Pot dispensary owner donates $90,000 but divides Whitewood, Sask.
Goodwill or influence buying? Small-town philanthropy gets mixed reactions
In the small town of Whitewood, Sask., a philanthropist is at work.
Jerry Martin says he has contributed funds for new fire department equipment, repairs to the local swimming pool, new library books and even fees for a kids' camp. When he adds it up, he figures he has donated around $90,000 in less than a year.
"There's no other funding that is doing this for our town," Martin says.
But his donations come from his medical marijuana dispensary, Martin Medical Services, and that is dividing the town of 1,100.
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Some point to Martin as a generous businessman. Others wonder if he is trying to influence public opinion on the issue of marijuana dispensaries, and they express concern that his operation is a negative influence on the town's young people.
Martin, 44, says he had a rocky upbringing, turning to alcohol when he was 14 and cocaine a year later.
After dropping out of school, Martin says, he was on the streets and in and out of jail for about 20 years. He moved to Whitewood almost a decade ago after becoming sober, drawn to the area because his mother lived there.
What began as a head shop turned into a dispensary. Martin says he also sells tattooing books and DVDs and he is the part-owner of a towing company.
Martin says he has 400 members in his dispensary — most from the Whitewood area — and that his product comes from a lab in B.C.
When CBC visited his shop, about 175 km east of Regina, it was hopping with people who could choose products ranging from baked goods that will provide a high to a variety of oils and hashish that Martin chopped off a block in the back of his store.
He describes his dispensary as a non-profit.
"This was always about not money for me, it's been about bringing about change and awareness to cannabis as a medicine," he said.
It's been about bringing about change and awareness to cannabis as a medicine.- Jerry Martin
Martin said he set a goal of donating $50,000 in 2015 and is already on track to reach $100,000.
He added he has committed to donating $1 million to the community over the next decade but expects he may accomplish that within five years.
Whitewood's mayor, Doug Armstrong, says the town was caught off guard when the dispensary opened.
"People for it see that there's a need for dispensing medical marijuana in cases where people are in pain," Armstrong said.
Others were "dead against it," he said. "The other opposite side of the argument is, 'What kind of message does it send to our young people?'"
Donations to curry favour?
Armstrong said he appreciates Martin's contributions, but added, "I do feel that he is trying to foster public opinion on his side through this contribution of money and to sway his argument in his favour."
Martin insists he is not buying goodwill. "Everybody knows I do it from my heart."
Among Martin's supporters is Jackie Smith, who says his products help her with depression and pain management.
"I think it's great," she said of the dispensary. "Every town should have one."
Some people in Whitewood support Martin and his donations. "I like Jerry, he's a good man," Mark Briggs said. "His heart is in the right place. He's giving it all back to the community."
But there are detractors, too.
David Hepburn, the lead pastor at Whitewood's New Life Community Church, recently brought his concerns to town council. He said some members of his congregation feel the dispensary sends the wrong message about marijuana use to young people.
"I think it should be probably be prescribed by a doctor [and] dispensed by a pharmacy, rather than just any location in town that you can just call yourself a medical institution and suddenly become one," Hepburn said. He added that if the dispensary breaks the law, it should close.
'Do the ends justify the means?'
Martin's donations don't sway Hepburn.
"Do the ends justify the means?" he asked. "For instance, if I decided that I needed to go and get some extra money and robbed the bank ... and gave it to the town, would that make it right? I don't think so."
Health Canada, in a statement to CBC News, said the department "does not license organizations such as compassion clubs or dispensaries to possess, produce or distribute marijuana for medical purposes. The only legal means for individuals to access marijuana for medical purposes is via a licensed producer, with the support of their health-care practitioner."
Health Canada lists just two licensed Saskatchewan producers on its website. Martin's shop is not one of them.
Enforcement has been mixed across the country, with some police forces cracking down on compassion clubs and dispensaries, such as in Saskatoon. Dispensaries have also been raided in Winnipeg and Edmonton, while Vancouver police said last month they would not raid dispensaries, following a move by the city council to license them.
Martin said he received a warning letter from Health Canada this summer which told him to "cease all activities with controlled substances" or face RCMP enforcement action.
"I was scared and angry and hurt," Martin said of the letter, but added, "I couldn't quit."
Martin said he feels optimistic that the approach to dispensaries will change, considering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's election promise to legalize and regulate the sale of marijuana. Martin said he hopes new regulations will allow for dispensaries like his.
"If the government's allowed to do it, I think the people should be allowed to do it," he said.
Whitewood's mayor says the town council is waiting to see what the new Liberal government does to fulfil its promise. "We're awaiting what's going to happen and then we will deal with the consequences."
Martin said officers from the local RCMP detachment have been to his dispensary but "they clearly have no interest in coming to get me."
RCMP declined to comment.
Martin says he hopes to expand his brand across the country and adds he could start as many as six more locations. He adds that continuing to make contributions to his small town is his long-term goal.
"We just want to keep growing, doing good for our community," he said. "Build schools, build parks, you know. Build a bigger library ... Just keep helping our community."