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Don Briere sorts through bins of cannabis at the production facility for his multiple dispensaries on the first day of the legalization of cannabis in Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 17, 2018.


Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Don Briere was 19 when he bought his first half pound of marijuana from a local dealer in New Westminster, B.C., in the early 1970s.

He and a friend pooled $600 from their $3.15-an-hour wages at a local sawmill to purchase a large quantity of Mexican product “full of lumber [stems] and full of seeds.” They picked out the buds and packaged them into one-ounce baggies to sell to friends for $20 each, making about $4 profit per sale and fully subsidizing their own consumption of a drug he believes can cure a variety of society’s ills.

Over the ensuing four decades, his passion for growing and selling the plant cost him several years in federal prison for running one of B.C.'s largest networks of illegal grow operations in the 1990s. More recently, he has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in municipal fines and lawyer’s fees fighting cities across the country trying to keep his national chain of illegal Weeds dispensaries open.

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Now, at the outset of legalization, people who defied prohibition in high-profile ways appear to be getting shut out of a burgeoning industry just as the former police officers and politicians that they once battled continue to land lucrative gigs working with commercial cannabis producers.

Workers prepare cannabis product at Don Briere's production facility for his multiple dispensaries in Vancouver, B.C. on Oct. 17, 2018.


Those caught and sentenced for operating large production networks, like Mr. Briere, or running illegal dispensary franchises, like Marc and Jodie Emery, have so far been unable to get past the security screening and into the regulated space under the current rules. They also won’t qualify for the amnesty that Ottawa has promised for the tens of thousands of other Canadians saddled with a conviction for the possession of less than 30 grams of cannabis.

“We’ve been the pioneers, we are the people who stood for everyone’s rights,” Mr. Briere says from inside his company’s nondescript corporate headquarters in East Vancouver. “We have been punished, we’ve done our time and now they’re trying to shut us out of the very industry they’re happy and dancing about.”

He is currently exploring selling his handful of remaining franchise locations and his proprietary business model to another firm that wants to open dozens of licensed cannabis retail outlets over the next two years and wants to include Mr. Briere in that process − if his involvement doesn’t stop them from getting government approvals.

“I can be semi-retired now, I’ve got 28 years in this,” Mr. Briere says, noting it will cost at least several millions of dollars to sell his business.

While he ponders whether to exit the cannabis industry, dozens of activists who founded and ran some of the country’s oldest dispensaries have now moved into all sorts of roles with legal cannabis firms, such as directors of patient outreach or leading targeted marketing and law-reform campaigns.

Neil Boyd.

Neil Boyd, a scholar of drug prohibition and head of Simon Fraser University’s criminology school, said it is ironic that the very people who showed Canadians that the sky wouldn’t fall with the open sale of cannabis are now being sidelined from entering the legal industry.

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“It’s like Shaw said: ‘progress depends upon unreasonable people,’” Dr. Boyd said. “Most of us aren’t willing to put ourselves out there over issues such as this.”

He expects many of the country’s underground producers and retailers to continue to operate illegally in the booming online cannabis marketplace, which he estimates will be very difficult for police and provincial inspectors to shut down.

Ms. Emery has opted to open a hemp-themed coffee shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market while also launching the Fair Cannabis Canada campaign to further loosen federal marijuana laws. She is still on probation and paying down a $195,000 fine after pleading guilty to a possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking charge related to the cross-country raids of her Cannabis Culture dispensaries in 2016.

“Two years ago, when we opened up [in Toronto], we had lineups down the block, we had people saying ‘this is history being made,’ " she said a day after the drug was legalized. “And then it all happened again [last week]. We set the model for what legalization should look like and it’s a shame we couldn’t celebrate by being open too.”

She said she is no longer involved in running the three dispensaries in Vancouver, which are part of a group of scofflaw shops fighting a City of Vancouver injunction to shut them down in B.C. Supreme Court. She said she is working with lawyers to determine how to apply for a provincial retail licence later this year to sell cannabis in Toronto.

The Emerys separated earlier this year but remain close as he continues touring the world promoting cannabis, she said.

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Dana Larsen, an early supporter of Mr. Emery’s activism in Vancouver, has decided not to seek the B.C. government’s approval to sell cannabis at his two decade-old dispensaries. That’s because he said he wants to continue offering his hundreds of regular customers edibles and concentrates that they can’t get from licensed outlets for prices that undercut the regulated market.

“I would love it if my dispensary went out of business if it was because the legal system was providing higher quality, better selection and lower prices than we can,” said Mr. Larsen, who expects his stores will eventually be shut down through fines and raids by provincial inspectors.

Available now: Cannabis Professional, the authoritative e-mail newsletter tailored specifically for professionals in the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Subscribe now.

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