Back when he was a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Victoria, Alex Robb’s research project explored the political philosophy of Gandhi, the dynamics of non-violent political resistance, and the ideal of ahimsa—love and compassion—in everyday life and politics. To support himself while writing his dissertation, he joined the Trees dispensary as an employee, but swiftly found that the company also offered a fertile ground in which he could enact his beliefs, and he quickly became consumed by the work.
“I came to see the cannabis industry on Vancouver Island was an important model in Canada of how to be disobedient to federal laws in a way that offers an example of the how things should be done,” says Robb, who now works as their community liaison and director.
“I came to see that we were offering a real service that the local community wanted and needed. In my mind, we had every right to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry on Vancouver Island from below, before the federal government came up with their convoluted and corporate-influenced legalization plans. My focus and interest has been on what Trees can deliver to the Victoria communities by focusing on harm reduction and health advocacy.”
The other members of the board share similar ideals. Trees founders Shannon and Ashley Topfer were both disaffected refugees from the healthcare industry. Shannon was involved in pharmaceutical sales to doctors and Ashley had just completed her nursing degree when they started the storefront. Disillusioned by mainstream healthcare, they opted to start providing cannabis to anyone who could benefit from it.
Former publisher Dadmehr Naimi, who previously ran Hush Magazine out of Vancouver, joined the team in 2014 when he saw the promise of the Topfers' dispensary model and invested in it so they could expand. He brought a branding and marketing focus into the mix of what was then three separate storefronts, and united them under the same banner as “Trees Dispensary” later that year.
Brandon Wright, a serial entrepreneur and dynamo who holds a business degree from the University of Victoria, is always looking towards the next trend and identifying the best way of building the business and providing for customers.
He saw the promise of the emergent municipally-licensed cannabis industry in 2015, and brought in his business organizational skills to help turn their dispensaries into a smoothly-functioning business capable of serving all of Vancouver Island.
It was around this time that they opened another Victoria location on lower Yates Street and Naimi then made a partnership arrangement with Eden Medicinal Society to turn their storefront near Mayfair Mall into Trees of Eden Dispensary.
“We are always looking for interesting and mutually beneficial partnerships to expand to new jurisdictions that want to take the leap toward licensing cannabis dispensaries,” says Robb, who adds that the retail storefront cannabis industry in Victoria continues to be a situation of ongoing problem-solving and crisis management.
“How do you provide a population with access to a medicine that they need, but that remains illegal and inaccessible to most of the population that needs it? It was clear that the federal government's ACMPR program is not working, and many people with terminal illness are left in a lurch. Our biggest challenge has always been education.”
Another challenge the Trees team has run into is law enforcement policy, which does not yet accept the validity of the business or the medical need for it in our communities.
“The underlying problem arises from almost a hundred years of prohibition and stigma. I don't begrudge law enforcement because I understand the complexity of the situation where they must enforce a non-local government's prohibition of a life-sustaining medication,” says Robb.
“The only way to overcome this constant struggle is for municipal and provincial governments to create rational regulations and enforcement methods that address this issue. Only then will law enforcement no longer be forced to take action in what is currently a lose-lose situation in most cities across Canada.”
Each location Trees operates comes with its own history and challenges that have been overcome.
They were evicted from their first storefront on North Park Avenue, which began at the suggestion of their landlord—an acquaintance of Shannon's—who kicked them out with the intention of opening his own dispensary, once he heard the City of Victoria intended to license cannabis sales. Serendipity intervened, however, and this led them to a much better location three doors down on the same street.
Their Nanaimo-based store was started in partnership with a local activist and is one of their strongest locations. Their flagship Victoria location on lower Yates was their first venture into the downtown area and was chosen to both establish a presence in downtown and become intertwined with other local businesses prior to the advance of municipal licensing.
Their branch on Alpha Street was first opened by another dispensary chain based out of Vancouver and Toronto, but as a company that was not local, they experienced difficulty finding traction in an increasingly competitive market. Once Trees struck a deal to take over the store and operate it from a local perspective, they have seen progressive growth in membership ever since.
Robb feels that the real value of cannabis dispensaries lies in the diversity of useful products they provide that cannot be found elsewhere. Most patients come in to their dispensaries looking for a specific outcome or effect rather than a specific strain. From there, their customer service reps then make recommendations from their wide menu of strains or alternative products, which include a regular supply of edibles, oils, tinctures, capsules, balms, and salves.
“We strive to stock products that are more difficult to acquire elsewhere, such as suppositories, CBD concentrates, or even bath bombs and cosmetic products made with cannabis. Our strain menu is always changing according to the harvest schedule of our suppliers, and often we source special offers for our members. We operate on a ‘hub-and-spoke’ distribution model that allows us to offer as many products as possible at each location. We purchase new product all the time and often stock the most in-demand strains of the season,” says Robb.
Trees has also begun to retail cannabis accessory products like vaporizers, pens, and e-nails for dabbing—often at prices that are better than online retail or in typical bong shops or vape shops—with the desire to be a one-stop shop for medical users where they can obtain everything needed for their self-treatment with cannabis.
Ultimately, the Trees team say their dream is to offer the whole country access to the kind of quality and variety of medical cannabis products that are found on Vancouver Island. They are looking to other Island jurisdictions like Cumberland and Port Alberni that have passed municipal bylaws to provide for business licensing for cannabis retail, and hope to open storefronts there with local community partners, with an eye towards expansion into the mainland of BC and Western Canada.
- 1040 North Park Avenue
- 2610 Rock Bay Avenue
- 546 Yates Street
- 695 Alpha Street
- 1483 Bowen Road
Motto: Good Things Come in Trees