Many of Canada's licensed medical marijuana producers mail pot straight to their patients from vast warehouses protected by perimeter fencing, steel doors with card locks and extensive security camera systems operating 24/7. In contrast, many of Vancouver's roughly 60 marijuana dispensaries operate in a legal grey area out of accessible storefronts, where mellow staff offer customers a pleasant retail experience.
Now, the owner of the city's largest chain of dispensaries says he is beefing up security after the city's first armed robbery of one of these stores over the weekend. Employees at a South Vancouver Weeds Glass and Gifts outlet were robbed at gunpoint for "maybe $500" of dried marijuana, according to owner Don Briere.
Police say no shots were fired by the two suspects and no one was injured in the stickup, which happened just before 9 p.m. Friday.
Now, Mr. Briere, a long-time cannabis crusader and owner of the city's largest dispensary chain, says he is upgrading security at his 11 Vancouver franchises to include more lighting and panic buttons for front-counter staff to silently trigger an alarm system in the event of another robbery.
Mr. Briere brushed off suggestions that dispensaries and their illegal products might be at greater risk than other retail operations.
"In one hand you can get a million dollars worth of diamonds, so jewellery stores and banks are also targets," he said.
While medical marijuana producers must adhere to strict security guidelines before obtaining a Health Canada licence, dispensaries like Mr. Briere's operate in commercial spaces, selling product procured from people licensed to grow for personal use under the old federal system. The dispensaries work outside the law, but compliance is not enforced. A court challenge to keep this old licensing system is winding its way through the courts and the City of Vancouver is reticent to crack down on the dispensaries.
Spokesman Constable Brian Montague said the Vancouver Police Department has some real concerns about the dispensaries, but complaints have led to police raiding only four separate locations last year – including briefly shutting down one of Mr. Briere's East Vancouver outlets for selling small marijuana plants or "clones."
Most of the complaints the VPD receives involve selling to minors, selling candy-like products that appeal to children, fire-safety concerns and neighbours upset by the enterprise. So far, no charges have been recommended to Crown, but some of the cases are "in various stages of disclosure preparation and charge assessment," Constable Montague said.
"We look at all those complaints and concerns and make a decision as to whether an investigation is warranted," Constable Montague said. "There's always the potential for a lot of things to go very sideways when you're dealing with unregulated businesses and a criminal element."
Mr. Briere was busted in the late 1990s for running a large network of grow operations and was arrested again while on parole in 2004 for opening the Da Kine café on Vancouver's bohemian Commercial Drive. That precursor to today's pot shops was raided by the VPD's emergency response team and Mr. Briere was sentenced to 21/2 years in jail, serving roughly a third of the time.
Now, Mr. Briere said, "the police are totally on our side."
"You want to find out where all the fights and violence is happening? It's not at a vapour lounge or at a pot store – it's at bars at closing time," Mr. Briere said. "So Vancouver, the city, the police, the mayor – who is the police commissioner – they all see this as a positive step for a safer city."