For every month that recreational cannabis has been legal in Canada, Vancouver has a retail store to show for it. While the city’s 12 operators offer customers a law-abiding option, decades of pot prohibition left behind problems that will take more than one year to solve. 

Vancouver’s dozen stores is just a sliver compared to the 79 that had been operating without land use approval before October 17, 2018. That’s likely because of all the paperwork involved in obtaining a license⁠—far from the rolling joints or rolling in dough kind. 

Over the course of a year, 66 locations in Vancouver have applied for a development permit, a process that Chief License Inspector Kathryn Holm says is a fairly simple. 

“Our licensing comes in to make sure that the operator understands the potential for negatively impacting community and that they're taking all steps possible to mitigate that,” explains Holms. 

After the city agrees that a location is appropriate for a cannabis retail store, the province assesses the suitability of the operator to run the business before approving a provincial license. Once a prospective store owner gets this piece of the pot sales puzzle, they come back to the city to get a municipal license and business license. Of the 66 applications, the city has issued 35 letters of recommendations, 12 of which have reached the finish line. 

“This is a new and emerging industry and again everyone is working as hard as they can to help more of these stores to open quickly,” says Holm.

cannabis bcWesley Gibbs on Unsplash

But the road to big changes remains slow and steady for every bureau involved. For example, it took nearly half a year after cannabis was legalized for the province to take action against B.C.’s illegal sites and supply. Since April 1, the Community Safety Unit (CSU) officers have visited over 171 unlicensed retailers province-wide.

This June, the federal government created laws around cannabis edibles, extracts and topicals which come into force on October 17, 2019⁠—legal cannabis’ one year anniversary in Canada. But people won’t be able to get their pre-munchies munch on, legally, until late December. Before selling newly regulated products, legal retailers are required to give Health Canada 60 days notice. 

For the director of Vancouver Dispensary Society, Dana Larsen, the arduous process of obtaining a license  is something he’s not eager to rush through. Larsen began the non-profit in 2008, opening Vancovuer’s third medical marijuana dispensary on 880 East Hastings. As of June, that location has been closed, following a long court battle over what he deems severe city bylaws—including the $30-thousand business license requirement.

Larsen still sells cannabis from his Thurlow Street location, as the dispensary complies with municipal bylaws and he’s in the process of getting a legal permit. 

“To be honest I hope it lasts a long time,” says Larsen, who doesn’t really want a legal permit because it would require him to sell products from The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch (BCLDB) he deems expensive and low quality.

“My customers don’t want that cannabis-- I’m guaranteed to lose 95 per cent of clients.”

His preference is to continue serving his customers with the products they need, and he’s most concerned about his members who are heavy users based on diagnosed needs.

“If you’re just having a few puffs of joints once a week, you don’t care about gram costs. But if you’re someone using five to 10 grams, facing medical disadvantages and don’t have employment, those are huge factors in where they decide to get their cannabis from,” says Larsen.

Restrictions around marketing and advertising are additional barriers for legal operators, trying to entice customers to switch over from unregulated shops and products. Even on websites and social media, operators aren’t allowed to have any images of cannabis or post their menu online. As a person who has regularly spiced up life with the devil’s herb, it certainly made my first legal shopping experience a pricier one than anticipated. 

city cannabis

The headset-wearing, i-Pad equipt budtender at City Cannabis let me down easy and politely when I explained I wasn’t prepared to spend double for my usual order. The chain store on Cambie Street is far removed from the usual rastafarian regalia or weed leaf decorations found in dispensaries. Rather it was a Pacific NorthWest dream of forest green, cedar and monochroma Starbucks for weedwhich makes sense given the background of the store’s CEO and founder.

Prior to starting City Cannabis, Krystian Wetulani spent a decade managing Starbucks locations all over the province. He entered the world of weed because it personally helped him get off pain-killers and sleeping pills, and he wanted to share the natural healing powers of the plant. 

While his franchise has seen many successesit earned two of the first retail cannabis licenses in Vancouver, making it B.C.'s first multi-chain cannabis company, and was voted Best Retail Cannabis Store in the Georgia StraightWetulani says the biggest challenge has been pricing.

“Especially here in B.C. where we have the biggest illicit market in all of Canada,” says Wetulani, who also feels limited by the province’s limit on eight stores per chain. 

“It definitely makes it harder to grow your business,” says Wetulani, who hopes to take his business nationwide. “Alberta has a limit of 37 and Ontario is going to be 75, so hopefully they revisit this rule.”

Larsen says the legal market should be able to compete with the black market, but that won’t happen until taxes are lowered and the process of getting a license is simplified.

“The system is probably five or 10 years away from where it needs to be. Right now the reality for retailers is that you need to be able to lose a lot of money to position yourself for later gains.”

But Larsen adds that legalization won’t be able to deliver success without first acknowledging the losses caused by decades of pot prohibition. 

“Legalization should have begun with an apology. It wasn’t cannabis, it was prohibition causing the problem, and that was targeted against certain racial groups and minorities,” says Larsen.

“Without that recognition [legalization] is kind of deemed a failure. We’ll get an apology when Trudeau’s kid becomes prime minister in 50 years.”