Skip to main content

It's an "only in Vancouver" phenomenon that is so new it doesn't even have a name yet. Let's call it "roaching."

Here's the scene: Monday night, on my way home from grabbing a beer at one of the many fine craft breweries within walking distance of my house. Two gangly young men are lurking under an awning on Commercial Drive.

As I pass, one of them calls to me, "Hey, man."

I'm inclined to keep walking, but they look like decent kids.

I turn on my heel, "Yes?"

"Can you go in there for us, man?" one of them asks.

He nods to the brightly lit entrance of the Health Lifestyle Herbal Medicine store up the stairs.

"No," I say, with the authority of a man of my years whose generation decades ago was reduced to scoring weed from scary dudes in generic suburban mall parking lots.

His face fell, and I moved on.

"Roaching" is the marijuana equivalent of "booting," which is, of course, when an adult, on the way into a liquor store, is approached by under-aged kids and asked to buy booze for them. I've always said no to them as well.

But as I walked away, I thought, wait, this has to be way more complicated than a six-pack of Kokanee. Don't you need a note from a doctor?

Did one of them maybe have a note from a doctor? Would I have to assume their identity and thus their ailment? Would I have to feign symptoms? The place advertised a licensed herbal practitioner on the premises. Would there be some sort of consultation?

All was answered a couple of nights later when I ventured up the stairs. Signs on the door made it very clear minors were not welcome, that a membership was required, and that Stephen Harper needed to be stopped.

I asked about becoming a member and was shown three forms to fill out. I needed one piece of government ID and a secondary piece of ID. A second form was for contact information. On the third form, I had to write in at least one symptom. The helpful young man behind the counter marked a line with an "X."

"Don't fill out that part," he said. "That's for our doctor to sign. It's just one of the hoops we have to jump through."

All around me, in glass display cases, were mason jars, labelled and crammed with plump buds of marijuana in shades of green and brown. The air was thick and sweet. Behind the cash register hung a reminder that selected items are sold two-for-one on the 4th and the 20th of each month.

So, yeah, buying some weed for the boys downstairs would have been just slightly more onerous than getting them a six pack of beer. Easier once I carried a membership card.

The signage outside is quite something. Keep in mind that the shop is just steps away from the Britannia Community complex, which encompasses, among other things, an elementary and a secondary school.

So every morning, scores of kids step off the bus to a pair of colourful four-by-eight signs featuring pictures of mouth-watering brownies and cookies, a variety of delicious tropical fruits and what looks like cotton candy.

Cookies $5 and up. Candy $2 and up. Single joints $2.50, Jumbos for $5. And something called Special Yum Yum Cake.

It would be the equivalent of allowing a private liquor store near a school to post signs featuring brightly coloured self-contained shooters, hard lemonade and other items designed to appeal to young people.

The city says the pot shops are operating beyond its reach because there is no class of business licence for a store that sells marijuana and related products. The police mostly leave them alone unless they're a nuisance or selling to minors because the stores aren't high on their list of priorities. The fact remains that there is no legal regime for the retail sale of marijuana in Canada.

I get that marijuana has a legitimate medical use. I've seen it calm the spasms of a person stricken with severe multiple sclerosis. I've met people with bowel disease who swear by it. And I'm certainly not suggesting we deny it to a people being treated for cancer who have found it is the only thing that brings back the appetite. I also have no trouble with recreational use. (I did, after all, have a beer called "I Braineater" under my arm on that first night when I passed by the place.)

More than 60 dispensaries now operate in Vancouver. This is not a grey area. The city's own bylaws state clearly that no one doing business in the city may operate without a valid business licence. It also says that the point of licensing businesses is to protect public health and safety, and to protect vulnerable populations such as young people.

As it stands, with no regulation and very little enforcement, it's the wild west out there.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.