Why are British Columbians still buying pot on the black market 1 year after legalization?
VANCOUVER - Thursday marks the first anniversary of cannabis legalization, which was a monumental shift in the way the country approaches pot. Despite being able to buy recreational marijuana legally, many don’t.
CTV News spoke to several experts both inside and outside the industry and they chalked it up to several factors like habit, price, availability of product, and options.
In Vancouver, where there were dozens of dispensaries prior to Oct. 17, 2018, there are now 12 fully-licensed cannabis shops. In Victoria there are just 5.
The Original Farm dispensary in the capital received its license months after legalization last October.
“Everybody was expecting tsunami green rush as soon as legalization happened but (it's) more like a leaky faucet,” explained Gavin Rose, a senior cannabis consultant at Farm.
Kiaro opened in August in Vancouver after waiting 11 months to be approved.
Andrew Gordon, senior vice-president with the company, said the province has a thorough process to ensure retailers are able to properly operate.
"Going through the process was tough," Gordon said. "We were lucky that we had operations in Saskatchewan so we could drive revenue during that term while we were going through the process in British Columbia."
Now that Kiaro has been open on Kingsway for the past two months, Gordon said they've been working with the province to address concerns over the sticker shock for consumers and lack of choice.
"Here in British Columbia with central distribution, there's some challenges around affordability. There's some challenges round the quality and variety that we see. We're always in conversation with British Columbia to move that needle forward," he said.
Mike Serr is the Police Chief for Abbotsfod but is also on a Drug Advisory Committee for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He says the problem with illegal sales is that the money lines the pockets of gangsters.
“We know it still exists very strongly and we're still advocating for changes so we can disrupt the organized crime,” he told CTV News.
Serr added there was no expectation legalization would move the needle on the black market overnight, but he insisted there are changes that need to take place to disrupt organized crime. One thing he advocated for: to get rid of the medical marijuana licensing regime, the other, increasing the number of stores.
The B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said 144 retail licenses have been approved in the province, but that doesn’t mean they’re all open. He added as more illegal shops are shut down, the black market will shrink.
"This is an evolutionary process … You're seeing enforcement against illegal stores is being stepped up."
Farnworth said the Community Safety Unit in charge of cracking down on illegal activity has already seen some success. He said many have voluntarily shut down while others had their product confiscated.
The Public Safety ministry told CTV that CSU officers visited more than 170 unlicensed retailers, adding it could not provide an exact number. The statement went on to say there are “d dozens of unlicensed retailers that have voluntarily closed. Further, our experience is that in most cases, unlicensed retailers that have had cannabis and records seized by the CSU remain closed.
Vancouver Police Department Sgt. Steve Addison said cannabis legalization has not significantly impacted the force's day-to-day operations.
"The VPD continues to focus its drug enforcement priorities on organized and sophisticated producers and traffickers of harmful drugs such as heron, fentanyl and crack cocaine," he said in a statement.
According to the City of Vancouver, there are five dispensaries still operating illegally and officials have notified the province to deal with enforcement.
Gordon said he's optimistic that once edibles are on shelves, legal retailers will have more leverage to bring customers through the doors.
"We are going to see a huge influx of consumers transitioning into the regulated environment. We work very diligently with our supply chain to make sure affordability is key, that quality is key. And we have the people, purpose and passion to talk about each of the products,” he said.
The city said there are 23 retailers that it has recommended receive provincial licensing. If there are no issues, the city said it will issue business permits to those stores.