One of British Columbia's long-standing cannabis dispensaries gets its 15 minutes of fame starting Tuesday when Corus Entertainment debuts part one of its seven-part TV series Bud Empire on the History channel.
It's a rare mainstream peek into the so-called "grey area" of cannabis law in Canada, but if the first two episodes are any indication, viewers trying to understand how dispensaries actually operate in that legal limbo won't learn anything new.
Billed as a docu-series, the show portrays Bob Kay, owner of the Be Kind dispensary in Kelowna, B.C., as he goes about his business of selling weed. In the first two 25-minute episodes, viewers see Kay consulting with an elderly customer seeking pain relief, striking a supply deal with a local cannabis farmer, making an impassioned plea to Kelowna city council, and hawking his wares at a 4/20 event.
Laconic narration and studio interviews with Kay, his employees and his associates all lend credence to the show's documentary pedigree, but other production choices — such as unsubtle hints at future beefs among dispensary employees and story arcs torqued up for maximum drama — make parts of Bud Empire feel more like reality TV.
It's an entertaining format, and the legal uncertainty of Kay's businesses adds inherent tension to the story, but even though legalization is just months away in Canada, the initial episodes of Bud Empire lack context and leave major factual gaps around basic questions Canadian channel-surfers might have.
It's clear from the start of Bud Empire that some aspects of Kay's business are unlawful.
"Times are definitely changing, but marijuana is still illegal in many jurisdictions," warns a disclaimer off the top. "Certain activities depicted in this program are illegal. Discretion is advised."Advertisement
A minute later, Kay acknowledges he's breaking the law by selling weed.
"At any moment, I could be arrested and go to jail," he proclaims in a voice-over.
For the most part, though, Bud Empire leaves unanswered the questions of exactly what's legal, what's not, and why — and viewers could easily come away from the show with a hazy understanding of the law.
Within the first five minutes of episode one, for example, we see Kay buying cannabis from a local grower to supply his dispensary.
"The transaction is mostly legal," intones narrator Will Sasso. "It's the pot that's suspect."
With no further discussion of what's "mostly legal" about this transaction, Kay inspects the cannabis, instructs his employees to perform a taste test on a joint and ultimately buys the crop for $1,300 per pound.
Shortly after, we hear that federal law actually prohibits selling cannabis at stores, but that Kay's store operates under a licence from the city of Kelowna. The licence is under threat from local politicians, setting up episode's "local business owner fights city hall" narrative.
How could a business considered illegal by the federal government have gotten that local licence in the first place?
Bud Empire barely stops to answer, nor do the showrunners include perspective from anyone outside Kay's cannabis bubble. To be fair, the remaining five episodes in the season could address those issues.
In an interview with The Leaf News, Kay said he operates his dispensary from a sense of moral obligation to sick Canadians.
"If I'm a boater, and I'm out on the water, and I see somebody who's drowning, by law, I guess I would have to throw them a life raft... And in our community we see people drowning, we see them downing because nobody's throwing them a life raft," he said.
By providing in-person, retail access to cannabis for those in need, the Be Kind dispensary fills holes left by Canada's legal medical cannabis regime, Kay said. (That system requires Canadians to order their legal product directly from licensed producers, who send it by mail.)
Cannabis activists like himself, could "keep these big corporations in check," he said.
"Because at the end of the day, people want clean, affordable, high-quality cannabis, and sometimes we know that corporations don't necessarily follow the line."
Then again, repeated sequences of Kay counting his cash make it clear that Be Kind is definitely a for-profit business.
Even though Kay gears his dispensary towards medical cannabis users — every client needs a medical authorization before they can purchase — episode two follows the Be Kind crew as they sell copious amounts of cannabis-infused lollipops, brownies, popcorn and lemonade to the crowd at Vancouver's enormous 4/20 event last year. No one's checking for a doctor's note, and Bud Empire doesn't ask questions about how the 4/20 free-for-all squares with Be Kind's medical focus.
Kay acknowledged that his 4/20 customers aren't necessarily medical users, but said cannabis edibles are popular among his medical clientele and framed his 4/20 booth as civil disobedience.
"I think it's a way to destigmatize cannabis, and that's why we do it... I think (4/20 is) that open protest to say, 'Come on, cannabis can't kill you.'"
If Bob Kay wants to keep operating his dispensary after legalization, he'll have to navigate a whole new legal regime. Even though B.C. will allow existing dispensaries to apply for legal status, there's no guarantee that Be Kind will win a golden ticket.
"As I move through and navigate the whole law and licensing process, I'm absolutely 100 per cent involved in what my future looks like in regards to a licensing application," Kay said, suggesting that later episodes will deal with Be Kind's attempts to transition to a fully legal business model.
In the meantime, Kay said he has a moral obligation to show Canadians why he does what he does, despite the risks of broadcasting the illegal aspects of his business across the country.
"If you really think about it, there's an atmosphere or a culture of paranoia around cannabis and what we do and how it happens," he said. "This is an access to show that we are families, we are friends, we're not the boogeyman behind the door, we're not gangsters."
Bud Empire premières Tuesday, June 5, at 10 p.m. ET and PT on History.