Article by Mike Smyth, The Province
Marijuana may be legal across Canada now, but B.C.’s newly formed pot police are still busy raiding illegal cannabis stores.
Officially known as the Community Safety Unit, the provincial pot squad is responsible for shutting down unlicensed marijuana merchants.
The year-old special police force is now ramping up its enforcement activities, swooping down on unlicensed cannabis stores and seizing pot, cash, computer records and even weapons.
“The goal is to shut down illegal stores,” said Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth, who revealed the unit has already staged 21 raids of unlicensed retailers.
The community safety unit has extraordinary powers to enter premises without a warrant and seize evidence.
Farnworth said his pot-police dragnet has already hauled in a heavy load of illegal dope and black-market loot.
“These unlicensed retailers are cash-only operations,” he said. “In one example, nearly half-a-million dollars in cash was taken. In another case, around $450,000 worth of cannabis products was seized. It’s pretty significant.”
Farnworth said his pot squad is trying to be fair and reasonable to black-market cannabis merchants as the province develops a network of legally licensed stores.
“There’s been plenty of warning,” he said. “In the first stage, unlicensed retailers are educated about the law, the penalties for compliance, and what can happen. That’s been quite effective.”
He said the unit’s 44 “special provincial constables” issued 217 separate warnings to unlicensed retailers.
“The impact was 69 of those locations shut down voluntarily. But there have been 21 others — so far — who don’t seem to get the concept of following the law and have had enforcement actions taken against them.”
Under the province’s Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, unlicensed retailers can face fines up to $100,000 or 12 months in prison, or both.
Farnworth said even higher penalties are possible based on the amount of illegal dope seized in raids.
“Administrative penalties can be up to twice the value of the product seized,” he said. “So in that case of $450,000 worth of cannabis, the unlicensed retailer not only loses the product, but could also face a fine of $900,000.”
There have been no fines or charges in the raids to date and investigations continue in co-operation with various police agencies around the province.
But some black-market retailers are not intimidated by the government’s aggressive actions.
High-profile cannabis activist Dana Larsen said his Medical Cannabis Dispensary near Thurlow and Davie streets was raided by the unit and Vancouver police in late October.
“They emptied the store of all the cannabis and left,” said Larsen. “It was a substantial amount, the equivalent of dozens of pounds, including edibles, extracts, suppositories, raw bud, hash. They took it all.”
He estimated the value of the seized cannabis at more than $100,000. But that didn’t stop him from quickly re-opening the store, which continues to operate.
“We re-stocked and were open again a few hours later, with a line-up of customers outside.”
Why is he defying the new pot police? He said it’s because his dispensary sells medical cannabis to sick people who need it.
“We operated for 10 years without a problem,” he said, adding the City of Vancouver earlier issued the dispensary a development permit and he has applied for a legal licence.
“The legal market is not providing adequate service,” he said. “The legal cannabis available is over-priced and often poor quality. Until the legal system improves, shutting down dispensaries at the point of a gun is not the way to go.”
But William MacLean, CEO of Wildflower Brands in Vancouver, said there should be an even tougher crackdown.
“We face unfair competition,” said MacLean, whose company owns four legally licensed City Cannabis stores. “We followed all the rules. We paid a $30,000 licensing fee per store, went through all background checks, got all our local business licences and permits. All our products are safe and legally sourced. Our staff are thoroughly trained.
“Yet we face competition from retailers who don’t want to follow the rules.”
MacLean said his legal stores have been directly targeted by illegal competitors.
“They intercept our customers,” he said. “We had an illegal shop send people over to our store to give away free joints right outside our front door. They said, ‘Don’t do business with this big corporation! They’re bad!’ That’s what we’re dealing with.
“It’s not fair, so of course the enforcement action is necessary.”
Cannabis lawyer Kirk Tousaw said the pot pioneers who fought for legal weed for decades are the ones being treated unfairly.