'It's not working': Why some weed dispensaries are staying open
As government-operated stores struggle, dispensaries step up, lawyer says
The provincial government is pretty clear on its website: Cannabis NB is "the only legal retailer of cannabis."
But you wouldn't know that from the steady stream of consumers filtering in and out of King Canna, a Saint John medical dispensary on a lunch hour in January — three months after New Brunswick launched its government monopoly on cannabis sales.
Raided by police twice in 2017 — and quickly reopened — in 2019, it's busier on a weekday afternoon than some Cannabis NB locations.
Squeezing out the black market is the "main goal" of the provincial cannabis authority, then-premier Brian Gallant said in October, a sentiment echoed by Cannabis NB president Brian Harriman.
But King Canna, a British Columbia chain of medicinal cannabis shops founded in 2015, also has locations in Fredericton and Moncton, all of which have remained open since Oct. 17.
In addition to dispensaries like King Canna, other new businesses are opening with the aim of assisting patients with access to medical cannabis.
On Jan. 14, Canada House Wellness Group Inc. announced plans to open a clinic in Fredericton that doesn't dispense cannabis — but facilitates patients ordering from a licensed producer.
How are they still open?
New Brunswick's government-run retail model has been plagued by significant product shortages
"Those major hiccups are one of the reasons that medical cannabis dispensaries continue to exist," said lawyer Jack Lloyd, whose practice is focused on cannabis and has represented dispensary workers in New Brunswick.
Medical dispensaries — which the federal government doesn't recognize as legal — require first-timers to present a doctor's prescription. If they don't have one, the dispensary arranges a free Skype consultation with a medical practitioner.
Currently, the only legal way to receive medical cannabis under Health Canada's regulations is by mail — ordered from a licensed producer and delivered directly to the patient.
At a medical dispensary, after receiving a doctor's recommendation, the patient can then buy edibles, dried flower, or concentrates from the members-only sales counter.
According to Lloyd, a legal argument that could be made in defence of medical dispensaries is that affordable access to medicine is a constitutionally protected right.
"Patients can't rely on the government access program because the federally licensed producers — the people that grow the cannabis — keep running out," he said. "They're not producing enough."
"As a result, patients are left without access to their medicine, and recreational users … are purchasing and consuming all the recreational cannabis."
Lloyd said medical dispensaries are an act of necessarily "civil disobedience"
"The government is attempting to assert a monopoly over their medicine, and ... it's not working," said Lloyd.
Lawyer John Conroy, who has worked on cannabis cases for over four decades, agreed.
"Most of the police I talk to don't want to violate the constitutional rights of the medical patients, Conroy said.
Cpl. Jullie Rogers-Marsh of the Codiac Regional RCMP said the law in New Brunswick is clear.
"The only way to obtain legal marijuana is to purchase it from licensed producers," she said.
"Businesses or individuals operating in contravention of the law may be investigated and could be charged."
Chocolate bars, gummies
Private medical dispensaries have a few advantages over Cannabis NB.
Federal regulations still don't provide for the sale of edibles, but medical dispensaries are still selling THC-infused cookies, gummies, chocolate bars, and other goodies in attractive, sealed packaging with dosage information and calorie counts.
"Medically approved patients can possess cannabis in any of its forms," said Conroy.
Edibles aren't the only products that aren't available at Cannabis NB.
Of the approximately 70 cannabis products listed for sale by the retailer, including dried flower, extracts, seeds and pre-rolled joints, more than 60 percent were sold out in all 20 retail locations.
While additional products are available for purchase via Cannabis NB's website, online can take several days, costs an additional $7 for home delivery and requires a credit card.
By contrast, medical dispensaries provide instant access to a wide range of products — and prices that can beat Cannabis NB on a per-gram basis.
On Dec. 20, 2018, federal Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien cautioned Canadian consumers that using a credit card to buy cannabis could put their personal information at risk.
'Cocaine versus cannabis'
Arguments in favour of medical dispensaries aside — "these types of businesses are not forgotten" by law enforcement, said acting Insp. David Brooker of the Saint John Police Department.
Like the Codiac RCMP and Fredericton Police, the Saint John police will investigate any complaints against cannabis dispensaries on their merits.
That being said, according to Brooker, police "need to work in accordance with our operational priorities."
Patients can't rely on the government access program because the federally licensed producers — the people that grow the cannabis —keep running out. They're not producing enough.- Jack Lloyd, cannabis lawyer
"We just completed a major cocaine investigation," he said. "We need to weigh cocaine versus cannabis, and [we only have] so many resources."
If a complaint is made against a dispensary, the shop will be " investigated for its merit and what they represent, and if it's found that it violates the Cannabis Act there could be charges."
Another option, said Lloyd, is to license and regulate the shops, as Ontario is currently in the process of doing.
"We don't understand why the government wants to continue the black market," Conroy said.
"They say out of one side of their mouths that they're trying to get rid of the black market and then they come up with rules that are ridiculous — and don't address what's going on."
- A previous version suggested Canada House Wellness Group Inc. planned to open a medical cannabis dispensary in Fredericton. In fact, Canada House plans to open a clinic that assists patients with accessing medical cannabis.Jan 21, 2019 8:59 AM AT