Be careful what you wish for.
Recreational cannabis sales begin on Oct. 17 in Canada, but in some ways the new law will make certain types of weed harder to get — legally at least — in places like Nelson, a city in eastern British Columbia, about three hours north of Spokane.
“Nelson has the reputation as the pot capital of Canada,” said Alex Thumm, a city planner. “It’s so culturally accepted here.”
Sales of medical marijuana have been legal in Canada since 2001. Nelson, a city of 10,000 and a popular tourist destination, supports six medical dispensaries.
During a visit in July, two of them, the Nelson Potorium and Leaf Cross Health Society, were doing brisk business, with a steady stream of customers walking in and out of their storefronts on Baker Street in the heart of the city.
When the new law goes into effect, both stores will see much of their current merchandise disappear.
Edibles, tinctures, topicals and some oils for vaping will no longer be available, at least initially.
Only flower can be legally purchased for smoking, but many of the craft cannabis producers in Nelson won’t be licensed when sales begin. Only 31 large-scale producers have been approved province-wide, and their product will be controlled and distributed by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch. Medical sales will continue.
In effect, legalization is bringing much more stringent regulation.
“Right now, we’re kind of like the Wild West,” said Cora, a manager at Leaf Cross who asked that her last name not be used. (“We’ve heard all kinds of stories about people being stopped at the U.S. border because of their involvement in cannabis,” she said. “It’s not worth the risk to let you use my name.”)
Cora said that the new legal recreational weed law is causing major concerns among clients, and uncertainty reigns.
“It’s kind of like one step forward and two steps back,” she said.
Medical dispensaries primarily serve an older clientele of walk-in customers who come to ask for advice.
“I was quite surprised when I opened my store how many people came in with a legitimate medical need,” said Chris Campbell, owner of the Nelson Potorium. “They weren’t faking symptoms — they needed help.”
“Our clients are very worried about not being able to get what they want.”
People with prescriptions for marijuana will still be able to order it online and have it mailed, but that leaves out the personal touch clients get when they visit a shop.
Another question mark is the quality and quantity of flower that will be available once legal recreational sales begin. Many of the craft/micro-growers in Nelson won’t be licensed initially, and the product being distributed by the B.C. Liquor Distribution Agency might not be as good, Campbell said.
“Nelson is well known for our fantastic quality of pot,” she said. If the quality of weed distributed by the liquor agency doesn’t match up, the effect will be to push people to get what they want illegally.
“The black market is going to be able to thrive until legal sales catch up,” Campbell said.
Another concern for Campbell was the inability to produce craft products in a farm-to-table style through “vertical integration,” she said. Her store currently creates some of its own products made from locally-grown weed. This officially needs to go away once legal recreational sales begin.
“I would hope the government would eventually allow us to do vertical integration,” she said.
Nelson’s medical dispensaries are concerned that sales will actually decline after the recreational sales begin.
“I expect my business will take a bit of a hit,” Campbell said.
Over the summer, regulation came in other ways. The city of Nelson was busy discussing zoning laws for legal recreational marijuana storefronts, and after surveying citizens, the city decided to limit legal sales to five businesses, Thumm said.
“Our city probably can’t support 20 retail outlets,” he said. Residents who responded to the survey wanted to keep the legal sales on a small scale.
While there was some concern that demand would outstrip supply for legal weed, Thumm expects people to turn to growing their own once the recreational law takes effect.
“You’re allowed to grow up to four plants yourself under the new law, so that might reduce demand initially,” he said.
In the end, many questions remained unanswered as recreational sales draw near.
“We can get through it,” Campbell said. “I realize it’s going to take some time. It’s a big country.”
Actually, yes. Quite a lot of it.
In between both countries is a strong presence from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which, until federal law changes, continues to see marijuana as a substance as dangerous and illegal as heroin and LSD, regardless of laws of any state or neighboring countries.
Possession could earn everything from a citation and confiscation to arrest. Depending on circumstances and quantities, conviction on charges of delivery or possession of cannabis or paraphernalia can lead to significant fines and jail time.
U.S. authorities will also be monitoring drivers coming south for possibly being under the influence of cannabis or alcohol, a crime that also carries significant legal penalties.
Beyond having cannabis products in your car or suitcase, traveling for cannabis-related activity could also raise legal red flags, including saying that you’re heading north to get weed, or returning with some purchased legally.
U.S. citizens returning south can’t be denied entry because of cannabis possession, but non-citizen U.S. residents could potentially face deportation. Even admitting to having used cannabis in the past could affect future applications for legal or permanent residency.
Canadian residents telling U.S. authorities that they’ve used any amount of marijuana in the past can also be banned entry into the U.S. temporarily or even permanently. They do have the option of paying $585 for a waiver for travel purposes, but this must be renewed every time they come south.
Now that cannabis is legal in Canada, as of Oct. 17, Canadian authorities likely will be focusing more on U.S. residents trying to bring firearms north illegally, but could potentially block entry if an American tries to bring in unlicensed cannabis.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.