Interest, But No Cannabis Chaos in B.C., as Legalization Now in Effect

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — British Columbia is coping with a complex shift in policy as recreational marijuana is legalized but the province has passed one significant hurdle with its online sales system, says the public safety minister.

The online site went live at midnight and Mike Farnworth says it recorded about 1,000 sales in the first hour.

“It did not crash,” he told a conference call just hours after the site opened.

“So far, it is performing as we hoped it would.”

Farnworth said business remained steady through the early morning hours, although he did not have specific figures.

He also explained the rationale behind the price of marijuana listed on the government website, which ranges from $6.99 to just over $16 per gram.

“People are prepared to pay a premium for knowing that they have a product that they can trust,” he said.

“We are confident that our pricing is competitive and that it is products that people will want.”

Several customers stood in line before sunrise waiting for B.C.’s only recreational cannabis store to open in Kamloops. The government-run outlet is in a strip mall. Its windows are frosted and a security guard paced outside.

Blain Lawson, CEO of the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, said the store’s windows meet a Health Canada regulation that prohibits product being visible from the street.

“We’re making sure that it looks nice from the outside, but children won’t be able to see into the store,” he said.

Becky Prete, who works at cannabis company Tweed Inc. and is in her 30s, drove from Kelowna and stayed overnight in a hotel before arriving at the store at 6 a.m. Bundled in a blanket and sipping a coffee, she was first in line and said she couldn’t wait for the doors to open.

“I have a feeling I’ll be mildly overwhelmed because I’m going to want to look at everything, but I’m just excited to check it out,” she said.

Craig McCarthy drove for two hours from Chilliwack, arriving at about 2 a.m., but his decision to nap in his car made him second in line. He has been smoking cannabis for 20 years and normally purchases shatter from an illegal dispensary.

He said he didn’t mind that the government-run store doesn’t carry the concentrated product, which is still illegal, and he’ll buy marijuana online from now on instead of purchasing it illegally.

“I’m just happy it’s finally here,” he said. “It’ll absolutely change my life. It’s like a feeling, a weight lifted off your shoulders, when you’re constantly hiding it to a degree.”

The store has a clean, streamlined layout with white walls and glossy shelves. Mounted electronic tablets with touch screens display strains of marijuana available for purchase and prices.

Consumers can take a whiff of each strain from a clear plastic “smell jar” that has a small piece of bud inside. Staff carry small flashlights to help customers take a closer look at the nuggets, but otherwise the product is not openly displayed.

Some 92 products from 40 licensed producers are available, but only about seven per cent come from B.C. Kevin Satterfield, director of cannabis retail operations for the distribution branch, said he hoped to increase the amount of locally grown marijuana over time.

“It’s going to be, for lack of a better term, a growth industry,” he said.

In addition to artwork featuring weed leaves and colourful glass bongs, shoppers are greeted by a number of signs informing them about cannabis with safety advice. The signs explain the types of cannabis plants, the dangers of consuming while pregnant and other safety concerns.

Satterfield said about 20 people have been hired to work at the store and they looked for staff with awareness of cannabis. All underwent criminal background checks, but a small pot possession conviction would not necessarily disqualify them from being hired, Satterfield said.

Farnworth said 173 applications for more stores are being considered.

He said part of the delay in opening stores was due to the provincial pledge that local governments will make the final decision about the types of stores — whether public or private — as well as locations and the number of retail cannabis outlets that will be allowed in their communities.

“Many communities have said they are ready to deal with processing applications … but they want local government elections out of the way,” he said.

Municipal elections will be held across B.C. on Saturday and Farnworth said he expected more cannabis stores will open in the coming months.

In Victoria, where city council issued business licences to marijuana dispensaries before legalization, several stores were closed Wednesday but others were open for business.

UEM Cannabis Victoria posted a notice on its front door that read: “It is our goal to always be here for our members and we thank you for your understanding and patience during the switch over to legalization.”

— With files from Beth Leighton in Vancouver and Dirk Meissner in Victoria

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press