New Brunswick

'We got screwed': Former weed dispensary worker speaks out

$10/hour. 60 hours a week. No benefits. 15 months of court dates.

No conviction for former HBB Medical worker in Saint John, but 15 months of uncertainty have taken a toll

William Caines in front of the now-closed Chesley Drive storefront of HBB Medical, where he worked until the dispensary was raided in January 2017. Since then, he's had to deal with a year and a half of court appearances and lawyer's bills, he said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

William Caines doesn't have a criminal record. But he still dreads potential employers asking for a criminal record check.

He's one of 12 workers charged in raids on Saint John cannabis dispensaries in January. 

When the results reveal to potential bosses he has a court date coming up, "they're like, is this guy a pedophile, is this guy a killer, what is he?" said Caines.

"It's been really hard getting work."

William Caines, second from left, poses with fellow dispensary workers John Albert and Kyle Owens and owner Hank Merchant. (CBC)

Caines hopes that's going to change soon. 

In Saint John provincial court Tuesday, Judge Andrew Palmer granted him an absolute discharge for possession for the purpose of trafficking, which will remain on his record for one year.

He's the eighth Saint John dispensary worker to receive such a discharge, which means his record will be clear after a year as long as he stays out of trouble. 

It's a happy ending after 15 months of uncertainty, half a dozen court dates, and lawyer's bills piling up.

"There wasn't a day that I wasn't thinking about it," he said.

According to Caines, he and other minimum-wage workers took the fall for HBB Medical's legally questionable business practices — while the business pulled in as much as $10,000 a day.

'There was nothing I wouldn't do'

When he first started as a budtender at HBB in Oct. 2017, Caines said, he thought he'd found his dream job.

After a lifetime of relatively thankless minimum-wage gigs — as a security guard, at Sobeys, in call centres — helping patients at the dispensary "made me feel really rewarded," Caines said.

He found he had a knack for listening to people and enjoyed customer service.

"Some patients would come back and say, 'Thank you so much for the medicine you recommended to me. It helped me so much,'" said Caines, who uses medical cannabis to treat his ADHD.   

The storefront of HBB Medical on Chesley Drive, where Caines worked for four months before the shop was raided. (Matthew Bingley/CBC)

Despite the $10 an hour pay and no benefits, he still regularly pulled 60-hour weeks at the store.

There was no lack of work. From the time it opened, the dispensary was "always busy" with customers ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, he said.

Some days, the dispensary would do as much as $11,000 in business, although a regular day was "anywhere from four to six [thousand]." 

I thought someone was pulling a prank on us and we were all going to start laughing at some point. But very quickly I realized no, this is real.- William Caines, former dispensary worker

He considered his boss, CEO Hank Merchant, a friend.

"There was nothing I wouldn't do for that guy," he said. "I thought I could trust him."

That trust, Caines said, led him to believe Merchant's assurances the store was "100 per cent legal."

"Their main location had been up and running a full year," he said Merchant told him. "It hadn't been shut down … and you aren't selling to anyone that does not have a medical licence."

Also comforting were the assurances of then-Saint John police Chief John Bates that the department had "bigger fish to fry" than cannabis dispensaries.

Medical cannabis dispensaries weren't a top priority for police compared with other crime and social issues in Saint John, police Chief John Bates said in a September 2016 interview. Twelve people were arrested in raids five months later. (CBC)

Before he started the job, Caines went in person to Saint John police headquarters with a letter stating he planned to work for HBB Medical and requesting a police record check, which they provided, no questions asked. 

"When you have to do a criminal record check for a place, you kind of assume the place is legal," Caines said.

"It seemed like it was a legitimate business."

Thought raid was a prank

That, as it turned out, wasn't the case.

People with medical marijuana prescriptions can only purchase the pot from producers licensed by the federal government.  The raided dispensaries weren't licensed.

Caines had been working for four months at HBB Medical on Chesley Drive when three uniformed police officers showed up at the door on Jan. 24.

"They pointed at me and said, 'You're under arrest,'" Caines said, who was handcuffed along with another worker.

"It was really scary for me,' Caines said. "To be honest I thought someone was pulling a prank on us and we were all going to start laughing at some point. But very quickly I realized no, this is real."

After the raid, Merchant promised Caines a new, legal job at a "research facility" on Rothesay Avenue — but after keeping him waiting for months, informed him the only job available was actually at another dispensary.

HBB Medical CEO Hank Merchant declined to comment on Caines' statements, other than to say he had “parted company” with Caines and they are “no longer on speaking terms.” (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I can't work at another dispensary, I already have charges," Caines said he told Merchant.  

He and other employees, Caines said, were also promised a one per cent commission on their sales — but the cheque never came.

"We got screwed pretty hard," he said.  

HBB Medical CEO Hank Merchant declined to comment other than to say he had "parted company" with Caines and they are "no longer on speaking terms."

One of Merchant's dispensaries in Fredericton has since closed, although its Saint John location remains open. Hank Merchant and his sons, Brock and Bowe Merchant, have filed for bankruptcy.

Moving forward

Caines is looking forward to closing the HBB Medical chapter in his life. 

"This is something that has been causing me a lot of stress," he said.

He's looking at other employment options, including making use of his NBCC certification as a gas technician.

He hopes the outcome in court is similarly favourable for three other dispensary employees — Lance Kangos, Sarah Kirbyson, and Michael Scheerschmidt — who worked at different dispensaries but were arrested in the same series of raids. They're scheduled to appear in court Aug. 15.

Some of the Saint John workers scheduled to appear in court in August were employed at King Canna, a Germain Street dispensary. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

"That's what everyone really should be getting: an absolute discharge," he said. "We were all store workers making minimum wage."

Despite everything that's happened, he said, he still sees cannabis as "a good medicine." Someday, he hopes he can get a job in the legal cannabis industry. 

"I'm not going to say that cannabis would help everyone in the world," he said.

"[But] I've seen it help a lot of people. It's saved a lot of lives."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a born and raised Saint Johner, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.