It's not easy to transition to a legal store, says owner of B.C.'s first approved private pot shop

Tamara Duggan says the province's legal licensing process is arduous, but rewarding.

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Last week, Tamara Duggan’s husband was pulled over by the local RCMP sergeant in their hometown of Kimberley, B.C. The town just received news that the Duggan’s dispensary, Tamarak Cannabis Boutique, made history as the province’s first privately owned pot shop to go legal. Naturally, red-and-blue in the rear-view would shoot an icy fear through the veins of anyone associated with the pre-regulated weed business, but the officer simply pulled him over to offer his congratulations.

“The news was surprising to everyone, but a really good surprise,” she says on the phone to the Straight.

Duggan filed the application to legalize her dispensary on August 17, but says she has been preparing her customers for the transition since more serious talks of legalization began last year.

When she initially announced plans to move out of the grey market, however, not everyone was excited.

“When I started preparing my customers and making the transition arrangements there was a lot of panic,” she says, adding that many of her regulars didn’t know what to expect.

“We just encouraged them to stock up, as finances would allow, and we also provided some tips as to how to create your own edibles.”

Edible and topical products didn’t make the cut in the first round of legalized cannabis products, so Duggan and her team will be removing those items from their offerings. In the meantime, she has started educating customers on making their own infused cannabis products from their kitchens, adding legally purchased weed into recipes provided by the dispensary.

Duggan received the official confirmation that her application was approved last Wednesday (October 31). For three years prior, she operated the shop as a medical cannabis dispensary under a standard business licence.

“We’re very well respected by our community, valued as good, corporate citizens and we’re looked at as just another business,” she says, adding her team has received nothing but support from the Kimberley crowd. She even credits the vote of confidence to the pace at which the shop received its seal of approval from the provincial government.

“They (the city council) posted in the newspaper twice, as well as passed out flyers to the surrounding community, asking for public feedback and consultation. The end result was 24 emails in response and none of them were of a negative nature,” she says. 

“That resounding support made it easy for the council to approve it and that sped my process of the application up for a fair bit.”

Although Duggan says receiving the licence was a relief, the process came with a fair bit of hardship. She says it was clear the government was only a half-step ahead at every turn, and it was creating the new licensing program from scratch. 

“I didn’t realize what kind of trial-and-error process this was going to be,” she says. Each time Duggan thought her checklist of documents and forms was complete, another would be added. 

“It was when the inspectors come by the store that it was really confirmed to me just how close the applicant is to the development of the system,” she says. Duggan explains once the final walk-through ended, an inspector directed her to an online portal to settle the licensing fees, only to discover the site hadn’t yet been built.

“I called them and they said, ‘yes, we’re developing that page…today’,” she says, laughing.

“It’s kind of like I was the guinea pig in terms of how this process works, but it’s been a rewarding process.”

The whole process ran Duggan around $9,000—an application fee of $7,500 plus a yearly licensing fee of $1,500.

As it doles out private dispensary licences, the Liquor Distribution Branch—the authority charged with legal cannabis distribution in B.C.—is trying to weed out businesses with black market ties.

Along with the standard lot of operational information, applicants must disclose all personal banking details, including credit card debts, proof of assets, and income tax returns. They must also pass a several layers of criminal record, prior employment, and personal background checks.

“Whenever your life is splayed open it can be a bit of a stressful scenario,” she says, reflecting on the process she calls “surprisingly invasive”.

“You have to report everything, including a sealed juvenile record…they even wanted to know about charges you got but weren’t convicted of.”

Duggan says the breadth of information applicants must disclose is causing anxiety across the industry. Mmost businesses have operated in an unregulated and illicit market for years and much of what would be standard business practices are considered illegal activities. Admitting to those practices could come with consiquences. 

Despite an arduous couple of months, Duggan says the provincial government has been “helpful and communicative” and is excited for the future of her business.

“There is lot’s to look forward to. Instead of having multiple suppliers and struggling to source out vendors, going to one website with multiple vendors is going to be a dream,” she says.

Although there will be a price increase, as government products are taxed at a higher rate, the store will now be able to offer smaller quantities of weed. Before legalization, Duggan says separating one gram baggies of dried flower was too time consuming. Now, she can just order pre-packaged quantities straight from the distribution centre.

“The smaller amounts gives customers a lot of opportunities for sampling before they commit to a strain they like,” she says.

Duggan filed her first order with the LDB on Friday (November 2) and is optimistic the shop will be restocked and reopened by the end of this week.

“The nice thing is I am their only customer right now!” she says, laughing.

“Hopefully, any issues they run into they will be able to fix on the spot.”