Vancouver, BC

Spencer Watson

Amid Cannabis Shortage, Vancouver Black Market Thrives

In Vancouver, British Columbia — and elsewhere across Canada — the illicit cannabis market still dominates despite federal legalization and pressure from the Canadian government to curb illegal sales, according to the New York Times.

Canada’s unregulated cannabis market was estimated at $5.3 billion at the time of legalization — it’s hard to make that disappear overnight. Compounding the issue are rampant cannabis shortages across the country and a distinct lack of retail outlets. In B.C., for instance, there was only a single retail cannabis shop open at legalization’s launch, and it was a four-hour drive from Vancouver.

One of the largest illicit producers of cannabis in British Columbia, Don Briere, has been a cannabis advocate for decades. Briere owns “Weed, Glass and Gifts” in Vancouver — one of many illicit retail outlets that still operate in the city. At his store, patrons can buy a variety of products like edibles that are not currently allowed under Canadian law.

Briere is so passionate about cannabis that he continues to operate illegally despite having been sentenced to four years in prison in 2001 for producing cannabis.

“We’ll keep selling what we are selling. … The government taking over the cannabis trade is like asking a farmer to build airplanes.” — Don Briere, via the New York Times

There are so many unlicensed cannabis stores across the country that officials can’t keep track of them. The government, however, is not looking for a hard crackdown but rather a slow transition to a legal market. British Columbia’s Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth said, “It won’t happen overnight,” adding that there would be no mass raids or “guns and head-bashing.”

The government is moving to shut down some illegal producers and retailers, however. In Vancouver, it started as a tightening of zoning restrictions for cannabis retailers as well as fines, followed by injunctions against those who were not in compliance. Dispensaries banded together and fought back with a constitutional challenge — that case is currently before the Supreme Court of British Columbia — and, of the $3 million in fines levied so far, less than $200,000 has been paid.

There is movement in the market. Don Briere has closed some of his many retail outlets, channeling that business to his website. He has also applied for a government license.

The real threat to the unregulated market, of course, is the huge price drop expected as a result of the legal market. While a pound of cannabis used to bring in US$3000 in Vancouver, it now only fetches about US$1000. Guaranteed testing for pesticides and other contaminants also gives the legal market an edge.

However, many underground operators, including Briere, say they will continue to sell — not to make money, but because of the elderly and ill patients who have come to rely on them.

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