The Hamilton Spectator
City pot dispensaries in regulatory Wild West
Walking into Pacifico Health and Wellness in Westdale feels much like walking into a spa: white walls, exposed wood beams, chic lighting, and calm atmosphere.
Nevermind the fact that it’s a medical marijuana dispensary.
Tamara Hirsch seems like an unlikely advocate for a controversial industry that exists in a legal grey area. The mom of two, who has blond hair and elfin looks, has opened two successful medical marijuana dispensaries in Hamilton in the past year — one on James Street North and the second in Westdale — and says she’d like to open more.
Her store, which offers everything from traditional marijuana buds to THC-infused bath bombs and shaving cream, is only one example of a string of dispensaries that have opened in Hamilton within the past year.
Hirsch says that her businesses operate under strict
standards. To access products, patrons must be admitted to a locked inner room beyond the lobby. At the end of the day, merchandise is stored in a class-6 safe. Patrons must have a doctors’ note or medical marijuana prescription, must answer an eight-page intake form to suss out the likelihood or risk of addiction, and sign a code of conduct for responsible use.
However, Hirsch says standards at other dispensaries can be much more lax.
“There are places where if you’re 19 or older, you can walk in and purchase,” she said. “It’s self-regulated. That’s the problem.”
That’s one of the reasons why the city says it will start to crack down on dispensaries in Hamilton. After taking a hands-off approach to the businesses, planning director Jason Thorne sent an update memo to city councillors last week saying licensing and bylaw officials will investigate 15 known storefront pot sellers “to determine if there is any violation of municipal bylaws.”
The city’s stance on medical marijuana dispensaries has been a perplexing back-and-forth for the industry and city hall alike.
“I have to admit to being a little bit confused — not distraught, not upset — nothing other than really being confused,” said Coun. Jason Farr, whose downtown ward includes several dispensaries. “I still kind of feel like it’s like watching the Australian Open during a good rally. It’s just a like a yo-yo.”
Thorne said the enforcement was a “matter of fairness,” noting other business owners are complaining about having to pay fees and abide by regulations while pot dispensaries operate outside regulation. Ken Leendertse, the city’s director of licensing and animal services, says the decision was spurred on by recent complaints from Business Improvement Areas.
“Based on these complaints, it was decided that, even though they are the responsibility of the police, the city needed to examine if there are any safety concerns or violations under municipal bylaws,” Leendertse said in an email.
Dispensaries in Hamilton run the gamut from Pacifico’s spa-like atmosphere to a more traditional head-shop feel.
MMJ, a medical marijuana dispensary at George and Queen streets, has a vastly different atmosphere than Pacifico. Patrons buzz in through a locked door and enter a room that smells overwhelmingly of pot. Marijuana is immediately visible behind a glass counter and staff wear blue medical gloves to dispense their product.
In September, MMJ CEO Clint Younge was charged with possession of marijuana for the purpose of trafficking and possession of cannabis resin for the purpose of trafficking.
A spokesperson for MMJ said Younge was not available for comment.
Hirsch, whose background is in the design/build industry, says she was not a recreational marijuana user and only discovered the world of medical pot after getting sick. On vacation, she ate a red snapper that had ingested toxic algae — a neurotoxin that can’t be detected or cooked out of fish.
“I almost died,” she said. “I was taking Percocet and Gabapentin, and someone introduced me to marijuana — and I was amazed to see that it worked.”