One of Vancouver's 100 illegal marijuana dispensaries has been raided by officers over alleged ties to a prominent gang – the first time police have made such an allegation – despite repeated claims from the city's pot shops that they don't obtain the drug from criminals.
The raid at the Limelife Society shop in east Vancouver on Wednesday afternoon follows years in which the police have allowed dispensaries to openly hawk pot so long as they didn't sell to minors and weren't tied to gangsters. The question of where the drug is coming from has overshadowed the city's exploding dispensary sector, as there is no way for them to legally obtain the cannabis products they sell.
Some owners have claimed they get their pot from small-scale producers licensed to grow for themselves or other designated patients under the old federal medical marijuana system. Even those growers, however, are not permitted to provide pot to dispensaries.
The Vancouver Police Department has raided 10 other pot shops in recent years, with the force stating Thursday all those investigations involved the "youth factor." (The majority of these dispensaries restocked and reopened within days.)
(For more on Vancouver's dispensaries, read The Globe's in-depth explainer: Vancouver's pot shops: Everything you need to know about marijuana dispensaries)
Spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham said investigators found that Limelife Society's Rupert Street store was selling to teens, but he also alleged that "individuals connected to" the location have ties to a "prominent" gang and asserted that other dispensaries across the city have similar ties.
"On valid information, we do believe that there are organized crime groups involved in the supply of and operation [of other dispensaries]," Sgt. Fincham said.
However, he said his department isn't investigating Limelife's three other Vancouver locations as their evidence in this case "was specific to that store." A request for comment from managers at the chain's flagship store on West Broadway was not returned Thursday afternoon.
VPD's drug squad began watching the Rupert Street dispensary about a month ago after a complaint that it was connected to organized crime, Sgt. Fincham said. A 25-year-old employee was arrested and released after the raid, which occurred around 4 p.m. Wednesday, he said. Mr. Fincham could not provide data on how many people arrested in the VPD's 10 previous raids have had charges recommended against them.
As Vancouver councillors debated the city's new dispensary bylaw this spring, several brought up the issue of whether the new law could weed out organized crime from supplying or owning the shops.
The passed bylaw aims to discourage gang involvement of regulated dispensaries by requiring owners and all staff to complete annual police record checks, limiting one business licence per person and prohibiting owners from transferring their licence to another party. Numbered companies are also outlawed from owning a dispensary under the new regulations, which are set to come into effect over the next year.
Andy Richards, a recently retired police inspector who investigated B.C.'s gangs for more than 20 years, said the organized crime groups will find a way to skirt these regulations if they see profit in the sector, as they have with other businesses.
"It's not beyond the ability of organized crime groups to defeat those sorts of background checks and acquire nominees," Mr. Richards said. "All you need is someone to rent a property and set up."
"It's not difficult to get a nominee for anything in this world."
Sgt. Fincham said police are strapped for resources when it comes to investigating pot shops. Since the spring, officers have been focused on stopping the importation and production of the dangerous opioid fentanyl.
"That appears to be the one that is the greatest public health concern right now," he said. "It's the biggest safety risk for our kids right now. So that's the one we're continuing to pursue."
Mr. Richards said that the Hells Angels and other gangs making millions from massive networks of illegal grow operations in the 1990s were forced to move their operations outside the Lower Mainland in the early 2000s after local authorities began cracking down .
B.C. RCMP had no comment about the role gangs play in the production of marijuana across the province or any links to Vancouver's storefront sales, but data from Surrey, once a hotbed of illegal operations, show a huge decrease in recent years in the number of offences relating to the production of the drug. Surrey RCMP reported a 53 per cent drop in marijuana production offences last year compared to the year before, with just 32 such crimes reported in 2014. More than four times (135) that number of offences were reported in 2012.
Mr. Richards said that is in part due to producers moving outside of the large municipality, but it also points to police "being pulled in other, higher priority, directions."
With a file from The Canadian Press