Few charges, no convictions in pot shop probes

Police executed nine search warrants over 18 months

The business of investigating and prosecuting illegal marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver has yet to result in the successful prosecution of any suspects whom police arrested over an 18-month span while executing nine search warrants at city pot shops.

In examining court records and conducting interviews with Vancouver police, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and a dispensary operator, the Courier learned that only three people were charged in connection with raids on two pot shops.

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In the other investigations, prosecutors are reviewing whether to approve charges in three busts and police are waiting for analysis of evidence in another three cases before recommending charges to the federal Crown office.

Police executed the nine warrants between October 2013 and April 2015. Three of the warrants were associated to the Real Compassion Society at 151 East Hastings, which continued to operate this week. Police were there in October 2013, December 2013 and August 2014.

Warrants were not immediately available for the Courier to view and believed to be sealed. However, the VPD issued a news release Oct. 25, 2013 saying “drug investigators do not believe that the operators of this dispensary were intent on providing any type of medical service but, instead, were allegedly trafficking in significant amounts of marijuana for financial gain.”

Even with that observation almost two years ago, it wasn’t until April of this year that prosecutors approved two counts of trafficking against David Luke Bauman. No date has been set for trial. Prosecutors also approved drug charges in April against Joseph William Fortt and Dayna Christiansen in connection with a warrant served June 23, 2014 at Weeds Glass and Gifts, 2580 Kingsway. They’re also awaiting trial.

Though it appears the wheels of justice are moving slowly in the investigations, both police and the prosecution service say the cases are complex, time-consuming, require a lot of paper work and involve sending evidence for analysis to Health Canada.

“It takes the time it takes,” said Dan Brien, director of communications for the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, which is the federal office responsible for prosecuting drug cases on behalf of the Government of Canada. “Before charges are approved, there might be some back and forth between police and Crown while we assess a file to make sure that there’s sufficient evidence.”

Brien declined to discuss the specifics of each case but said prosecutors will only approve a charge if the evidence supports the prospect of a conviction. Then the Crown decides whether it’s in the public’s interest to proceed with a prosecution, he said.

Asked whether the ever-changing laws related to marijuana are considered when proceeding with charges, Brien said “decisions of the Supreme Court are always taken into consideration but I can’t speak to specifics.” Last week, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that prohibition of edible marijuana goods such as cookies violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Added Brien: “We prosecute the cases that are brought before us. We defend the law as it is.”

Const. Brian Montague, a VPD media liaison officer, said a great deal of time and resources are involved in busting a dispensary. Montague said there’s a perception “that we can just walk into a store that’s selling illegal products, take everything, arrest the individual behind the counter and board up the business. Clearly, that’s not the case.”

Police have to first gather evidence to obtain a search warrant before conducting a raid, he said, adding that can involve informants, undercover operators and observations made about operators and customers.

“There’s a whole host of tactics that we have to use to make sure the investigation is done properly, so when it does go to court, we don’t set bad case law and search warrants [get] tossed out,” said Montague, noting exhibits in drug cases are sent to Health Canada for analysis. “That takes a great deal of time, too. And until we get those reports back, we don’t forward a report to Crown and, of course, Crown can’t take it to court without an analysis certificate.”

That said, the VPD is on record of saying investigating pot shops is not a top priority for the department’s drug unit. Former police chief Jim Chu also floated the idea when he was president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police to ticket a person for possession of marijuana, instead of making an arrest.

In March 2014, the VPD issued a public statement saying it “has taken and will continue to take, in the face of amended marijuana laws, a priority based approach to the enforcement of those laws.” The VPD’s drug unit says its priorities include targeting violent street and mid-level drug dealers, violent gang members involved in the drug trade, dealers who prey on vulnerable people and dealers who sell heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.

“For the most part,” the VPD’s statement said, “medical marijuana dispensaries operating today in Vancouver do not meet these criteria.”

That didn’t stop police from busting Budzilla Cannabis Edibles and Butters, 2267 Kingsway, on the morning of Sept. 2, 2014. Rej Houle, managing director of the co-op that operates Budzilla, said he was baking marijuana-infused cookies when about 20 police officers raided his dispensary.

“Literally, 20 guys came in and I was making cookies,” Houle said. “It was way overkill.”

Houle said police told him they were acting on a complaint and seized cash, computers, marijuana and cannabis-infused goods such as candies, hand cream and massage oil in the execution of the search warrant. Police arrested Houle, took him to the department for two hours for questioning and then released him.

Houle, who re-opened his shop after being released, said police told him he was still under investigation, although he has no information to conclude he will be charged. He said police accused him of being a drug dealer but Houle said he operates a non-profit business that provides medicinal cannabis for people with illnesses.

“Even after the raid, I’m not mad at the police or anything like that – they’re strictly doing their job, just like I’m doing my job,” he said, noting there is growing support from politicians and others for legalizing and controlling the sale of cannabis. “It’s people’s perceptions and opinions. And nowadays, those perceptions and opinions are in our favour. So it’s a different playing field than the federal government thinks. What I’m trying to say is Vancouver is not Ottawa.”

Though he acknowledged “some bad apples” are associated to dispensaries, Houle said charges against other operators are viewed by cannabis advocates as more symbolic than criminal. Eventually, he said, being charged with possession of marijuana “will be a thing of the past.”

“I’m saying this because being charged with possession is the equivalent to jaywalking,” Houle said.

Police last served a warrant on a pot shop April 29, 2015 at Weeds Glass and Gifts, 2916 West Fourth Ave. That’s where police said a 15-year-old was hospitalized after allegedly purchasing edible products from the store. Other “events involving young people” were also reason for executing the search warrant, according to police.

Don Briere, who co-owns more than a dozen Weeds Glass and Gifts pot shops, told the Courier last month that his staff member did not sell to the teen and doesn’t know how he obtained the product. He said none of his stores sell to minors, although he surmised an adult could have bought the product for the boy.

“If it was a client that did that, then they should be charged and we will ban that person from our stores forever,” he said, noting the store re-opened about 48 hours later. “But it’s all hearsay and there were no charges.”

Customers and staff at the store were identified and released pending further investigation, which could end in charges, police said after the raid.

The Courier’s review of the nine warrants comes as city council considers a staff proposal to regulate Vancouver’s pot shops. It’s an unprecedented move by a Canadian municipality, with the city calling for a ban on edibles, a $30,000 annual licensing fee, criminal record checks and pot shops restricted from operating within 300 metres of a school or community centre.

Houle said he supports some form of regulations but doesn’t believe the city has a case in banning edibles since last week’s Supreme Court of Canada decision. As a non-profit, he said, a $30,000 licence fee is too expensive.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose criticized the city for proposing the regulations and pointed the finger at the VPD for not shutting down the 90-plus dispensaries. None of the dispensaries are licensed by Health Canada, endorsed by a medical body or associated to any legitimate health service provider.

The public hearing on the city’s proposal to regulate pot shops resumes June 22 at 6 p.m.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Police executed nine search warrants at pot shops between October 2013 and April 2015. Here’s the full list:

  • April 29, 2015, Weeds Glass and Gifts, 2916 West 4th Ave.
  • Feb. 5, 2015, Health Lifestyle Marihuana, #201-1011 Commercial Drive
  • Oct.15, 2014, Pacific Canamed Medicinal Society, 6093 West Boulevard
  • Sept. 2, 2014, Budzilla Cannabis Edibles and Butters, 2267 Kingsway
  • Aug. 12, 2014, Dec. 19, 2013, Oct. 25, 2013, Real Compassion Society, 151 East Hastings
  • July 24, 2014, Jim’s Weeds Lounge, 882 East Hastings
  • June 23, 2014, Weeds Glass and Gifts, 2580 Kingsway.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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