'Green rush' sees wave of pot shops popping up in Nelson, B.C.

In the absence of clear federal direction the marijuana dispensary boom that Vancouver is grappling with has moved to B.C.'s interior, including Nelson.

Vancouver's pot shop boom is spreading with as many as 8 new stores opening for business in Nelson recently

Howie Ross, part owner of Leaf Health (Bob Keating/CBC)

Call it a 'green rush'.

In the absence of clear federal direction, the marijuana dispensary boom that Vancouver is grappling with has now moved to B.C.'s interior.

In Nelson, so many dispensaries have opened in the last few weeks that Nelson city police and city hall record different numbers — the police count seven shops, while city officials say there are eight.

As many as 8 pot shops have opened in Nelson recently. (www.nelsonkootenaylake.com)

Nelson — population 10,000 — has a long history with the illegal, underground pot economy, but now that economy has moved above-ground. This month two new dispensaries opened on Baker Street, the city's main drag.

'Feels like the Wild West'

"We're really anxious about the federal government moving on regulating the product,'" said Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak. "Right now it certainly feels like the Wild West."

Howie Ross is part owner of one of the new pot shops, and insists his dispensary — the Leaf Health Society —  is a medical service. Ross said he did everything by the book, including getting a business licence to run a wellness centre in addition to meeting with police and city councillors. 

(Bob Keating/CBC)

"Our goal is to do everything as above-board as possible. We've spent months talking to Nelson city police and their biggest concern is that there is no gang activity and we don't sell to youth. That's easy for us."

Ross said he's been surprised by who his customers are.

"If I were to break it down I would say at least 50 per cent of our people are 60 and over, looking for pain relief."

Nelson police spokesperson Nate Holt said the department sent an undercover member into the Leaf Health Society and other dispensaries to see if pot could be bought without a doctor's note or Health Canada card. Holt said the officer was refused marijuana.

As a result police have decided to deal with Nelson's bud boom on a complaint basis.

Selling pot over the counter is still technically illegal in Canada — it is supposed to be grown by licensed growers and sent by mail. But the law is widely ignored, especially in B.C.

"We used to have legislation we could point to in the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act which specifically says it is illegal to sell this substance," said Holt. "However recent case law has said that we kind of wait to see if that is going to be the trend, or legislation that is in place."

How many will survive?

Whether all of Nelson's dispensaries can survive in a small city is anybody's guess.

Dr. Michael Smith, who works with all of the stores helping customers get access to marijuana, said most shops have plenty of orders outside Nelson.

"Right now over 50 per cent of people getting their medical licence or card are actually from outside British Columbia because 'left coast' or whatever you want to call it — we are more progressive with these kinds of choices," said Smith.

Still, B.C. has developed into an uneven patchwork of tolerance and regulation in dealing with dispensaries and compassion clubs. 

Vancouver's dispensary scene has exploded and the city has moved in to regulate it. Richmond, right next door, has almost no medical marijuana presence at all. 

Nelson now has more than a half a dozen dispensaries while neighbouring Castlegar has none.