This article originally appeared on VICE Canada. Selena Holder-Zirbser wasn’t even supposed to be working on the day she got arrested.
Holder-Zirbser, 21, had picked up a shift at the Green Tree dispensary on Ottawa, Canada's Rideau Street, where she’d recently become a keyholder. It was a foggy Friday morning last November, and she immediately had a line of customers to purchase dried bud, brownies, and extracts such as shatter.
Then, without warning at around 10 AM, five men in ski masks entered the store, she said.
“I thought I was going to get robbed,” Holder-Zirbser told VICE. “I was like, ‘Oh my God this is not going happen to me.’” Instead, the men announced they were cops and that they had a search warrant. Another five cops came in and began taking customers’ IDs and writing down their names, she said. Two uniformed officers slapped cuffs on Holder-Zirbser; she was later charged with ten counts of possession for the purpose of trafficking and one count of possession of the proceeds of crime.
Ottawa police raided six dispensaries that day, including three Green Trees, two WeeMedicals, and one CannaGreen—all believed to be run by the same owners. Holder-Zirbser and at least eight other low-level employees were hauled off to holding cells, where they were detained for up to 12 hours. Although they knew they were in trouble, the ones who spoke to VICE said at first they weren’t particularly scared.
Their boss, a domineering man named Robert Clarke, 34, and other managers assured them that the company would set them up with lawyers and pay them a “bonus” for their troubles, they told VICE. Messages in the WhatsApp group chat Green Tree workers and managers used to communicate, viewed by VICE, said things like, “everything is going to be okay” and “this is nothing new too us, we have been raided over 15 times and are still the biggest chain out there.” Most of the raided shops were back up and running within a couple of weeks.
But after being released, Holder-Zirbser and other employees who were arrested while working for the dispensary chain told VICE they were kicked out of the WhatsApp group, and shunned by management without being paid the outstanding wages owed to them. They were never provided with lawyers. Meanwhile, they said each dispensary pulled in anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 a day.
“After three weeks, I just gave up because it was clear they weren’t going to help us at all,” said Holder-Zirbser, who is petite with a curtain of dark brown hair, and multiple tattoos and piercings. A little over a month ago, she pleaded guilty to one count of possession for the purpose of trafficking—the other charges were dropped—and is now awaiting her sentence.
At first, getting paid $12 an hour to weigh and sell weed seemed like an easy way for Holder-Zirbser and her colleagues to make some cash. But the dream quickly soured, leaving them broke and facing serious legal repercussions that could prevent them from finishing school and finding gainful employment.
Five months ago, VICE began investigating Green Tree/WeeMedical workers’ allegations that they were exploited by their former employers. Their allegations were serious—they claimed they were overworked, underpaid, bullied by Clarke, pressured to sell moldy weed, forbidden from calling the cops when they were robbed, forced to work without heat in winter, and abandoned when they were arrested. But it soon became clear there were many other factors at play—secretive owners, alleged safehouses, armed robberies, connections to organized crime, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.
As Canada awaits legalization in 2018, these stories demonstrate how the unregulated nature of pot dispensaries leaves young workers ripe for exploitation while their bosses rake in small fortunes.
• • •
Under current federal law, the only way to legally buy cannabis is by obtaining a medical prescription from Health Canada and placing a mail order through a federally-licensed producer. There are no legal storefronts. Nonetheless, hundreds of pot dispensaries have cropped up across the country in the last three years, allowing Canadians to simply walk into a shop and exchange cash for weed.
The standards at these dispensaries vary wildly in how they treat both their customers and employees. Some purport to be fully medical and only take on patients who have a valid Health Canada license. Others accept anyone who shows ID proving they’re of legal drinking age. Vancouver and Victoria have licensed their dispensaries, which forces them to meet specific criteria or else risk getting shut down. Aggressive police raids have persisted in Toronto and Ottawa. Many chains, including Cannabis Culture, Canna Clinic, and Green Tree/WeeMedical started west and migrated into Ontario in the last year or so, emboldened by the federal government’s promise to legalize weed for recreational use.
Despite the fact that dispensaries have become ubiquitous in major Canadian cities, their inner workings largely remain a mystery.
Over the course of this investigation, VICE discovered the ownership structure at Green Tree/WeeMedical seemed to be deliberately opaque. On paper, Green Tree Dispensary Society and WeeMedical Dispensary Society are two separate enterprises, both registered in Brittish Columbia as nonprofits with different directors. However, employees say they are one and the same and VICE has found evidence to support their claims. VICE showed up to addresses affiliated with the Green Tree/WeeMedical chain, placed phone calls, sent texts and emails, and repeatedly mailed letters in an attempt to get answers from the people in charge.
When we finally managed to track down alleged Green Tree/WeeMedical boss Clarke, who is currently facing trafficking charges in BC. He flew into a tirade over the phone, referring to this reporter as a “bitch” and a “fucking cunt.” He denied being an owner or manager of any of the stores, and said “nobody cares about these workers that have all these allegations and all this false stuff.”
Clarke, as well as a the WeeMedical director, was reached in person at the chain’s head office, which smelled strongly of weed. He refused to comment on the link between WeeMedical and GreenTree. Several of the phone numbers VICE called, including the main line for Green Tree’s head office, were disconnected after we made inquiries.
“Not all the dispensaries are in it for the most noble of reasons. According to Neil Boyd, "some certainly are and others are committed to the cannabis industry and have been for many years,” the criminologist at Simon Fraser University told VICE. “But there are dozens that just seem intent on making money as quickly as possible.”
While the allegations against Green Tree/WeeMedical don’t represent the underground weed industry as a whole, they paint a picture of how dispensaries have flourished in a wild west atmosphere—a result of high demand and mixed messages from different levels of government. Financially, some have become so successful that raids haven’t stopped them from reopening and, unfortunately, low-level workers are often taking the fall.
• • •
Both Green Tree Dispensary Society and WeeMedical Dispensary Society are registered as nonprofits with the BC government. According to former employees, the BC—and Ontario-based chain consists of around 30 pot shops that go by the names Green Tree, WeeMedical, CannaGreen, Trees, Herbal Leaf, and WeeCare Med. Employees say the shops operate like a game of whack-a-mole—one gets shut down, only to resurface under a different name, with the hopes of evading police.
They brand themselves as medical marijuana retailers—in BC, some WeeMedical locations have tacked “wellness center” onto their names. In a letter to Delta BC’s city council, WeeMedical Dispensary Society claimed its mandate is twofold: to promote the use of “alternative water” by reducing the consumption of disposable water bottles through “atmospheric water generation” and to promote the “merits of medical marijuana use for treatment of various illnesses.” (In 2016, BC Supreme Court ordered the Delta store to shut down, after which it reopened as WeeCare Med Society.)
However, ten former Ottawa employees told VICE the dispensaries’ work practices included telling staff to sell moldy weed and edibles under threat of their wages being withheld, and expecting them to work 12-hour shifts for days or weeks on end with no breaks.
“We really could never leave because in [Clarke’s] mind, every customer that walks by is money. It’s all about money to him,” said one former "budtender." The woman, who wants to remain anonymous because of fear of reprisal from her former employers, said she was robbed at least five times at two different stores, but Clarke refused to hire security guards because it would be too expensive. Clarke’s policy, according to several workers, was to place the “hottest girls” at the highest traffic stores, which they say were the same stores most likely to be burglarized. Many worked alone in the shop but they say they were instructed not to call police if they were robbed.
The workers who spoke to VICE said they found out about jobs through Craigslist, word of mouth, or just by walking past the dispensaries. They believed working at a dispensary was a safe move—that they were in a legal gray zone and unlikely to be busted by cops. It’s a theory management floated as well, they said.
“They definitely said, 'The city is going to let this happen, you don’t need to worry about it,'” Shawn MacAleese, 28, who worked at Ottawa Green Tree and WeeMedical locations simultaneously, told VICE. “Green Tree is labeled as a medicinal dispensary. I figured there was some sort of leeway from any sort of policing.” MacAleese was charged with trafficking and possession in last November’s raids.
Holder-Zirbser told a similar story, noting that when the subject of arrests came up during her hiring process: “They said it wouldn’t happen, and if it did, they would pay for the lawyers and everything.”
Workers described Clarke as a “shadowy” man who didn’t often show his face at the shops, floating between Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver. He was vocal on WhatsApp, they said, and had a temper exacerbated by his paranoia that employees would steal from him. (This fear was not totally unwarranted—one former budtender told VICE he became so frustrated with how Clarke treated him, he had a friend rob the dispensary when he was working the register.) They said he’s clean-cut, just under six-feet-tall with blonde hair and has the appearance of someone with money to burn. Two employees, including a former manager, told VICE that Clarke would show off his Rolex watch and talk about vacations in Jamaica and Barbados. When in Ottawa, he would ride around in luxury rental cars, such as Audis and Range Rovers, they said.
“He’d be dressed to the nines.He wore really nice tailored suits,” said one former budtender, while another noted Clarke’s “big diamond necklaces.”
One higher-level employee with a deep knowledge of the chain’s inner workings told VICE the Ottawa dispensaries made the most money of any of the Canadian shops. The worker, who does not want to be named for fear of legal consequences and retribution from Clarke, said the Ottawa stores would go through about 15 pounds of weed and three shipments of edibles a week, initially coming from BC and later local producers. There were two apartments in Ottawa, the worker said, one that housed cash and another that housed product. When the stores—of which there were at least seven open during the worker’s tenure—closed for the day at 10 PM, the employee said, someone would pick up money from all the drop safes and take it to one of the apartments, often carting around $30,000 in cash. Even a conservative estimate of $25,000 in sales a day would mean the Ottawa shops alone were bringing in about $750,000 in a month.
“We were living the high life. Myself, I was making $1,500 a week. I was carrying $5,000 on me at all times,” said the employee.
Given that, the employee said it was “ridiculous” that Green Tree/WeeMedical management refused to cover the legal fees of arrested workers. “The amount of money they were making in one night just from one store could pay for everybody’s legal bills.”
• • •
Nestled in the hills of West Vancouver’s British Properties, one of the country’s most affluent communities, a mansion complete with a swimming pool and tennis court offers stunning ocean and mountain views. The home—assessed at $6.2 million—is listed on a BC registry as the address of one of WeeMedical Dispensary Society’s three directors, May Joan Liu.
This mansion is listed on a BC registry as the address of WeeMedical director May Joan Liu
On paper, Green Tree Dispensary Society and WeeMedical Dispensary Society have a total of six directors. (Clarke is not one of them.)
VICE confronted Liu, who is in her 50s, at the downtown Vancouver address listed as WeeMedical’s head office on a Friday afternoon in September. It is located in a residential high-rise in the city’s West End.
Sitting in the building’s large atrium, Liu told VICE “there are no owners” of Green Tree or WeeMedical, only directors and members. When asked if she’s involved in both chains, she replied, “Do you not have that information in writing? If you do, you shouldn’t be asking me.” Later, she said she has “nothing to do with Green Tree” but conceded that her son, Justin Liu, may have some involvement with Green Tree. “We don’t do business together at all,” she said, checking her pink, bejeweled smartphone throughout the interview.
Former budtenders in the Ottawa shops weren’t familiar with May Joan Liu, but said the chain was run by Clarke and Justin Liu, though most of them never met Justin Liu in person. Like Clarke, he was in their WhatsApp group chat.
May Joan Liu, who formerly used the surname Yee, and sometimes goes by Mary instead of May, has a colorful past that involves a penny stock scandal in 2000. She's also familiar to regulators—three companies she was affiliated with were halted and suspended by the Vancouver Stock Exchange for violating trading rules. A few years ago, she also got in trouble for racking up eight parking tickets in her Hummer. In August 2016, she was charged with one count of possession of cannabis not exceeding three kilograms for the purpose of trafficking in Surrey.
Liu told VICE she always informs WeeMedical employees of the legal risks associated with working in dispensaries, but implied other managers might provide different information to new hires. “I don’t know who else they’ve spoken to or who’s hired them.”
She also said employees who behave “inappropriately” won’t receive legal help.
“If that employee has stolen from the company or has misconducted themselves while they’re employed, that’s a different story. They’re not going to be represented,” she said, even offering to take a polygraph test to prove she wasn’t lying.
“You will always have employees who are not happy,” she added. “We’ve had employees that have called the police to cause problems and we’ve dealt with that.”
She said WeeMedical recently represented employees in Quesnel and Prince George, BC who were arrested in raids. A manager of both those locations confirmed to VICE that employees there, himself included, were given prompt legal assistance when they were arrested.
After sending out a detailed list of questions and allegations to both Lius, VICE received a phone call from an unknown number. The man calling identified himself as a “district manager” for WeeMedical; he refused to give his name and became agitated when pressed for details about his identity. (Clarke would later imply to VICE that he made the call.) The man said many of the allegations are “false” and that VICE should dig into the people making claims.
“Now that they got fired for stealing or they quit after the raids happened, they’re disgruntled,” he said. (Incidentally, WeeMedical also blamed a disgruntled employee when a stack of patient information was found sitting outside its Queen Street location last November.) He claimed there is a security guard at every location, something both current and former employees told VICE is not the case. VICE visited a North Vancouver and location and found no security guards there. He said no employees were ever promised legal help in the event of a raid.
A month after that conversation, VICE finally reached Clarke by leaving a message for him with the landlord of Green Tree’s Preston Street location in Ottawa. Clarke suggested he had made the anonymous call noting, “I’ve already talked to you before about this. Don’t call me, don’t call my landlord, don’t call anybody.”
Although he denied being a Green Tree owner, by admitting VICE had spoken to his landlord, he essentially admitted he rents out the space that houses the Preston Street dispensary. During the conversation, he quickly became infuriated.
“Why do you keep calling me and Justin? Didn’t he already send you some lawyer papers or something? What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “I don’t care about anything that you say, or anything that you have to publish, or give two fucks about it, OK?”
He then launched into a profanity-laced spiel.
“Why don’t you report on fentanyl or something that matters, OK? You’re a loser, man, you’ve got nothing here. You and your fucking hurting stories. Fuck off bitch. Don’t call the fucking landlord, don’t call anyone, you fucking clown. You’re a fucking idiot. Fuck off, go report on something that matters. There are people dying of overdoses and rapes and actual shit that matters. You’re fucking hanging onto nothing. Nobody gives a fuck about what you say, your fucking article means nothing, you fucking victim, so fuck off. Don’t fucking call around about me anymore, you fucking clown. Stupid fucking cunt. Fuck you.”
VICE reached May Joan Liu’s son Justin Liu by phone in September, but he hung up once he was informed he was speaking to a reporter. VICE later texted him a full list of allegations but he didn’t reply. When VICE tried to call him again about a month later, his number no longer worked. VICE called the number listed online as the Green Tree head office to ask about the company’s connection to WeeMedical; that number was also out of service a few weeks later. VICE also called two BC-based WeeMedical dispensaries and spoke to managers who confirmed that Green Tree and WeeMedical are the same and are run by Liu and her son Justin Liu. “It's a family business,” said one current budtender, who doesn't want to be named for fear of reprisal from her bosses.
One Green Tree director, Shane Schuhart, was described by police as a Hells Angels associate, according to a 2015 Vancouver Sun story about a dispensary called Limelife that was shut down following an undercover investigation. Clarke owned the Limelife chain, according to media reports. At the time, he told the Canadian Press, “I have nothing to do with organized crime. I've never even had a criminal charge in my life. I come from a normal family.” Two Ottawa-based Green Tree/WeeMedical employees told VICE that Clarke often hung out with a man named Shane whom they described as Clarke’s “right-hand man,” though they did not know his last name. RCMP raided a Limelife shop in Nanaimo, Canada on November 2, alleging that patrons were selling opioids on site.
When Clarke spoke to VICE, he claimed he was never the owner of any Limelife dispensaries. In January 2016, he was charged with one count of possession of cannabis not exceeding three kilograms for the purpose of trafficking, and one count of possession of cannabis resin for the purpose of trafficking in Nanoose Bay, BC.
VICE tried unsuccessfully to speak to the other people registered as directors for Green Tree Dispensary Society and WeeMedical Dispensary Society. The address of one WeeMedical director, John Macaskill, is also listed as Green Tree’s head office, according to BC registries, and is one block away from WeeMedical’s head office.
May Joan Liu confirmed Macaskill is a WeeMedical member but would not elaborate on his connection to Green Tree. “I’m not saying I’m transparent,” she said.
• • •
In addition to legal troubles, former Green Tree employees told VICE about issues that made their working lives difficult.
For one thing, they allege the weed was at times so poor in quality that they didn’t feel comfortable selling it to the public. (The now-defunct WeeMedical on Queen Street in Toronto failed The Globe and Mail’s quality test last year.)
“We had bricks of hash [Rob] wanted you to sell for $5 and when you would break it open, it would have mold in it, like white stuff,” said Tessa Giberson, 22, a former budtender at the Green Tree on Preston Street who was also charged with trafficking last November and will soon agree to a conditional discharge.
“There were maggots in the kush,” Giberson added.
These claims appear to be corroborated by photos shown to VICE, one of which also shows a batch of weed with a long construction nail in it. Another depicts what looks like a maggot.
Giberson and others said when they advised their bosses of the contaminated weed, they were told to sell it anyway—or risk not getting paid.
Screenshots of the employees’ WhatsApp group chat show someone called “Fucking Watching You” advising employees to “just sell” the moldy weed.
Workers said the number belonged to Clarke, though he denied this when speaking to VICE. It was also listed as Clarke’s phone number in court documents about his trafficking charge. One of the WhatsApp screenshots obtained by VICE show a message from that number that says, “This is rob the owner.”
Giberson told VICE the nickname “Fucking Watching You” was in reference to video cameras Clarke had installed that he would use to monitor employees on his phone.
“[He] would message us on WhatsApp to comment on what we were doing. So if we went to go to the back to use the bathroom, he'd message us to ask what we were doing or why we're going to the back,” Giberson said. They noted that people would get “fired every day” for breaking rules, which included leaving the store to get lunch if there was no one around to cover. Another rule, according to Giberson (who uses the pronouns they/them/their): There was no central heating. Despite the fact that it was snowing in Ottawa last October, Giberson wasn’t allowed to turn the heat on at work because Clarke said it was “too expensive.” “They also wouldn’t let us wear a coat because it looked unprofessional; we usually bundled up in sweaters, scarves, and boots,” said Giberson, who is a slender five-foot-seven and has purple shoulder-length hair. A photo of Giberson from that time period shows them standing behind the counter with a space heater between their legs.
One former employee told VICE that Clarke threatened to fire him for selling only $1,000 on a Sunday close to Christmas. As a form of retaliation, he said he had a friend steal from Green Tree while he was working so that the two of them could split the profits.
“I just had a friend come in and act aggressively, and I just handed over… probably $3,000 worth of weed,” said the employee, who did not want to be named for fear of legal repercussions.
“Then I called Rob right away and he said, ‘Don’t call the cops. We’re an illegal company; we cannot report a robbery.’ He said ‘swallow the loss.’ He came not even three hours later and refilled the store. It didn’t faze him.”
More recently, a CannaGreen location in Ottawa’s Parkdale neighborhood was robbed twice in one week. Thieves used an axe and a sledgehammer to break in. This came shortly after a location on McEwen Avenue in Ottawa was robbed three times in a two-month stretch. Last October, someone drove a truck into a different CannaGreen location. Afterward, the Ottawa Citizen reported the dispensary created a “takeout window” created out of plywood. Around the same time, a WeeMedical budtender in Toronto was pepper sprayed during a robbery.
• • •
With less than a year to go until legalization, Canadian provinces are unrolling their plans for distributing legal weed. So far, Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Quebec, and Alberta have revealed the details of their retail models.
Ontario, which has the largest market to serve, is going with a government-monopolized storefront model, controlled by the province’s liquor board. The news comes as a big hit to the dispensary industry. Owners who’ve taken huge gambles to open illegal shops—many in the name of servicing patients—feel they deserve a piece of the pie.
But while dispensaries will be cut out of Ontario’s legal market—the province announced fees of up to $500,000 a day to crack down on them—it’s unlikely they'll be totally eradicated. As VICE reported, the province’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services has internally stated: “Illegal dispensaries will continue to operate.”
Boyd of Simon Fraser University told VICE Ontario’s approach will “perpetuate the black market” and has thus far made it easier for bad players to benefit from it. In Vancouver, where dispensaries have had to apply to pay for a $30,000 annual business license, he said it’s easier to distinguish between who is and isn’t “legitimate.”
“If you’ve made no effort to abide by the city of Vancouver’s regulations, why should there be a place in the new economy for you?” There do not appear to be any Green Tree/WeeMedical locations in Vancouver.
Jenna Valleriani, a PhD student at the University of Toronto who researched legal and illegal cannabis businesses in Canada, told VICE many frontline dispensary workers she’s interviewed didn’t think their jobs could get them arrested.
“Because we often talk about them being in a grey zone, a lot of these young people thought court cases like Allard or Smith's meant that they were legal,” she said.
The Smith ruling, which came down in 2015, ruled medical weed should be allowed in all forms (e.g. edibles), not just dried bud. Licensed producers do not sell edibles. The 2016 Allard ruling saw the Federal Court rule the government’s medical marijuana program was unconstitutional in limiting patients to getting medication from licensed producers. These decisions are in part why many dispensaries felt justified in opening shop—they claim to be providing products and access that aren’t available through licensed producers.
At the start of Toronto’s dispensary boom, Valleriani said working as a budtender was seen as desirable for many young people—it’s a fun, relaxed environment and welcoming of folks who want to medicate at work. But after the raids, people started sharing “these horror stories, where anyone who was working at dispensaries were being left with lawyer fees.”
In addition, workers are scared to speak about poor treatment because they’re working for illegal businesses, a fact that former Green Tree budtenders say was exploited by their bosses. Earlier this year, employees at a Toronto branch of Canna Clinic took the usual step of unionizing to protect themselves, but the shop has been raided by police multiple times since then.
Valleriani said many of the long-running compassion clubs and dispensaries have developed strong standards and practices and do pay employees’ legal fees in the event of a raid. But with some of the newer pop-up shops that have migrated over from BC, “I’m not sure if those employment practices were as well developed.”
Toronto lawyer Jack Lloyd is currently representing several dispensary employees who have launched constitutional challenges after being arrested.
Lloyd said Ottawa’s approach has been particularly tough on budtenders because prosecutors are seeking drug trafficking convictions as a “deterrent.”
He believes dispensary chains like Green Tree/WeeMedical should hire lawyers for employees and raise constitutional challenges when their staff gets arrested to push the courts to resolve these issues in a non-adjudicated manner. Lloyd said his constitutional challenges hinge on the idea that forcing people—especially those who are sick, marginalized, homeless, or living in public housing—to order their cannabis through the mail or grow it at home is not providing them reasonable access.
While we wait to see how these court rulings pan out, the damage for those caught up in the dispensary wars has been done.
“I have to stay on welfare so I qualify for legal aid,” said Giberson, who was three years into completing a joint honors degree in history and political science at the University of Ottawa when they were arrested. They now can’t pay for tuition or qualify for a loan and are on medication to treat PTSD. The latter has been exacerbated by negative press from the case, Giberson said.
“I ended up taking myself to the ER because I was feeling really suicidal.”
Holder-Zirbser told VICE her plans of being a vet technician are probably dead. She is hoping for a conditional discharge, but will find out her fate this month. If she winds up with a criminal record, she’ll have to wait years before she can apply for a pardon.
“I can’t be a vet tech with a criminal record,” she said, noting she can’t afford to go back to school this fall and has already been turned down for a few jobs. She suspects the rejection is because of the arrests. She’s fearful that without the opportunity to make something of herself, she’ll be trapped in a cycle of poverty. “My whole life is fucked.”
Sarah Berman contributed reporting.
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.