Canada: Province Plans To Aggressively Weed Out Illegal Pot Shops

Photo Credit: Arien Redekop

Don Briere bills himself as Canada’s largest storefront retailer of marijuana, a status that’s earned him a distinctly Canadian nickname: “The Tim Hortons of pot.”

There’s one glaring difference, of course. It’s not against the Criminal Code of Canada to sell coffee and doughnuts.

Briere’s stores — including his 12 across British Columbia — sell marijuana illegally.

So what will happen to his busy chain of Weeds Glass and Gifts outlets when the B.C. government opens its first legal marijuana stores later this year?

“It will be a competitive thing,” Briere told me. “It’s all about free enterprise, right?”

Wrong, actually. When the government starts opening its own pot shops, they’ll also launch an aggressive new effort to shut down Briere’s stores and the dozens of other illegal marijuana dispensaries across the province.

“The province will create a new community safety unit to deal with illegal sales outside of the provincial framework,” the Ministry of the Solicitor General said in a statement.

“Cannabis enforcement officers will be able to enter illegal cannabis retailers without a warrant and will be able to seize illegal product and records.”

But as the government steps up its efforts to shut down the illegal pot shops, the illegal stores are gearing up for their own fight to stay open.

Briere has already launched a constitutional court challenge against the City of Vancouver’s medical-marijuana dispensary regulations. Those bylaws say medical marijuana shops can’t operate within 300 metres of a school, recreation centre or another marijuana store.

None of Briere’s stores meets the requirements, which his lawyers argue breach constitutional guarantees to “life, liberty and security of the person.”

The constitutional case is set to be heard in the Supreme Court of B.C. this September.

But, by that time, legal pot will probably be a reality. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s federal government has promised to fully legalize recreational marijuana sales across the country by fall.

The licensing of legal retail stores will be the responsibility of the provincial government, which plans to open its first legal pot stores this year.

But Dean Davison, Briere’s lawyer, thinks the government is not being fair to existing marijuana dispensaries.

“I think it’s ridiculous and unreasonable,” Davison said. “They are taking a very aggressive stand with search-and-seizure without a warrant and very serious potential fines and imprisonment.

“You’re not giving people due process. I don’t think it would stand up in court.”

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) disagrees, noting B.C. liquor inspectors also have power to enter, search and seize illegal operations — all without a warrant — when there’s suspicion of booze infractions.

“So we don’t think that the B.C. approach to searching and seizing cannabis from unlicensed retailers is excessive, given its relative parity with how liquor is controlled,” said BCCLA staff lawyer Meghan McDermott.

I did my (jail) time, but now they’re still treating us like criminals

– Don Briere

But McDermott and Davison both worry authorities will go too far, especially when the threat of heavy fines and jail time hangs in the smoky air.

“Our concern about provincial enforcement is that it could be used as a back door for criminal sanctions,” McDermott said.

“If there is any prospect of enforcing criminal law against an unauthorized seller, we expect a warrant to be issued.”

As the lawyers argue the finer points of emerging marijuana law, the Tim Hortons of Pot just wants to keep selling his weed.

Couldn’t Briere just go straight, get a government licence and sell his marijuana legally?

He says he’d like to do that, but he has a criminal record for drug-related offences, which would likely disqualify him from getting a retail licence.

“I did hard time — I slept beside murderers,” Briere said. “I did my time, but now they’re still treating us like criminals.”

Briere and other marijuana merchants feel a sense of betrayal. They say they are the ones who fought for legal pot for decades, often ending up in jail as a result.

Now that their legal-marijuana victory is within reach, here comes the government swooping in to seize the pot profits, while threatening to send them back to prison.

“Of course, dispensaries will try to stay open,” said cannabis activist and dispensary operator Dana Larsen.

“As will delivery services, mail order and people selling cannabis everywhere it’s being sold now.”

Larsen points out the government is only planning to sell dried marijuana buds in its stores initially.

“Most of the stuff we carry in our dispensary is not being made legally available. Extracts, hash, edibles, suppositories, creams, capsules — none will be sold in government stores.”

In other words, the illegal stores will offer a greater variety of products, attracting a continuing customer base, and guaranteeing they will fight like hell to remain in business.