‘Ottawa’ As New Pot Dispensaries Open in Ottawa, City Urged to Shut Down or Regulate Them
There are growing calls to shut down or regulate Ottawa’s budding marijuana dispensary business, as new — and illegal — storefronts pop up around the city.
Since the beginning of July, five more dispensaries have opened or plan to shortly, boosting the number in the city to nine. They are part of a wave of marijuana stores that have been opening across the country, operating in defiance of federal drug laws.
Ottawa Coun. Mathieu Fleury says he has asked Ottawa’s chief of police to enforce the law and shut them down. He and other councillors who represent urban wards have also begun discussing whether the city should regulate where the dispensaries set up shop. Coun. Riley Brockington, who is upset about a cannabis store about to open across the street from a school in his River Ward, said the city can’t wait to act until the federal government makes recreational marijuana legal.
The umbrella group for Ottawa’s Business Improvement Areas invited two police officers to a recent meeting to provide information about the pot shops. The officers gave the same answer that a police spokesperson provided to the Citizen: They are aware of the dispensaries, and are investigating.
With the legalization of recreational marijuana on the horizon, these businesses are “jumping the gun,” says Christine Leadman, executive director of the Bank Street Business Improvement Area.
Two marijuana shops have opened on Bank Street downtown, a situation that until recently would have “been unfathomable,” said Leadman. “In my mind, the city police and bylaw should be shutting them down.”
But she’s sympathetic about the difficulty the city may have in regulating the shops. “They’re between a rock and a hard place. How do you build in (bylaw) planning for a business that’s illegal?”
The pot dispensaries are confounding police and municipal officials across the country. The federal government has promised to introduce legislation to legalize and “strictly regulate” recreational pot in the spring of 2017. Medical marijuana is already legal, but patients must obtain it from producers licensed by Health Canada, who send it by mail.
Selling marijuana from stores is illegal. Federal officials warn the products sold at dispensaries are unregulated and possibly unsafe. But that hasn’t stopped the flood of customers who are buying everything from dried weed to cannabis brownies there.
Most dispensaries cater to medical marijuana patients who have difficulty obtaining the type of pot they want legally, or who simply prefer the choice and service at the shops. Most of the Ottawa stores try to confirm the marijuana they sell is for medical purposes.
Ottawa’s newest store, which opened Monday on Bank Street, is a Green Tree Medical Dispensary, the third to open in the city this month.
The clerk there Tuesday said she asks customers what their medical problem is — “They just say, like, social anxiety, or pain” — asks them to fill out a form, then issues a “temporary” membership card. “Then they’re able to buy whatever they like.”
The products on sale include dried marijuana for $10 to $14 a gram, gummy bears for $10 and a giant cannabis-infused Freezie for $20. Does she recommend what products customers should buy for their various medical conditions? No, said the clerk, adding it was her first day on the job and “I haven’t tried anything yet.” However, if a customer is unsure, she suggests the “Kosher Kush” weed, because her cousin, who works at another Green Tree outlet, highly recommends it.
Does the store have a video hookup to a doctor who can prescribe marijuana, which is common at other dispensaries? “I have no idea,” she said.
After a few minutes of frantic texting on her cellphone, the clerk asked the Citizen reporter and photographer to leave the store.
Green Tree is upstairs on the second floor, next to a massage parlour, a bong shop and an adult video store. The manager of the video store, Tom Ramsay, says the floor has been a “red light district” for years and is an appropriate place for a marijuana outlet. It’s not at street level, and only adults are allowed into any of the businesses.
Ramsay estimated that 100 people visited Green Tree on Monday when it opened, saying he got a lot of spill-over business. “My sales were phenomenal. The Green Tree customers come in here, pick up some porn and make an evening of it,” he joked.
However, Ramsay said he was upset to hear another marijuana dispensary is about to open in Ottawa’s west end near a school. “That’s just common sense. Come on, you don’t expose children to that. Give me a break! I have a problem with kids and drugs, big time.”
Another Green Tree outlet opened about a week ago on Preston Street, nestled between restaurants, cafes and offices. The man working there on the weekend refused to identify himself, saying any publicity would simply bring more attention to his store and make it more likely that police would raid the place.
“I’m here, I’m not going anywhere,” said the man, who said he’s opened a string of marijuana shops in British Columbia. “There are going to be a lot of stores. You’ll have 100 stores here (in Ottawa) in the next six months,” he predicted.
That’s what happened in Toronto, where dozens of stores opened in the space of a few weeks this spring. Both police and city bylaw officers have raided nearly 50 of them, laying charges for drug trafficking and zoning violations. Some stores simply re-opened.
In Vancouver, police have said it’s not a priority to shut down pot shops unless they threaten public safety. But the city slapped regulations on the stores to try to prevent them from operating near schools and community centres.
Brockington says Ottawa should act now to try to control the location of marijuana shops. “Why not have regulations in place at the city as soon as possible, because we are only going to see more of these,” he warns. “And as long as it’s the wild west, wide open, (stores) will just pop up where they want.
Brockington says he’s not opposed to the sale of medical marijuana because it benefits many people, but that stores should not be near schools or residential areas.
A dispensary about to open on Laperriere Avenue in his ward is across the street from a Montessori school for toddlers and young children.
The small building, which had been vacant, has been painted bright green, with the sign “Ottawa Cannabis Dispensary.” Bikky Singh, who works at the auto body shop next door, said his family owns both properties. His brother, Deep, plans to open the dispensary in the next few days, he said during an interview at the shop on the weekend. Deep did not respond to a request for an interview, and he was not at the shop Monday when his brother suggested the Citizen could talk to him.
Bikky said the dispensary will focus on selling medical marijuana to cancer patients and others who need it. He also said an Ottawa police officer who was cruising by stopped to provide advice on how to make the building more secure by installing alarms, bulletproof windows and grates on the door.
Brockington said neither he nor nearby residents received any notice about the business. “The guy on Laperriere is a used-car salesman. And I don’t want to take anything away from used-car salesmen, but it’s just odd that on his property he has a used car and auto body shop, a chip wagon and now a marijuana dispensary.”
Brad Drake, who lives in a house about a block away, said he was surprised when the store popped up. He received a flyer in his mailbox about a plan to construct a mountain-bike path on a nearby hill, “but no notice about a cannabis shop?”
Drake said he isn’t necessarily opposed to the business, unless it creates more traffic in the evenings on the street. He was surprised it was illegal. “I just assumed that if you put a sign up and open a business, that it’s regulated.”
Both Fleury and Brockington have asked city staff for more information about whether and how the city could regulate marijuana dispensaries through licensing or zoning.
The city now licenses a host of businesses, from “adult entertainment stores” to driving schools, chip trucks and tobacco vendors.
As for zoning, city staff say the pot shops are “retail stores,” says Brockington. Stores are allowed in commercial zones, according to a statement from John Smit, the city’s manager of policy development and urban design. But “the direct retailing of medical marijuana from a storefront is not allowed by federal law, therefore is not addressed in the zoning bylaw,” the statement said.
Fleury said he’s open to discussing regulation, but it’s too soon to say whether the shops will proliferate. “The emotional side would say, ‘Let’s bring in a major change right away … but we have to build a solid legal case and a solid consultation with the community that would structure, through zoning or licensing, something that would protect the community.”
But Coun. Jeff Leiper said he won’t be “ringing any alarm bells” about the marijuana stores. Many residents in his Kitchissippi Ward are recreational pot smokers, he said.
The store in his ward, Ottawa Medical Dispensary, has been a “non-issue” and attracted no complaints, he said. As far as Leiper is concerned, “It’s just another business on that stretch of Carling” and poses no safety or security risk.
As a city councillor, it’s not his business if the dispensary violates federal drug-trafficking laws, said Leiper. “That’s between them, the Crown and the police.”
He said he’s impressed by the self-imposed restraints that OMD follows, even though they are operating “outside the legal framework.” The dispensary is set up to look like a doctor’s office, with the marijuana hidden in a back room.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson has been “unavailable” to comment on the issue for the past two weeks, according to his spokeswoman. She declined to elaborate, other than to say the federal government is responsible for marijuana laws, and Ottawa police have the authority to enforce the laws.