Legal pot shops become a reality on Oct. 17, but underground dispensaries may linger
A cashier rings up a marijuana sale at the Essence cannabis dispensary in Las Vegas on July 1, 2017. (John Locher / AP)
VICTORIA -- On the day Canadians can legally buy and use recreational marijuana, the clock will start ticking for cannabis dispensaries already open across the country, say politicians and pot industry insiders.
On Oct. 17, provincial licensing, monitoring and approval regulations on legal marijuana retail standards will become law and the cannabis business will get real for marijuana shops currently operating outside the rules.
"These are the same people who cried for legalization," said Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang. "Now they've got it, and they have to play by the rules."
Jang, who has been at the forefront of Vancouver's push to bring medical and recreational marijuana into the marketplace, said he doesn't expect to see boarded up dispensaries in October, but added that some won't survive provincial regulation.
"There's going to be this period of transition when everybody moves to the legal system that will probably be a little Wild West. It will be a bit woolly for a while, but eventually it will all come into compliance."
It's unclear how many dispensaries are currently operating across the country.
Vancouver was the first to move to regulate the industry when the number of illegal shops ballooned past 100. In 2015, the city imposed strict regulations and a licence fee of almost $32,000.
Victoria started its own regulation process for dispensaries in 2016.
Terry Lake, a former British Columbia health minister, said he believes most provinces will act carefully on current dispensaries, taking graduated steps, starting with warnings to comply, then progressing to closure notices.
Lake now works as a vice-president at Hydropothecary, an Ottawa-based company looking to expand into the recreational marijuana market. He said the public's transition from buying black-market marijuana, including from existing dispensaries, to legal marijuana could last a few years.
Today's store owners could play a key role in establishing the legal market for cannabis, Lake said.
"Apart from the fact they are doing something illegal, they've been actually pretty responsible," he said in a telephone interview from Hull, Que. "From the legal industry point of view, I'm always very conscious of the fact that we only got here because of the social activism to change away from prohibition."
Each province has slightly different rules for selling recreational cannabis.
When Ontario announced its regulations in September, then-attorney general Yasir Naqvi put illegal dispensaries on notice that they would be shut down, and police have moved to close some outlets.
Only the Ontario Cannabis Store will legally sell recreational cannabis in that province.
The Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority will issue about 60 cannabis retail permits to private operators in as many as 40 municipalities and First Nation communities.
In Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation will be the only authorized seller of cannabis.
The Liquor Control and Licensing Branch will be responsible for licensing private cannabis stores and monitoring the retail sector in B.C.
The new rules will prohibit recreational marijuana retailers in B.C. from using terms that could lead people to think they sell medicinal cannabis. Business names including the words pharmacy, apothecary and dispensary won't be approved, the province said in guidelines for prospective retailers.
B.C.'s Ministry of Public Safety is hiring a "director of cannabis control" and a "community safety unit" to enforce provincial rules, though Public Safety Ministry Mike Farnworth has previously stated the cannabis transition period could last up to three years
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the city is looking ahead to October with enthusiasm.
About a dozen marijuana stores operating in the city have received zoning and business licence approvals and about 30 others are in some stage of the approval process, she said.
"What I am is relieved the province is going to be stepping into the space the city has been regulating on its own," Helps said.
She said she expects a transition period between six months to one year before retailers receive their provincial approvals.
Helps said the city will likely have some say in provincial approvals of cannabis shops.
"The ones that have been following the rules, I'm much more comfortable making a strong recommendation to the province," she said. "The ones that have kind of thumbed their nose at the rules to date, and now want to come forward for a provincial licence and get the city's approval, I think they are going to have a harder time."