By Vanessa Broadbent
A couple of entrepreneurs in Oliver have filled the gap for medical marijuana users in town.
Canna Cabana, a new medical marijuana dispensary located beside C & C Food Mart on Highway 97 just south of town, is open for business.
Although the dispensary has only been open for two weeks, plans for it have been in the works for over three years when Rick Stagg, one of the shop’s owners, started researching dispensaries.
“I just really wanted to wait and see how legislation was going to fall into place and I wanted to learn a little more.”
Blayne Poirier, a friend of Stagg’s and colleague at the time, came on board and the pair traveled to Saskatchewan, visiting as many dispensaries as they could between the Okanagan and Regina to see different business models and get feedback from owners.
Poirier and Stagg looked at opening the dispensary in Okanagan Falls and Osoyoos but Oliver – or just outside of it – ended up being the best option.
The dispensary’s location is on regional district property, meaning that the Town’s bylaws have no jurisdiction. Also, the regional district doesn’t require any business licences so there was no need to go through its board for approval.
“The Regional District has been very open about this,” Poirier said. “We haven’t had any issues. We told them this was our plan and we never had any grief.”
Even though Town bylaws aren’t enforced in regional district areas, any vendors producing, providing or obtaining medical marijuana are still required to be licenced by Health Canada under the federal Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
Poirier said this is a “grey area” because Health Canada licences growers and producers, while dispensaries are normally licenced through a municipality.
All of Canna Cabana’s products come from licenced growers and everything is lab tested before it hits shelves. Every item comes in a sealed package that has a label on it listing the THC content and medical information.
But even with all the right licences and procedures, opening a dispensary can attract controversy, especially with legalization not yet in effect.
But Poirier said the public response has been more positive than he expected.
“The worst we’ve had so far is someone poked their head in the door that probably doesn’t agree with it and say ‘yup, it’s one of those shops,’ and just closed the door.”
The negative stigma against medical marijuana is something Stagg and Poirier are hoping to change in Oliver and they want to start with educating their customers – or anyone interested in learning more – about medical cannabis products.
Both Poirier and Stagg have family members that use cannabis for medical purposes, but that doesn’t mean they simply smoke weed and get high, despite the popular conception of medical marijuana.
The Canna Cabana sells CBD (cannabidiol) oil, a product that contains only cannabidiol, a component found in cannabis known for its medical use.
By using only CBD, consumers don’t get the effects of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the component in cannabis that makes you get “stoned.”
Many of the dispensary’s customers are opting to use CBD products because they want the medical benefits of cannabis but without the impairment or having to smoke the product.
And Stagg said that’s his goal: to help his customers improve their health.
“We’re here to help people; we’re not here to be drug dealers. There’s enough of them out there.”
Both Stagg and Poirier are nearing completion of TCMI (The Medical Cannabis Institute) certification which teaches professionals the effects and uses of medical cannabis and its clinical application.
Anyone that’s hired to work at the dispensary will be required to complete the training as well.
“We want to provide a place where people can feel comfortable enough to come in and talk about what’s going on in their lives and get a little bit of knowledge, very similar to going to a drug store and saying ‘I’m having trouble sleeping’ or ‘I’m in pain, what do you recommend?’” Stagg explained.
“We can work with you and start you off with something very mild and work you into what you’re comfortable with.”
All of Canna Cabana’s customers are required to have a medical condition and sign up for a membership to be able to purchase anything. This includes providing identification and medical information. In return, if they have a condition that medical marijuana can help treat, they are given a membership card and the ability to buy products.
“They have to have an ailment,” Poirier said. “We’re not dealing whatsoever with recreational users.”
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that none of their products will end up being used recreationally. Stagg noted that once the product is out of their store, they can’t control how it’s used.
But selling only to those who need it for medical use is what they can control.
“A 19-year-old kid fresh out of high school doesn’t need to be coming in and buying a bag of dope every day,” Stagg said. “It’s not going to be changing his life for the positive.”
Another concern Stagg said was brought to his attention is increased marijuana use near the shop, which is close to two other businesses. He and Poirier are hoping to prevent that by not selling pre-rolled joints like most dispensaries do.
“It just makes it way too easy for someone to hop into their car and smoke,” Poirier said.
“We really drive this into people’s heads: nobody is driving away smoking a joint or eating an edible, we make that very clear,” Stagg added.
“If you stand outside and pull out a bag of anything here, you are never welcome here, that is our rule. We tell every person that comes in here that we think may need to be told.”
Through education and professionalism, Stagg and Poirier hope to slowly change public perception of dispensaries.
“I think it’s so new, that’s the problem. It’s no different than people accepting liquor stores,” Stagg said.
“We’re hoping in time that we’ll be carrying a lot more literature so that people that are against it can come in and get some literature and make their own opinion. It’s not up to us to change their opinion, all we want to do is give the information.”
Regardless of public perception, Stagg and Poirier say they’ve been pleasantly surprised by the interest so far.
In the two weeks Canna Cabana has been open for business, it already has close to 150 members, a third of whom Poirier says are seniors. Their oldest customer has been 90.
They’ve also had visitors from the entire Okanagan, from Keremeos to Salmon Arm.
Going forward, Stagg and Poirier have plans to open a shop in Osoyoos as well, but not until recreational cannabis use becomes legal.
“As legislation passes we’ll be applying to the surrounding communities and where legislation isn’t necessary we’ll be opening where we can when the time is right,” Stagg said.
Until then, Canna Cabana will keep operating as is and Poirier and Stagg will keep advocating for medical marijuana.
“We’re not just guys making a living from this – I also have children and want someone with a conscience to be part of this industry,” Stagg said.
“We are doing this because we believe in the products and want to show how people can responsibly have access to these products from locals.”