Vancouver, Canada’s Marijuana Capital, Struggles to Tame the Black Market
Vancouver, Canada’s Marijuana Capital, Struggles to Tame the Black Market — In the pot-friendly city of Vancouver, illegal marijuana dispensaries outnumber Starbucks outlets, and among the most popular is Weeds, Glass and Gifts. There, in a relaxed space reminiscent of the coffee chain, jovial “budtenders” sell coconut chocolate bars infused with marijuana and customers smoke powerful pot concentrates at a sleek dab bar.
When Canada legalized recreational marijuana, on Oct. 17, one of the central aims was to shut down the thousands of illegal dispensaries and black market growers dotting the country. But taming an illegal trade estimated at 5.3 billion Canadian dollars is proving to be daunting.
Many of the products sold at Weeds, Glass and Gifts are banned under the new law, which restricts licensed retailers to selling fresh or dried cannabis, seeds, plants and oil. Yet the retailer’s owner, Don Briere, an ebullient 67-year-old and self-styled pot crusader, has no intention of shutting down his four Vancouver stores or changing his product lineup.
He even has plans for expansion with a new line of outlawed canine marijuana treats, which purport to reduce pet anxiety.
The Canadian government faces many challenges in stamping out the illegal marijuana industry. For one, there are too many black market shops like Mr. Briere’s for the government to keep track of.
And as sluggish provincial bureaucracies struggle to manage a new regulatory system, licenses to operate legally are hard to come by, giving illegal sellers added impetus to defy the law.
At the same time, the police and the public have little appetite for a national crackdown.
“The government taking over the cannabis trade is like asking a farmer to build airplanes,” Mr. Briere added.
Canadian policymakers say legalization is a giant national undertaking that will take years to be enforced. Mike Farnworth, British Columbia’s minister of public safety, argued that civic pressure and market forces would help gradually diminish the illegal trade.
On Oct. 17, only one legal government pot retailer opened in British Columbia, in the city of Kamloops, nearly a four-hour drive from Vancouver. That assured that Vancouver’s illicit trade would continue to thrive.
And that day, none of the roughly 100 illegal pot dispensaries in the city had the provincial licenses they needed to operate legally, even those that had applied for one.
In Ontario, where the government’s online Ontario Cannabis Store has been overwhelmed with soaring demand, some pot smokers unwilling to wait five days for delivery are reverting to their illegal dealers instead.
“Definitely going to use my dealer from now on his business is going way up because of your crappy service,” one frustrated customer wrote on Twitter.
In Montreal, some underground dealers, who do home delivery, are challenging the new legal market by offering two-joints-for-the-price-of-one deals.
As cities across the country grapple with a new national experiment, Vancouver offers a striking cautionary tale about the challenges of policing the illegal trade.