is illegal,” he said. “Based on that, I am not in favour of the (dispensary).”

Vigile is also part owner of Ottawa Medical Dispensary on Carling Avenue, which was the first marijuana dispensary in town when it opened in November 2015. OMD has 1,000 patients, and many travel from the west end, so Vigile said he thought a Stittsville location was needed.

He takes offence to his businesses being called “pot shops,” saying he considers them medical cannabis clinics. “Various medical studies have shown that marijuana helps to heal and bring comfort to a lot of people.

“We’re doing a lot of good for the community, and we’re dedicated toward the golden standard, basically, in the cannabis industry, to making sure that health and safety are our number one priorities.”

Employees at Magna Terra take a 14-hour education program he devised with help from an Ottawa teacher to educate them about the science, chemistry and proper dispensing of marijuana, said Vigile.

Customers won’t be allowed to enter until they are monitored on video by the receptionist.

Magna Terra Health Services is getting ready to open in Stittsville. MAGNATERRA / FACEBOOK

Magna Terra Health Services is getting ready to open in Stittsville. MAGNATERRA / FACEBOOK

Customer screening at OMD and Magna Terra is stricter than at Green Tree and Weeds outlets. Patients must have a doctor’s prescription for marijuana, or prove they can legally obtain marijuana from a producer licensed by Health Canada. The OMD office looks like a doctor’s waiting room, and the marijuana is out of sight in a back room.

It’s unfair to tar all marijuana dispensaries with the same brush, said Vigile. Is he concerned police might raid either OMD or his new clinic and charge him with drug trafficking? If police charge him for “helping people and providing medicine,” he’ll still be able to sleep at night, said Vigile.

In Vancouver and Victoria, city officials have tried to control illegal pot stores by licensing them. Fleury said he’s not aware of any such move in Ottawa.

Article source Ottawa Citizen