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U.S. pot stores set to open on B.C.'s doorstep

Lower Mainland residents may not have to go far into the U.S. to partake of legal recreational marijuana that will be sold in retail stores in Washington State later this year.

No retail licenses have been issued yet, but there are three applicants in Blaine, one in Point Roberts and another further east of Sumas at Maple Falls on the Mount Baker Highway. (See interactive map above or here.)

They're among 15 applicants vying for seven Whatcom County pot store licences expected to be determined in July, in addition to six other retail store licences reserved for Bellingham, which are being sought by 27 firms.

The state this month released results of lotteries it conducted to determine the order in which it will consider applications in each area.

Ranked first in the Whatcom lottery was the proposed Maple Falls outlet, dubbed Green Stop, on the way up to Mount Baker.

Only one Blaine proposal was ranked in the top seven – guaranteeing it will at least be considered – while two others in Blaine at Birch Bay and the Point Roberts application are ranked lower, meaning they'll only have a shot if enough higher-ranked proposals are rejected.

They must pass multiple screening critieria and sites can't be within 1,000 feet of schools or parks.

The proposed weed outlets in easy striking distance of the border have names like People of the Medicine, Cascade Herb Company and Green Smoke Shop.

"I expect there will be some tourism," Abbotsford lawyer John Conroy said of Canadians heading south once the stores open.

Conroy is leading a legal challenge on behalf of medical marijuana users fighting Ottawa's shift to a new model of industrial producers while outlawing licensed home-growing.

He predicts Washington's move into legal sale of cannabis will help reduce drug-related crime in B.C.

Conroy believes the pending launch is already reducing demand in Washington for B.C. Bud even though legal pot isn't yet for sale there.

"I'm told the market is collapsing," Conroy said. "Illegal growers here are getting out of the business."

He said that reflects a decline in pot prices that he's been told have fallen from $1,500 to $2,000 per pound to as low as $900 a pound.

"The money isn't there for them and therefore they close down," Conroy said, predicting Washington's policy change will eliminate more illegal grow ops in B.C. than police.

"It seems to me to be a very good thing," he said. "It's not costing us manpower, money on prosecution or going through the courts."

Conroy also expects medical marijuana users will prevail in court against Health Canada – hundreds of additional challenges have been launched across the country – allowing them to continue to grow-their-own medicine and use it in whatever form they prefer, rather than be forced to buy just the dried leaves that new commercial producers will sell.

Marijuana reform advocate Dana Larsen agreed B.C. pot prices have fallen, although not as far as Conroy claims.

He said pot that used to go for $2,400 a pound is off at least 20 per cent to $1,800 to $2,000, but adds $900 would have to be "cheap outdoor stuff."

"Prices are definitely going down and in the last 18 months they've been going down a lot," he said. "The profit value per pound is much less for the same risk."

The U.S. market is the main reason, Larsen said, noting that although stores aren't yet open in Washington, they are in Colorado – which also legalized in a recent referendum – and there's increasingly easy access to medical marijuana in many other states, including California.

"Americans just don't want our pot so much," Larsen said. "They've got a thriving legal domestic market."

He said he's not aware of illegal B.C. growers shutting down, but said it wouldn't surprise him if that's happening, or that they're at least pursuing different markets in eastern Canada.

The price can only fall, Larsen figures, as cannabis access loosens in various jurisdictions, noting reformers are pursuing referenda in Alaska and other states.

"It's going to spread and the more it spreads, the less interest there is in Canadian pot."

How low could B.C. Bud go?

If marijuana was grown "as freely as tomatoes" with no prohibition, Larsen estimates it could be produced and sold for $1 a gram, even with 40 cents tax built in.

That would be big drop from the $4 to $8 per gram it now sells for in quasi-legal dispensaries like the one Larsen operates.

Washington's pot stores aren't expected to be bargain-priced.

The state expects they'll charge an average of $12 per gram, plus a 25 per cent excise tax that goes to the state.

Illegal marijuana grow-ops like this one may be in decline if pot prices continue to fall, some observers say.  File

Border troubles await

While legal U.S. pot will be a draw for many British Columbians, lawyers like John Conroy expect a bumper crop of new clients who run into trouble at the border.

While possession by adults of up to an ounce of pot has been legalized by Washington State, it remains illegal under U.S. federal law.

"You have no right to take anything in and certainly no right to import it back into Canada," Conroy said.

Blaine immigration lawyer Len Saunders said Canadians can be banned from the U.S. even if they merely admit to ever having smoked marijuana in their life.

That's because the U.S. government deems pot use a "crime of moral turpitude" that's cause for being permanently denied entry.

"Telling them at the border you're going to be buying marijuana is not going to be very helpful," Saunders said.

He expects many Canadians coming for Washington weed will answer border agents' questions truthfully, lose access to the U.S. and then need to apply for a costly waiver to regain it.

"This is going to be a huge boom in business for U.S. attorneys," he predicted.

Medical marijuana users who think they can safely declare past pot use and not be found inadmissable are wrong, Saunders added.

"You may be legally prescribed marijuana by a B.C. doctor and you may even have a card that says that, but that does not help you at all at the border."

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