A line of about 10 people stretches along the front counter at Weeds dispensary in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood. They eye baggies of red and blue THC capsules, little individually wrapped "special chocolates," and tidily packaged grams of weed. Lemon Haze. OG Kush. Sweet-Island Skunk. Whatever your ailment, they've got something for you.
Most of the people are young. They have freshly cut fades and beat up Blundstones. A few people mill about the shop, and there are some older people perusing the cookie freezer in the corner. The staff is friendlier and more knowledgeable about their product than a Starbucks barista on Bay Street.
Sarah Ratchford photo
This whole operation was created by Don Briere. His dispensary chain migrated east from B.C., where he has 19 locations, in the fall. He's got two Toronto locations already, and three more on the way. He also has plans to open up shop across the East Coast, in Hamilton, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax. Thus far, he says, he hasn't had any legal troubles with dispensary operations.
He can't say the same for Goodweeds, a new Toronto cannabis lounge that he co-owns with a Toronto couple. Police raided the lounge last week, and the couple was charged with possession-related offences.
Goodweeds is already back up and running, at least as a place where cannabis users can come to consume. But it won't be selling product again until Feb. 1, staff tell Civilized, so the raid still put a dent in business.
What's the difference between a dispensary and a lounge?
To figure out why the difference in treatment between lounge and dispensary, I get Briere on the phone from Vancouver.
Briere says he's angry about the Goodweeds bust.
"Not only do we create jobs and take money away from organized crime, but we're paying taxes," he says. Despite the charges against his co-owners, he says he's not going to let police stop him.
Both dispensaries and lounges are illegal in Canada right now. The government's legalization process is in full swing, but it's expected to take at least a year to have new laws in place.
Briere explains that lounges and dispensaries are two are very different set-ups, but one, of course, is not more illegal than the other. The difference can be likened to a bar versus a liquor store: at a lounge, you pay for a bag of vapour, a bowl, or a dab, and you consume it on site with the other patrons.
Briere says it's a good option for those who can't smoke in their apartment for whatever reason, or who don't have the right equipment for vaping. When Goodweeds fully re-opens, though, it'll only sell to those with medical marijuana prescriptions or a membership to a dispensary or compassion club.
At a dispensary, you shop for your product and consume it offsite. What makes Weeds dispensaries different from most of the 150-200 other dispensaries in the country is the fact that anyone with any prescription is eligible for membership — no medical marijuana prescription is needed.
The police act on public complaints
Sarah Ratchford photo
Why, then, if both are illegal, did one draw police presence and the other gets by unscathed?
It turns out, according to Briere, that the lounge was shut down because a neighbour saw his co-owner on TV telling VICE that what he was doing was illegal - and so they called the cops.
Because of the recent wave of support for cannabis use, the laws seem opaque to many people. Most dispensaries require a prescription for medical cannabis, but this doesn't make its sale legal: only licensed growers are supposed to distribute the drug, and they mail it to licensed users with prescriptions.
Briere is not trying to hide what he's doing. If that's not evidenced by his frequent media interviews, the neon green pot leaves on the front windows of his establishments are enough to give it away.
I'm curious about how police are reacting to the flamboyance of Briere's storefronts.
Police want to know minors aren't being served
A staff member tells me they're operating in a "legal gray area." He said when they first opened, police knocked on the door of the Greektown location pretty fast, but they said they'd give the store a pass as long as it didn't sell to minors.
That said, locations in Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo and Abbotsford, he says, were forced to close down briefly, but they opened back up after only a brief hiatus.
The Toronto Police drug squad says it is firm in its stance against the drug as long as its still illegal.
Police said that they will investigate any complaints about dispensaries, and that arrests may be made and charges laid.
That said, few charges have been laid against dispensaries countrywide, The Globe and Mail reports, and after Health Canada issued cease-and-desist letters to 13 dispensaries in the fall, not a single one appears to have closed its doors.
Briere takes heart at this, and he intends to keep traveling across the country opening new locations, carry-on full of weed jellies in tow.
Sarah Ratchford is a freelance writer based in Toronto.