Selena Holder-Zirbser wasn’t even supposed to be working on the day she got arrested.
Holder-Zirbser, 21, had picked up a shift at the Green Tree dispensary on Ottawa’s Rideau Street, where she’d recently become a keyholder. It was a foggy Friday morning last November, and she immediately had a lineup of customers to purchase dried bud, brownies, and extracts such as shatter.
Then, without warning at around 10 AM, five men in ski masks entered the store, she said.
“I thought I was gonna get robbed,” Holder-Zirbser told VICE. “I was like, ‘Oh my god this is not gonna happen to me.’” Instead, the men announced they were cops and that they had a search warrant. Another five cops came in and began taking customers’ IDs and writing down their names, she said. Two uniformed officers slapped cuffs on Holder-Zirbser; she was later charged with ten counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking and one count of possession of the proceeds of crime.
Ottawa police raided six dispensaries that day, including three Green Trees, two WeeMedicals, and one CannaGreen—all believed to be run by the same owners. Holder-Zirbser and at least eight other low-level employees were hauled off to holding cells, where they were detained for up to 12 hours. Although they knew they were in trouble, the ones who spoke to VICE said at first they weren’t particularly scared.
Their boss, a domineering man named Robert Clarke, 34, and other managers assured them the company would set them up with lawyers and pay them a “bonus” for their troubles, they told VICE. Messages in the WhatsApp group chat Green Tree workers and managers used to communicate, viewed by VICE, said things like, “everything is going to be okay” and “this is nothing new too (sic) us we have been raided over 15 times an (sic) are still the biggest chain out there.” Most of the raided shops were back up and running within a couple weeks.
But after being released, Holder-Zirbser and other employees who were arrested while working for the dispensary chain told VICE they were kicked out of the WhatsApp group, and shunned by management without being paid the outstanding wages owed to them. They were never provided with lawyers. Meanwhile, they said each dispensary pulled in anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 a day.
“After three weeks I just gave up because it was clear they weren’t going to help us at all,” said Holder-Zirbser, who is petite with a curtain of dark brown hair, and multiple tattoos and piercings. A little over a month ago, she pleaded guilty to one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking (the other charges were dropped), and is now awaiting her sentence.
At first, getting paid $12 an hour to weigh and sell weed seemed like an easy way for Holder-Zirbser and her colleagues to make some cash. But the dream quickly soured, leaving them broke and facing serious legal repercussions that could prevent them from finishing school and finding gainful employment.
Five months ago, VICE began investigating Green Tree/WeeMedical workers’ allegations that they were exploited by their former employers. Their allegations were serious—they claimed they were overworked, underpaid, bullied by Clarke, pressured to sell moldy weed, forbidden from calling the cops when they were robbed, forced to work without heat in winter, and abandoned when they were arrested. But it soon became clear there were many other factors at play—secretive owners, alleged safehouses, armed robberies, connections to organized crime, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
As Canada awaits legalization in 2018, these stories demonstrate how the unregulated nature of pot dispensaries leaves young workers ripe for exploitation while their bosses rake in small fortunes.