As of Tuesday, Oct. 1, an adult in Grand Forks who is looking for cannabis from a legal retail outlet can march into a store and purchase it. Grand Forks Cannabis, owned by Chuck Varabioff, opened its doors this week, while another store nearby, Baggy’s Cannabis, is set to open on Saturday.
Grand Forks Cannabis is the first fully legal cannabis store that the Grand Forks native has had, after years of operating the B.C. Pain Society store in Vancouver. There, Varabioff has run the B.C. Pain Society, a store that he says emerged as a medical marijuana operation to help people in pain.
“I don’t feel like I was doing anything illegal, but I know, in the eyes of the law, what I was doing wasn’t lawful, according to the Criminal Code,” Varabioff said, about running the store in East Vancouver.
“We had an RCMP member come in with his brother and it was his job to arrest people like me selling stuff,” Varabioff recalled of one client. “So he came in – he’s dying of cancer and doctors gave him six months to live, […and] he decided, rather than just roll over and die and take chemo, radiation, morphine, he told his superiors that he was going to be using the product.”
So the entrepreneur pressed on with the store, shirking injunctions to close and appealing the City’s legal moves.
Now though, Varabioff said he’s done looking over his shoulder. With a legal store in Grand Forks and two more applications in for legal retail outlets in Vancouver, Varabioff said that the nerves of running the old Vancouver store are lifting.
“The peace of mind is absolutely incredible,” he said. “It’s a super nice feeling, knowing that we have a legal, legitimate business that Grandma and Grandpa, or mom and dad could come in here.”
I no longer have to worry that the doors are going to get kicked in by the cops and they’re going to haul me away because they think what I’m doing is not right.”
The cannabis store industry has exploded since selling pot was legalized a year ago – three stores have been approved for Grand Forks and two are opening this week – but the cannabis entrepreneur and CannaFest founder is cautious about thinking there are still mega riches to be made in the retail business.
“Everybody thinks it’s the Wild West out there, that there are millions and millions and millions of dollars to be made. I’ve seen this industry in its heyday five, six, seven years ago and I don’t think it’s going to be as lucrative anymore,” he said, watching staff install security cameras at his Grand Forks store.
“There will be stores everywhere across Canada, so you’re going to have a small little area to draw your customers from and you’ll have to make the most of that.
“The market will dictate who survives.”
In some ways, though, Varabioff said, even entering the cannabis business today is still fraught with hurdles. Governments may approve an application at a higher level, only to see it rejected by the municipality. Varabioff is waiting on one of his Vancouver locations to be approved by the city’s board of variance, because it’s too close to a school, under the city’s zoning bylaw. Some banks, meanwhile, charge a service fee to open an account for a legitimate cannabis business.
Asked how to break down those barriers and stigmas, from government to neighbours’ percentions, Varabioff had a straight answer: “You don’t,” he said.
“Just let them come in here and see what kind of business we run, […] but it’ll take time.”
In a region like the Boundary, where pot has been a dominant strain of the underground economy for years, legitimate businesses will also have to outcompete illegal growers and sellers.
“It’s part of what made the economy and the whole Boundary area go around for years and years,” said Varabioff, who grew up in Grand Forks. “So there’s a lot of users out there. And now that we can go legal, why not? Why not bring in a quality product?”