Legal confusion creates seeds of doubt for head-shop owner seeking pot licence

An Edmonton head-shop owner is worried her application for a retail cannabis licence could be in jeopardy because of confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis seeds — a product she has sold for years.

A product sold for years in some head shops could now prevent owners from getting retail cannabis licences

An Edmonton head-shop owner is worried that her history of selling cannabis seeds could keep her from being approved for a licence to sell legal marijuana. (CBC)

An Edmonton head-shop owner is worried her application for a retail cannabis licence could be in jeopardy because of confusion surrounding the legality of cannabis seeds — a product she has sold for years.

Tracy Houtstra owns a Jupiter store in west Edmonton. For almost five years she has sold products such as bongs, vaporizers, rolling papers, lotions, cannabis seeds and salves containing cannabidiol (CBD).

Houtstra is in the process of applying for a retail cannabis licence from the Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which would allow her to legally sell cannabis starting Oct. 17. During a meeting with the commission on Aug. 21, an AGLC employee showed her photos he had taken of the cannabis seeds in her store.

He asked if she was selling them, and she confirmed she was. Houtstra said the man told her he would get back to her about whether her application would be accepted. Now, she's worried that the AGLC thinks she has been selling illegal products, which could result in her application being denied. 

She said she thought the seeds were legal to sell — they were included in a line of products she was encouraged by head office to supply. Concerned about the status of her licence application, she has since pulled the seeds from her shelves.

"The whole system is, pardon my language, ass backwards," Houtstra said.

"It was OK for me to apply, it was OK for them to take my $3,000 in applications to get this far. I hired an architect, I had my store looked at, I've started making plans to do further renovations. Then they have this interview and then they tell me I might not get a licence because of this.

"They did [say] your application could be denied because of this action. I was beyond irritated, I was mad."

Legal or illegal?

According to the Edmonton Police Service, there are no charges under the Criminal Code that apply to cannabis seeds.

CBD oil or other products are illegal in any quantity or concentration without a prescription. Several dispensaries in the city were shut down earlier this year and charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking related to CBD, said EPS spokeswoman Cheryl Voordenhout. 
Tracy Houtstra has been selling cannabis seeds and CBD-infused creams and lotions at her west-end head shop for almost five years. (Google Maps)

Edmonton police might not lay charges for possession of cannabis seeds. But "non–viable cannabis seed, with the exception of its derivatives" are included under Schedule II of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, making them illegal to possess or sell.

According to the AGLC, anyone who has participated in the illegal sale of cannabis will not be eligible for a retail cannabis licence.

Spokeswoman Heather Holmen could not say whether cannabis seeds are currently illegal or whether head shops selling cannabis seeds would be denied retail cannabis licences. She also could not comment on individual applications, but said of almost 800 applications received so far, none are on hold.

The commission said earlier this year it expected to issue 250 licences across the province in the first year of legalization.

Holmen said the AGLC is working under the framework of the current federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in approving licences. 

'I basically exist in this huge grey area'

Houtstra said her situation highlights the confusion among various levels of law enforcement and government as to what is currently legal.

She said other Jupiter locations, as well as many head shops in Alberta, sell CBD products and cannabis seeds. If that poses a hurdle to obtaining a retail cannabis licence in advance of legalization, she wondered how those already working in the cannabis accessory industry will have a chance in the legal market. 

She said she has never had any complaints, police visits or legal issues about products she sells in her store. 

If the AGLC denies retail licences to all shops selling seeds or CBD creams, mom and pop pot shops and the experienced staff running them will be eliminated from the legal market before they have a chance, she said.

All of it is just one more hurdle ... that they put in the way of small business.- Tracy Houtstra

"I basically exist in this huge grey area. I got a licence from the city, henceforth thinking if you get a licence you're not doing anything illegal. I followed what head office said, including selling seeds and CBD products," she said.

Head shops are already finding it difficult to compete with licensed producers, which are giving away vaporizers and other paraphernalia to clients with prescriptions, Houtstra said.

Come October, why would a client go to an unlicensed head shop for a vaporizer, Houtstra wondered, when they could buy one at a licensed cannabis retailer, and purchase some cannabis at the same time?​

"All of it is just one more hurdle ... that they put in the way of small business. I'm not a liquor store line that has millions of dollars behind me. AGLC said, 'Oh yes, we're very interested in having mom and pop kind of ... stores, as well as these large corporate chains,'" Hourstra said.

"But yet it doesn't seem like they're that eager to make it easy for us."