6 months after closing, cannabis dispensary chain fined $1.5 million for operating without a licence

The provincial government has slapped the general manager of a B.C. retail cannabis chain with a $1.5-million fine for illegally operating dispensaries without a proper licence — more than six months after the company closed down shop. 

Alex Robb, the director and general manager of Trees Cannabis Dispensary, said he received the fine in late January. 

"I was stunned by the amount," he said. "I don't know how I could possibly pay this."

Trees Cannabis is the first company penalized under B.C.'s Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, which came into law following the federal government's legalization of the substance in October 2018. 

"It's not very comfortable to be the guinea pig," Robb added.

Following a raid at one of the chain's Victoria locations on July 31, Robb said Trees shuttered all eight of its locations across Victoria, Nanaimo and Vancouver.

The Community Safety Unit (CSU), which operates under the Ministry of Public Safety, seized about $200,000 worth of cannabis during the raid, according to Robb. 

Robb said he anticipated a fine of around $450,000, roughly double what was seized in the summer and had set aside some money to take care of it. 

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Instead, he said he's been fined for the approximate amount of cannabis the Victoria dispensary sold between the time the CSU visited the store to provide information on cannabis regulation in May and the July raid. 

According to Robb, the company had been pursuing the proper licensing to legally sell cannabis since Oct. 17, 2018, the day marijuana became legal. 

"Well, the fines don't just happen," Mike Farnworth, minister of public safety and solicitor general, told the media Wednesday when asked for comment. "Many dispensaries who were in the process to get a licence, they shut down when the safety unit went by. They abide by what was told and they don't get fined."

But Robb claims other stores in Victoria that never shut down during the licensing process somehow avoided punishment and are now operating legally.

A few days before the July raid, Robb said the company informed CSU that it would be temporarily shutting down operations in September until it was able to get a licence.

"I don't think it's fair," he said.

Right now, Robb's trying to determine whether any leeway exists for paying the fine.

"Trees was a good operator that was successfully operating eight stores," he said. "If we could get back into business, into the licence system and come up with a payment plan for them, then I'm certain that we could pay back their fine over the course of time."

He said the province provides an opportunity for fined parties to only pay half of the levy if they sign a waiver removing the right to an administrative hearing, effectively admitting wrongdoing.  

According to Robb, Trees still couldn't afford to pay that figure  roughly $750,000  without reopening its shops. 

"I'd like to move on with my life as quickly as possible and come to a way that we can get back into business and operate legally," he said.