Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Oct. 17 'scariest day of the year' for N.S. dispensaries desperate to stay open

A CBC News Investigation went inside Nova Scotia dispensaries to see how they plan to deal with legalization, and found there's a great deal of uncertainty and fear. But there's also an unwillingness among some to simply roll over and shut down.

A CBC News Investigation takes you inside illegal dispensaries as Canada prepares to legalize marijuana

Medical patients gathered at Higher Living in Dartmouth last week to share their frustrations about legalization. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

October 17 is the day recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada, but at Heidi Chartrand's dispensary in Dartmouth, N.S., it goes by another name: Doomsday.

"That is the scariest day of the year," said the owner of Higher Living, a dispensary on Wyse Road that, until recently, sold marijuana to medical patients.

When CBC News visited the dispensary last week, people were packed into the small space, sprawled on couches and chairs consuming cannabis in its many forms under a thick layer of smoke. On the wall, a neon sign read, "Save Our Dispensaries."

Heidi Chartrand said she's worried about medical users in rural areas of Nova Scotia that have already lost their dispensaries. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

Two weeks ago, Higher Living's Greenwood location was raided by the RCMP as part of a crackdown on illegal dispensaries in Annapolis and Kings counties. Chartrand spent a weekend in jail and as part of her bail conditions, can't sell cannabis at her Dartmouth storefront.

Dispensaries like Chartrand's are illegal even if they only sell to patients with medical licences. They will still be illegal two weeks from now when a dozen Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. stores begin selling recreational cannabis.

But the risks will be greater.

Dispensaries that continue to stay open after Oct. 17 could be slapped with steeper fines — as much as $25,000 a day — and operators could face up to 14 years in jail.

Chartrand spent a weekend in jail in September after her Greenwood location was raided. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

A CBC News investigation went inside Nova Scotia dispensaries to see how they plan to deal with legalization, and found there's a great deal of uncertainty and fear. But there's also an unwillingness among some to simply roll over and shut down.

"There's too many patients that are too angry right now for this just to go away," said Chartrand, "and the less access we have, the sicker we're going to get, the angrier we're going to get."

Step inside Nova Scotia's dispensaries

CBC News contacted or tried to contact 34 dispensaries by phone or email, and visited a handful of storefronts in Halifax, Truro and Antigonish.

It soon became clear the province's dispensaries come in all shapes and sizes.

Visit Canna Clinic on Dresden Row in the middle of the afternoon, and it feels more like a nightclub, complete with a bouncer asking for ID and a roped pathway leading to a counter.

Canna Clinic declined to be interviewed and asked a CBC reporter to leave. (Angela MacIvor/CBC)

Not far away, on Quinpool Road, Chronic Releaf Medical Dispensary has set up shop in a former all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant. It opened a month and a half ago. The only accents in the large, mostly bare room are a flat-screen TV and an ATM machine, a feature of many dispensaries that accept cash only.

When CBC News asked one employee why they decided to open so close to legalization, he rubbed his fingers together indicating it's all about the money.

Remedy, also on Quinpool Road, opened last year and is going for a very different vibe. A young woman stood behind a glass counter, surrounded by colourful bongs and other paraphernalia as soft music played from the speakers.

Nicole Brown opened Maritime Medicinal in Truro last summer. (Submitted by Nicole Brown)

Business is booming at Remedy. They plan to stay open as long as possible after Oct. 17, but the woman said she's also afraid every day she comes to work.

She never knows if the store will be raided, although she doesn't like to use the "R-word," an unlucky utterance that elicits a quick knock on the wooden counter behind her.

We'll be here for our patients and we stand with them in this fight.- Nicole Brown, Maritime Medicinal 

In Truro, Maritime Medicinal is one of two remaining dispensaries in town. Some rural communities no longer have dispensaries because they've been raided or shut down on their own.

On the front door, a large sign warns would-be customers without a medical licence to not even bother. Even though the province says all dispensaries are illegal, owner Nicole Brown insists the medical-only stores are different.

The dispensary says it only sells to medical users, and requires a prescription from a doctor and photo ID. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Brown said she has no intention of closing down on Oct. 17.

"We'll be here for our patients and we stand with them in this fight. I don't want to lay down because there's so many people depending on us," she said.

Dispensaries vs NSLC

People like Chartrand and Brown insist dispensaries are the best way for medical patients, many of whom suffer from chronic pain, to access cannabis.

They say dispensary employees know what strains work best for different ailments and can talk to patients about alternatives to smoking.

The NSLC will sell dried flowers, pre-rolled joints, gel caps, oils and seeds because edibles won't be legal in Canada until at least 2019.

The NSLC store on Joseph Howe Drive in Halifax is seen under renovation in May. Twelve locations across the province will begin selling recreational marijuana on Oct. 17. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Many medical patients say they won't step foot into an NSLC. They argue that selling cannabis alongside alcohol prohibits people battling alcohol addiction from getting what they need.

In Canada, the only way for medical patients to legally access cannabis is to grow their own, designate someone else to grow it for them, or buy online through Health Canada's licensed producer program.

Under Canada's new Cannabis Act, this medical regime won't immediately change.

Gisele Lauzier said she tried that route but it didn't work for her. She doesn't smoke marijuana but ingests it in capsule form and through an oil mixture.

Gisele Lauzier has cancer and says dispensaries are the best place for her to access her medication. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

She said ordering online was too expensive and she never knew what would work best for her. That confusion disappeared the moment she walked into a dispensary.

"I'm just a cancer patient that needs access to cannabis through dispensaries," Lauzier said. "I came here the first time to learn how to make cannabutter [cannabis-infused butter] so I could make edibles and different ways to be able to consume cannabis without smoking it or dabbing it."

Justice minister responds

Brown is holding out hope that someday a few dispensaries will be allowed to operate alongside NSLC locations.

But Justice Minister Mark Furey is adamant that won't happen.

"The same circumstances will exist on the 17th of October going forward as they do today. Illegal cannabis storefronts are just that — they're illegal. Some have suggested there is a grey area here. There is no grey area," he said.

Justice Minister Mark Furey says when it comes to dispensaries, "there is no grey area." (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Furey said there have been several searches of illegal storefronts and that people aren't only charged with illegal possession or trafficking.

"We are finding other criminal offences being committed in the form of firearms," Furey said. "This just highlights a level of criminal activity within this environment."

Fighting closures in court

With no sign that the province will allow dispensaries to operate, some have turned to the courts.

Health Canada said it's aware of 218 current constitutional challenges related to cannabis. Four of those cases are in Nova Scotia, including one involving Tasty Budd's in Antigonish.

Tasty Budd's in Antigonish is at the centre of a constitutional challenge. (Emma Smith/CBC)

The dispensary community is pinning its hopes on this case, which centres around manager Gillian Sampson.

When the store on Old Highway 4 was raided in August 2017 she was charged with trafficking, possession for purpose of trafficking and possession of proceeds of crime.

Sampson maintains those charges are unconstitutional because they infringe on her charter rights.

In court documents, she argues she and others are "risking criminal sanctions to try and fill the void created by insufficient legislation and assist in the well-being of the sick and ill persons searching for a safe and licit supply of medical cannabis."

Sampson's challenge will be back at Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Antigonish in February. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Documents prepared by the Crown state that the current medical system already allows for access. The Crown said Sampson's store was "filled with illegal, unregulated, untested products necessarily obtained from the black market."

Sampson's constitutional hearing isn't scheduled to be heard until February, months after legalization, but Chartrand and others are keeping a close eye on it.

Chartrand said medical patients in Annapolis and Kings counties, who've already lost their dispensaries due to recent raids, are suffering.

For her, allowing dispensaries to stay open is a matter of life and death.  

"I've already gotten messages from three separate patients who have been talking about ending their lives because they don't have access up there anymore and it breaks my heart," she said through tears.

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia

With files from Susan Allen