Canada: Ottawa's illegal pot shops step up as Ontario government store struggles to deliver marijuana

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As the Ontario government’s online cannabis store struggles to meet demand and deliver weed on time, illegal operators in town are stepping up.

Five dispensaries were back in business on Wednesday. How long they will remain open is another question. Ottawa police warn they plan to close them.

Officers have visited dispensaries to give operators “one last chance to close down,” according to a statement from Ottawa Police Service Const. Amy Gagnon.

“In the coming weeks, they will be receiving another visit in order to close them down.”

Most of the city’s two dozen dispensaries closed shortly before Canada legalized recreational pot on Oct. 17. Stiff new fines for illegal sellers and landlords who rent to them came into effect that day. The province also warned that anyone still involved in the black market after legalization would not be eligible to apply for a licence to run a legal store.

Ontario plans to license privately-run cannabis stores, but the regulations are still being written. The stores are expected to open in April 2019.

In the meantime, the only legal supply is online from the Ontario Cannabis Store — and it has been deluged with complaints.

The store has struggled to meet what officials call the “unbelievably high” demand for legal pot just as postal workers stage rotating strikes.

Some customers are waiting a week or more for deliveries that were supposed to arrive in one to five days, customer service phone lines have been jammed and customers report glitches in credit-card payments.

Since the government store has “crashed,” dispensaries are needed, said James Stanley, spokesperson for The Hemp Company, which reopened its dispensaries on Merivale Road and Clarence Street in the ByWard Market earlier this week.

Both Hemp Company stores stopped selling pot on Oct. 17, but were flooded with requests from customers to reopen, he said. “Literally they were just begging us.” The Hemp Company owner wants to remain anonymous.

It’s better for shoppers to buy the newly legal product in a safe, clean store than a dark alley, said Stanley.

He says The Hemp Company is making a public appeal for permission to operate temporarily.

He’s not clear about which authorities might grant such permission — “maybe the mayor will step up?” — but says store officials are eager to follow whatever rules might be imposed.

“We are ready to comply with you guys, whatever you guys want. Give us a temporary licence or something. Whatever it can be, we are willing to do that.

“We are open to help people out. We don’t want to do it against the government. We want to do it with them, not against them. At the end of the day we’re just trying to make the people happy.”

The City of Vancouver, Stanley noted, issued licences to illegal dispensaries for several years in order to control them.

Federal and provincial authorities as well as Ottawa police have said repeatedly that dispensaries are illegal and sell unregulated products that may not be safe.

Ottawa police have conducted sporadic raids on dispensaries for the past two years and charged people working inside them with drug trafficking. But many of the stores reopened, and most of the clerks were given discharges by the courts.

Will it be any different now that pot is legal and dispensaries are competing with the government store? One big difference is that the new provincial cannabis law gives police the power to simply close the shops.

A clerk on duty at the Ottawa Compassion Clinic on Rideau Street Wednesday said a police raid is something that worries him.

The man pleaded guilty earlier this week to drug trafficking charges laid while he was working at another dispensary that was raided.

“It goes with the territory,” he shrugged. “I have bills to pay.”

Customers interviewed at the five dispensaries now open say they like the convenience of shopping in a store, where they can see the product and chat with staff.

Noah Fleming, who was shopping at the Compassion Clinic, said he checked out the Ontario Cannabis Store but was turned off by the delivery times. “I find it easier to go to a bricks-and-mortar store. When you are looking for weed it’s best to get it right away, rather than wait five days. That’s my belief, anyway.”

Dried bud was on sale there for $12.50 a gram, which is comparable to or higher than most prices at the government store. Dispensaries also stock cannabis edibles and concentrates, which are still illegal and not sold at the government store.

At Green Life, a dispensary in the bottom floor of a house on Athlone Avenue in Westboro, dried bud ranged from $4 a gram for Lemon G to $8 for Girl Scout Cookies. Cannabis-laced gummy bears, cookies and barbecued peanuts were also on the menu.

At The Hemp Company on Merivale Road, customer Joseph Tremblay, 58, said it’s a “huge pain in the ass to get any kind of weed” in Ottawa compared with his hometown of Vancouver. Tremblay was visiting town when he suffered a series of heart attacks, and now he’s stuck here for another month.

He’s not eligible to order from the government store because it’s only open to residents of Ontario. So he took a cab from the Civic hospital to buy weed at the dispensary.

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