Activist’s dream of pot-store chain has rivals fuming

“A compassion club’s mandate is to take care of seriously ill Canadians. A lot of constitutional claims can be made to protect a club from conviction,” said Osgoode Hall legal scholar Alan Young. “No legitimate compassion club has ever been convicted.” Legitimacy is a question that dogs Mr. Webber, who opened Culture 420 earlier this year. (Prof. Young, for one, doesn’t intend to help Culture 420, saying he represents only clubs he can prove are legitimate.) Mr. Webber’s competitors say his marketing schemes and loose membership rules forced the hand of police, who have let other clubs operate in peace since the last criminal case against them was thrown out in 2002.

The Globe and Mail
July 16, 2010

Activist’s dream of pot-store chain has rivals fuming
Fellow cannabis club owners blame Montreal man for drawing police attention with his threats of expansion
Les Perreaux

Gary_Webber.jpg

Gary Webber's goal is to open a chain of 250 cannabis clubs across the country, including more than a dozen in Montreal. John Morstad for The Globe and Mail

If everything goes according to Gary Webber’s plan, a national chain of 250 medicinal marijuana franchises will spread across Canada this summer.

It’s a big “if.” Mr. Webber’s ambition may just turn out to be the outlandish dream of an impatient activist – and if Montreal police prove their criminal case against him, he may also be branded as little more than an audacious dope peddler. Many pot activists already question Mr. Webber’s credibility, and blame him for bringing the weight of police enforcement on them with his penchant for drawing attention and threatening unbridled expansion.

However it pans out, Mr. Webber, 37, has already shaken up the world of medical marijuana and may have set off events that could help clear the legal murk shrouding pot’s place in the nation’s medicine cabinet.

For years, police have turned a blind eye to cannabis clubs, which have openly sold pot to at least 21,000 Canadians. While standards vary wildly, most above-ground clubs require customers to obtain a note from a doctor, chiropractor or naturopath saying weed is needed to treat illness or chronic pain. The dispensaries are still illegal, however.

Police tolerance changed suddenly this year. In the past eight months, shops in Nunavut, Toronto and Guelph, Ont., have been shut down, their operators charged with illegally possessing or distributing pot. The biggest raid took place in Quebec last month, where five clubs were busted, including Mr. Webber’s Culture 420 Compassion Society in the Montreal suburb of Lachine.

While defence lawyers plan strategies, Mr. Webber says he is firing back immediately. He says he will seek a court injunction this summer to force police to leave clubs alone. He promises associates will open dozens of new “franchises” this year, quickly surpassing the number of outlets of some well-known national chains. Mr. Webber declines to disclose the identity of his backers or precise locations.

“We’re going to move forward, regardless. We will open 15 clubs within the greater Montreal area within 30 days,” Mr. Webber said. “There are court orders that say the current situation in Canada is unconstitutional. We want to force authorities to honour that.”

Activists and legal scholars in Ontario and Quebec, with long records of winning pot cases, are preparing for their own legal challenges.

“A compassion club’s mandate is to take care of seriously ill Canadians. A lot of constitutional claims can be made to protect a club from conviction,” said Osgoode Hall legal scholar Alan Young. “No legitimate compassion club has ever been convicted.”

Legitimacy is a question that dogs Mr. Webber, who opened Culture 420 earlier this year. (Prof. Young, for one, doesn’t intend to help Culture 420, saying he represents only clubs he can prove are legitimate.) Mr. Webber’s competitors say his marketing schemes and loose membership rules forced the hand of police, who have let other clubs operate in peace since the last criminal case against them was thrown out in 2002.

While established clubs in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have run quietly for years, Culture 420 was a short-lived attention-getter. It ran ads and used such ploys as offering a free gram of marijuana to clients who brought in new customers. Dozens of buyers streamed in daily, including many student-aged customers.

Culture 420 gained 2,000 members in just two months – rivalling membership at the longstanding Montreal Compassion Centre and Toronto’s Cannabis As Living Medicine on Queen Street. “You can’t run around scaring people,” said Marc-Boris St-Maurice, the head of the Montreal centre. “I’m quite certain [Mr. Webber’s] ambitions are part of what led to what happened to us. If they succeed in opening 10 places in the Montreal area. … well, I for one am quite sensitive to the concerns authorities may have with that.”

Mr. Webber argues the incremental approach has just produced confusion, arrests and the denial of vital medical supplies for sick users. He has a personal medical stake in the fight – he uses pot to treat his own chronic pain from unsuccessful operations to correct a birth defect in the bone structure of his lower body. After years of suffering on prescription opiates, he says cannabis finally give him pain relief.

“We want to give Canadians God’s medicine,” Mr. Webber said.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/quebec/activists-dream-of-pot-store-chain-has-rivals-fuming/article1643298/


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