Don Briere, the owner and Founder of Weeds Glass and Gifts that at one time operated dozens of cannabis retail stores across the country, opened his first fully legal store in Sechelt, British Columbia earlier this year.
Now simply called Weeds, the Sechelt store is in the same location as it’s operated out of since 2015, despite having to close for a few years as Briere and his partner Carol Gwilt worked through the process. Not only did they have to remodel the store, but Briere had to wait more than a year to get his security clearance from the province, a step all retailers must go through.
If you ask Briere, though, he doesn’t see the process as one of “going legal”, but rather of the government finally catching up to what he and others have been doing for a long time.
“Our attitude has always been that what we were doing wasn’t illegal, what the government was doing was illegal,” says Briere. “In other words, enforcing laws based on lies was a criminal misuse of resources. So we were in the right all along.”
The process was not easy, he says. Despite sitting empty, not operating for nearly two years he still had to pay rent and utilities to hold on to his location, plus licensing fees and remodeling costs, he says it easily cost more than $100,000 to make the transition and get licensed.
Now that the first is licensed, he says he has plans to open up to seven more around BC, mostly in the Lower Mainland. Their next location is in Vancouver on Kingsway, which they say should be licensed very soon. Beyond that, Briere says he is looking at cities like Richmond and Surrey that are large markets but have not yet allowed retailers.
“A lot of people, including people way up there, said I would never get a licence,” says Briere. “It took 14 months, but once we have the first as long as you stay within the guidelines you can get up to 8 licenses.”
Licensed near the end of last year, Gwilt says they did a “soft launch” at this location in mid-January and are planning on a more formal launch in April.
Gwilt, who is a co-owner with Briere, says that although she’s happy to finally be able to open again, she has a lot of frustrations with the legal market. Her biggest complaint is not having as much control over the type of products she can stock in her store, which she says has already led to her finding sub-par product that she refuses to sell.
“It’s extremely different,” she explains. “We had a reputation for having very clean, safe cannabis products but we are now opening the way over-packaged stuff… and we’re microscoping them and we’re finding powdery mildew, we’re finding mould, we’re finding all kinds of things.”
“I’ve been dealing with quality control issues with our product since we got our first order,” says Gwilt. “It’s always been my policy for the past decade to ‘scope anything that I’m going to pass on through our stores, and so it can’t be any different in the legal market. So when we buy our strains, for inventory, I buy a product from each sampling and I ‘scope it. And in my first outing I found four out of twelve strains having issues on them, like mould and powdery mildew and whatnot.”
Gwilt and Briere say they have sent some of these samples to an independent lab as well, which has confirmed their own findings, and have sent the findings to Health Canada, the BC LDB and the LPs the products came from.
“Before, if I was going to buy pot for my store, the supplier would come in with their hockey bag and pull out half a pound and I’d ‘scope it and if I wanted it, I would buy the hockey bag and if not he would go back with that bag,” continues Gwilt. “Nowadays it’s coming to me in a pre-packaged box that I now have to pay for twice because I paid for it to get it to my store and now I have to pay for it as a consumer and pay all that tax again on it. And then I scope it. And then I try to go and get a refund for it and they won’t give me a refund for it at the LDB.”
Another frustration, she says, is that the BC government is opening a BC Cannabis store just a few kilometers from their store. But although the government retailer can potentially undercut private retailers on price, she says she thinks her own customers, many of who have frequented the store for years prior to legalization, will appreciate the extra mile she takes to ensure the cannabis they buy is safe.
“The feedback we’re getting is good and people are thankful that we’re doing this,” she says. “They had no idea this was even an issue. Everybody is just trusting the government and trusting the LPs that they’re going to have a good product and that’s far from the case. I have eight strains on my list to return that I will not sell, ever, because they have these issues.”
Not all the products she’s encountering are bad, she says, with some matching the quality she used to see in the unlicensed market, but the difference is one of price. Whereas a top-quality flower would have sold for around $10 in her store before, she says it’s now around $16.
Briere, though, is a little more hopeful. He says the government seems to be learning from some of their mistakes and he’s glad to finally be operating with the full approval of the province.
“The rollout, as bad as it was, is better than having cannabis illegal.”