(Canadian Press)

One month after legalization, illicit cannabis shops doing brisk business

When asked what has changed since Canada legalized on Oct. 17, one staffer said: “We’re just busier.”

The three surveillance cameras and the steady flow of people in and out of the small, nondescript grey building are the only hint of the brisk business this downtown Toronto cannabis dispensary does behind closed doors.

Once inside, two men behind a white desk under a vintage chandelier ask patrons to provide government identification and fill out a membership form. Then, customers are allowed to enter another room through a steel door, where an array of pot products are on display in a glass case.

When asked what has changed since Canada legalized on Oct. 17, one staffer said: “We’re just busier.”

Among the many shoppers on Thursday, a fourth-year university student said he preferred to buy from this dispensary to avoid the delivery problems that bedevil the provincial cannabis store. Also, he didn’t want the transaction to appear in his banking records.

READ MORE: Early data suggests no spike in pot-impaired driving after legalization

“It’s just too much of a hassle… it’s all about convenience for me,” he said.

It’s been nearly a month since recreational pot was legalized across Canada, and despite raids by local police departments and government warnings to illegal pot shop operators to shutter their doors or face consequences, the black market continues on.

Product shortages, delivery delays and other problems plaguing the roll-out have not helped, said Martin Landry, an analyst with GMP Securities.

“It hasn’t been perfect… And probably as a result the shift away from the black market has not happened as fast as most expected. But I think that’s short term.”

Canada legalized cannabis for recreational use on Oct. 17 with the elimination of the black market as one of the Liberal government’s main goals.

READ MORE: Pot sales down by nearly 70% on second day of legalization in B.C.

There was little expectation that it would disappear quickly, as the illicit market has survived in U.S. states like Colorado and Oregon years after legalizing recreational pot.

Statistics Canada estimates that during the fourth-quarter of this year there will be 5.4 million people wanting to purchase legal cannabis and 1.7 million continuing to buy illicit pot across Canada. Spending on pot during that period may range from $816 million to $1.1 billion while purchases of illegal cannabis may range from $254 million to $317 million, the agency estimates.

But getting users to switch from illegal sources hinges, in part, on whether the legal offering is a competitive one.

Meanwhile, in addition to limited amounts of legal pot products, cannabis-infused edibles are prohibited from sale until 2019.

In Ontario, where privately run brick-and-mortar cannabis stores won’t be ready until next April, and British Columbia, which has just one government-run pot store, illicit shops continue to draw in clientele.

READ MORE: POLL – will legalization change your habits?

The Weeds Glass and Gifts stores in Vancouver are “hyper busy right now,” said its owner Don Briere.

His chain of stores in Vancouver are benefiting from the closures of other illicit dispensaries but also because B.C.’s lone legal store is located more than 350 kilometres away in Kamloops, B.C.

“How are you going to service five million people in British Columbia with one store that is nowhere near the population centre?” Briere said in an interview.

Briere shut down nine of his shops across the country but is servicing clients online and keeping his four Vancouver shops open while awaiting the outcome of ongoing litigation. Other dispensaries have also decided to keep their doors open while waiting for their license applications to be processed.

Still, the stiffer penalties under the Cannabis act As of Oct. 17, which include a first offence fine of up to $250,000 and imprisonment of as much as six months, coupled with the potential to be blacklisted from pursuing legal retail options have prompted several to shut down.

For example, the Green Room Society Dispensary on Spadina Avenue in Toronto has white paper covering up the glass windows and door. In the window, written on the paper in black marker it says: “Come say high on April 1st.”

READ MORE: B.C. ‘will be ready’ for marijuana legalization

The Ontario government warned in the days before legalization that black market operators must shut down or risk being barred from ever obtaining a legal retail license under the province’s private system.

Landlords in Ontario also face hefty fines for allowing illicit dispensaries to operate on their properties, putting further pressure on owners to close up shop, said Matt Maurer, a partner at Torkin Manes and vice-chair of the firm’s cannabis law group.

Others across the country have been forcibly compelled by law enforcement to shut their operations down.

In Port Alberni, B.C., the Royal Canadian Mounted Police raided two pot shops on legalization day for not having provincial licenses. A day later, police and inspectors from Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corp. raided a dispensary in St. John’s.

There were 92 illegal cannabis storefronts in Toronto on Oct. 16, prior to legalization, according to Bruce Hawkins, a spokesman for the city’s municipal licensing and standards department. That number has been whittled down to 21, as of Nov. 6, due to shutdowns of their own accord or by the city and police, he added.

Maurer has been approached in the year leading up to legalization and afterwards by dispensary owners seeking a license to operate a legitimate cannabis business, as the risk of being an illicit operator is heightened, he said.

Post-legalization, the provincial and territorial governments have a vested interest in shutting illegal pot shops down, he said.

“Every sale at an illegal dispensary is another dollar not going to the provincial government,” Maurer said. “So why would they tolerate that any further?”

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

B.C. BUDGET: Surplus $374 million after bailouts of BC Hydro, ICBC

Growth projected stronger in 2020, Finance Minister Carole James says

Province announces $100-million grant funding for Northwest communities

The Northern Capital and Planning Grant will go to four regional districts and 22 municipalities

LNG Canada sponsors driver’s license training in Terrace, Kitimat

The $80,000 contribution is part of the company’s commitment to hire locally

Prince Rupert Gas Transmission project searches for partners

TransCanada is renewing permits for its natural gas pipeline project to North Coast.

Coastal GasLink stops work to investigate archaeological find

OGC archaeologists are en route to the Houston-area site where Unist’ot’en report finding stone tools

Students give two thumbs up to no more B.C. student loan interest

Eliminating the loan interest charges could save the average graduate $2,300 over 10 years

Ontario man accused of killing 11-year-old daughter dies in hospital, police say

Roopesh Rajkumar had been hospitalized with what police described as a self-inflicted gunshot wound

Manitoba ‘pauses’ link with ex-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell after allegations

Campbell had been hired to review two major hydro projects

Heritage minute features Japanese-Canadian baseball team, internment

The Vancouver Asahi baseball team won various championships across the Pacific Northwest

UPDATE: Woman, off-duty cop in critical condition after stabbing outside B.C. elementary school

The officer was interceding in an alleged assault when he and the woman were stabbed

$10-a-day child care not in 2019 budget, but advocate not irked

Sharon Gregson with the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of B.C. says NDP on track to deliver promise

B.C. Seniors Advocate questions labour shortage in care homes

Are there really no workers, or are care aide wages too low?

B.C. business groups worry about looming economic decline in wake of NDP budget

The party’s second government budget focused on plenty of spending, business advocates say

Missing Surrey snowshoer caught in avalanche found dead on Vancouver mountain

North Shore Rescue resumed its search today after efforts were temporarily halted Tuesday due to snowstorm

Most Read