There are nearly 40 medical cannabis dispensaries in Victoria, B.C., and all operate illegally, despite having a city business license displayed on each of their walls.
Recreational cannabis is officially illegal in Canada, and while it is legal for medical purposes with a doctor’s prescription, dispensaries that sell it are not operating within the law.
Technically, then, the only way to purchase cannabis is by going directly to a producer, of which there are 12 in British Columbia. Or you can grow it yourself if you have a medical prescription and are registered with Health Canada.
“We are in the gray area right now, but we know that legislation is coming soon in our favor. So we are feeling it out, testing the waters until the dispensaries are legal,” explained Steve, a local paramedic who rides his bike around Victoria offering support to residents and visitors.
Steve didn’t want his last name used, but talked freely about the positive relationship between the police and the local dispensaries.
“Basically, the federal government has told Canadian citizens that they are going to legalize (cannabis) soon,” he explained. “We have an opioid crisis here, not a pot crisis. Our police are busy trying to get fentanyl off the street. Marijuana is the least of their problems.”
The community seems to be generally supportive of the hands-off approach to cannabis businesses.
“I don’t believe marijuana is a gateway drug,” said Carolyn Stobbart, who works at The Papery in Victoria, just down the street from Cloud Nine, one of the popular dispensaries in town. “The dispensaries are our storefront neighbors, and don’t cause any problems. They pay their taxes and operate professionally.”
Cloud Nine sits in the heart of downtown Victoria (conveniently next to a pizza restaurant and a pho restaurant).
Ed, one of the managers at Cloud Nine, didn’t want to give his last name, but explained that while there is a lot of red tape and all sorts of hoops to jump through when someone opens a dispensary here, once it is open, neighbors and police are accepting.
“We aren’t here to judge. Just call us,” Ed said.
When the cruise ships come into port, the dispensaries see a spike in sales.
“We get curious people who come in,” said another employee who asked to be called Bill.
However, though dispensary employees are happy to talk about the current marketplace and the federal support, there is still a little uncertainty about discussing the buying, selling or possessing of cannabis in public due to its illegal status.
Canadian marijuana also has some appeal to Americans, especially those coming in on cruise ships.
First, the American dollar is stronger these days so your spending money goes further. There’s also less mark-up: BC’s provisional sales tax is 7 percent, and there’s a 5 percent goods and service tax, levied on any purchase from cannabis to birthday cards to souvenirs.
The 12 percent tax is still less than many states, especially Washington that charges more than 30 percent on cannabis purchases.
While medical marijuana prescriptions allow up to 150 grams per day to be purchased, the dispensaries seem to have a more lax approach to their sales.
“We don’t really have a set amount, but if someone bought more than one or two ounces on a regular basis, we’d probably stop selling to them,” said Bill.
When asked about what sort of medical prescription qualified a person to buy cannabis, employees at Cloud Nine and Trees Dispensary had similar answers. If a customer comes in for the first time and doesn’t have a prescription in hand, they work on the honor system. If a prescription is expired, it’s as good as one that isn’t.
Both employees explained that Victoria has so many dispensaries because it is served by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while the other neighboring province such as Saanich is served by the Central Saanich Police. Steve believes that the RCMP essentially looks the other way because they feel like pot is going to be federally legalized very soon.
“We’ve always been laid back in B.C. and Victoria. We are the Californians of Canada with a free spirit,” Steve said. “$10 per gram/all products,” Ed explained. “Come on in; we’re open 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.”