Wild West Of Weed: Working at a Vancouver Dispensary

This article first appeared in the Shop Bonsai app.


Marijuana is the most popular recreational drug in Canada. The proliferation of Canadian cannabis is in large part due to successful underground production and distribution networks that have flooded the country for years. As the popularity of marijuana has grown, so too has the tolerance shown by policy-makers and law enforcement officials towards its sale and use, resulting in a positive feedback loop of acceptance.

Today, everyone from organized criminals to craft cannabis business owners are transitioning  to a more legal means of sale, however the marketplace that exists in the meantime is far from perfect. While tolerated in some jurisdictions, the sale of marijuana remains illegal, and this hurdle dictates only those willing to risk a criminal charge are participating in the industry. While this is far from an indictment on the entire industry, it serves as a handy way of explaining the strange business practices and anomalies that occur in an industry yet to fully gain legal recognition.

From the smoker’s perspective, the state of marijuana in Canada has never been better. Marijuana is stronger, safer, and more accessible than ever before. Behind the scenes, however, many in the marijuana industry know customers are still getting a raw deal. Without a regulatory framework in place, there is little-to-no incentive for dispensaries to demonstrate full transparency when it comes to the source and quality of their cannabis-related products. When I first began working as a budtender at one of Vancouver’s oldest dispensaries, I assumed that these were problems that only faced other stores, not my own. As I learned more about the day-to-day operations of a modern day dispensary, I eventually understood that these were not only problems at my local pot store, but they were commonplace throughout the industry.

Dr. Feel Good

I began working in the marijuana industry in the fall of 2016 at a dispensary that branded itself as a medical facility. I personally had received a membership a year earlier due to a medical prescription I had “that could be reasonable replaced with marijuana” and that was enough to meet the store’s “medical” requirement. While I was enthused to have found a safe, reasonable means to access marijuana (see: no random dude coming to my apartment) I was aware that I was taking my own medical treatment into my own hands, for better or for worse. After all, no doctor had sent me there. I just wanted to feel better, and a dispensary in walking distance from my home provided the easiest means of doing so.

At first I managed to garner a sense of pride in providing people with access to the marijuana they desired. One part civil disobedience, one part human compassion, I was simply providing a means through which adults could make themselves feel better, and I found it to be a rewarding experience. On top of it all, the customers were friendly. I wasn’t hitting them with hidden fees or taxes, they were hitting me up for a means to happiness, and that made me feel pretty damn good too. In fact, most of my negative interactions with potential customers occured when I had to turn the individual away. At first, it was a daily occurrence to turn away a potential customer, leaving them to walk to another dispensary down the road with more malleable morals than ours. While this may have been good judgment, it was bad business, and like our neighbours we were forced to adapt. Soon after, a faux-political party was formed, the store was dubbed its headquarters, and the store was declared open to anyone above the age of 18. It was the first clear act of escalation I witnessed, but it was far from the first or last. In the next year every principle the store supposedly stood for would be abandoned in pursuit of a better bottom line.

What began as a medical marijuana dispensary quickly adapted to become a non-discriminatory marijuana store. Emboldened by an apathetic police force, our medical marijuana became recreational cannabis sold to anyone over the age of 18 for months. Instead of playing on about pain management or sleepless nights, the budtenders were free to cater to the consumer openly, and for months this business model flourished while the City of Vancouver worked to regulate eager participants. By the summer of 2016 Vancouver was home to over 100 dispensaries, and soon it was no longer enough for my store to sell to the local marketplace: we had to go national. Just as our competition had forced us to match their open-door policy to adults, so too did Vancouver’s apathy towards dispensaries face Canada’s hand. Soon the country would be flooded with mail order marijuana, and there was little that could be done to stop it.

The summer of 2016 was a gold rush for Vancouver’s marijuana dispensaries: with news coverage each week, the stores were getting more press than ever before, and the rush to capitalize on this publicity was on. Personally, I had elevated myself to become the manager of my own dispensary, and the resulting power and privilege showed me a world of “medical” marijuana that was much more grim than I had first imagined. As a smoker and budtender, I was happy to trust that whatever passed through my hands or lungs was good enough, however as a manager I discovered the truth was far less comforting.

The Wild and Unregulated West

Under the financial pressure to sell, there are very few things salespeople won’t do to sweeten their bottom line and improve efficiency. These pressures are the same in any industry, and selling marijuana is not much different than selling wine, for example. Economic actors are bound to search for advantages in a competitive market, and in the summer of 2016 Vancouver’s marijuana industry offered a unique look at what happens when a competitive and unregulated marijuana marketplace is allowed to grow wild.

As a manager, I witnessed a number of unsavoury business practices that not only call into question the business ethics of those involved, but also the safety of those affected by these decisions. From changing strain names to intentionally mislabelling cannabis products in order to better market them, the pitfalls of an unethical dispensary are numerous, and have a direct influence on both the mental and physical health of those consuming the products.

At best, those purchasing from medical and/or recreational marijuana dispensaries in Canada are doing so at their own risk. Luckily for smokers, the side-effects of “bad” marijuana are relatively benign, especially when compared to those facing hard drug users. As Canada progresses closer to fully legalizing marijuana it is the government’s mandate to establish a regulatory scheme and business mechanism that works to provide fair opportunity for businesses, while also protecting the safety of eventual consumers. I recognize not every store is necessarily as unethical as the one I was once associated with, however market forces dictate that there are likely to be many others. Regardless of whether you are an everyday smoker or a concerned taxpayer that has never been in contact with the drug, it should be clear that Canada’s marijuana industry must be taxed and regulated in order to maximize net social benefit, not profits.


Next time on Bonsai Kevin Vanstone will break down common problems facing the marijuana industry and how certain regulations can keep consumers safe and allow them to make more informed decisions.