While the battle rages over Vancouver’s storefront dispensaries, some savvy retailers are moving the business online, and taking advantage in a gap in regulations.
Dozens of the online operations have sprouted up in the city, and fall outside Vancouver’s now year-old pot shop bylaw.
A quick glance at one of the many websites reveals they sell virtually any product that can be procured at a brick and mortar shop, from smokeable buds, to edibles, to concentrates like shatter or phoenix tears.
Business is clearly booming.
“We do have an age verification system and a medical documentation verification system, so all clients who sign up have to have medical documentation as well as proof of age. During the registration process they’re required to upload their ID and their documentation for us,” says JC, manager of ZenLeaf Herbal Delivery.
JC says ZenLeaf sends product through Canada Post, and offers free delivery to anyone within the boundaries of Vancouver proper, something she says is crucial to their customers.
“It tends to help out clients who are elderly, have mobility issues, have crippling social anxiety, don’t like to go outdoors. We have a fair number of clients who are in professions where they don’t want to be seen going in and out of dispensaries, doctors, teachers.”
She says they ship product all across Canada, though about 70% of their clients are local.
JC says she knows of about 20 similar businesses in town, but says plenty open every year only to soon close after realizing the amount of logistical work it takes to keep customers happy.
Rules and regulations
JC says the police are aware of their operations, but have left them in peace.
That’s despite offering a service which competes with the one legal avenue to buy medical pot in Canada: through the mail from one of the country’s licensed producers.
But JC says online dispensaries like hers can get product to clients cheaper, and offer things like edibles the LPs aren’t.
“We stock products that are organic, chemical free, free of pesticides, and we found that there’s been a huge market for that because the licensed producers can’t always promise that. Or some people just aren’t into smoking and they’re looking for alternative ways to get their medicine.”
As to Vancouver’s bylaw, which targets storefront operations, JC says it’s not fair to compare the two. She says her company operates out of a non-descript office, invisible to the public.
“The other locations, kids can just walk by and see, people do stand outside and smoke even though you’re supposed to, but people will, right? We’re not directly visible like a liquor store would be. We’re very discreet.”
Asked about the bustling digital market for pot, Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang admits they’re something officials hadn’t put much thought into.
He says Vancouver’s bylaw was designed specifically to focus on the bloom of street-side pot shops, and that tackling marijuana itself is out of the city’s jurisdiction.
“It’s the regulation of the substance itself. Our bylaw is actually quite silent on the legality of the substance. All we’re regulating at the city are the actual storefronts that are very visible and are open.”
Jang says he does have some health safety concerns with the businesses, because people can’t see what they’re buying, and says their popularity points to the need for Ottawa to act.
“I know we’re all waiting for the federal government to make some moves on how they want to approach marijuana, this is certainly one issue. And I urge the federal government to really start to move quickly on it.”
Asked about the industry, the VPD offered a statement in line with its existing policy around marijuana: enforcement is low priority without complaints.
“The sale of marijuana remains illegal in Canada. While marijuana offences are generally not a priority for the VPD as we spend our time and resources dealing with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl related issues, people do run the risk of unwanted police attention and becoming a priority if public safety becomes a concern.”
With no enforcement from the city, police, or the feds, online pot shops seem to have found a niche for the time being.
But JC says her company has extended an eye to the future, with anticipated legalization legislation in the pipeline.
She says they’ve been keeping meticulous books since opening a year ago, and even putting cash in the bank to pay back taxes once they’re above board.