Marijuana Laws in Vancouver Before Canadian Legalization

As former residents of Amsterdam, we’re used to the notion of “tolerated” marijuana in “coffee shops.” But on our recent visit to Vancouver, we were surprised to encounter a similar setup. More US states have recreational and medical marijuana, so I was curious to examine what the cannabis laws in British Columbia were like. For journalistic purposes, I decided to explore this phenomenon a little further!

Vancouver Cannabis Dispensaries

The Green Panda cannabis dispensary, in downtown Vancouver, was a short walk from where we were staying on beautiful Coal Harbor, which I stumbled upon by chance while strolling for a lunch spot. Appropriately, a delicious Belgium Waffle shop operates right next to Green Panda and a Dutch pancake shop sits just a couple businesses down. Upon entering, I was greeted with the aroma of fresh marijuana and a friendly shop assistant behind the counter.

A Vancouver Cannabis shop + a neighbouring Belgian waffle shop = stars aligned.
A Belgian waffle shop is well suited next to Green Panda cannabis dispensary.

“So how does this work? Do I need a prescription for marijuana?” I asked. “No. All you need is proof that you take medication for anxiety or a number of other conditions from either a doctor or a holistic healer” said the chipper assistant. She then handed me a form with a long list of conditions ranging from cancer treatment to insomnia and migraines. It became immediately clear that the setup was pretty grey. “Does the note or medication bottle need to be from a Canadian doctor?” I asked. “No, proof from an American doctor works too” she replied.

Investigating Marijuana Laws in Vancouver at Green Panda Dispensary

I spoke with the assistant at Green Panda for about 10 minutes and she informed me that they just opened in July, 2014 and that dispensaries had been in operation in Vancouver since 2010. “We have a heroine problem in this city and in order to protect users from contracting hepatitis or HIV there are clinics that teach users how to inject cleanly. The clinics basically set up everything but the injections. So cannabis dispensaries are small potatoes as long as we operate respectably, meaning you need to have a chronic condition that marijuana can treat- you show photo ID and we provide you with a membership card.”

Cannabis in Vancouver, BC

“New Amsterdam” or “Vansterdam”

Along with a wide variety of fresh indica and sativa buds, Green Panda offered an assortment of edible baked goods like cupcakes and profiteroles. Since the visit was for research purposes only (and I didn’t have a doctors note), I walked out empty handed. As I explored more of Vancouver, I also randomly encountered the New Amsterdam Cafe, in the historic Gastown district. I didn’t go inside, but unlike the Green Panda dispensary, there were tables for people to smoke their weed, most of which were occupied.

With dozens of marijuana dispensaries, Vancouver has indeed become a “New Amsterdam,” or “Vansterdam,” as some like to call it. As the Vancouver Sun reported in September, in Mike Hager’s ‘undercover investigation’, he had no problem scoring cannabis for little medical reason (which I’m sure was strictly in the name of good journalism).

The 'New Amsterdam Cafe' in Vancouver goes beyond being a cannabis dispensary, with table seating.
The ‘New Amsterdam Cafe’ in Vancouver goes beyond being a cannabis dispensary, with table seating for pot smoking.

If you’re visiting Vancouver and have virtually any medical condition (say foot pain from wearing high heals), check out the dispensaries. Prices are very reasonable. The shop offers different daily specials. On the Thursdays I visited, it was a free gram with a larger purchase. It was interesting to see marijuana sales run on a North American business model. The concept of buy 1 get 1 free and bonus grams is not a thing in Dutch coffee shops.

Following my trip to Vancouver, I caught the train to Seattle. The comfortable train ride only takes 4 hours. It’s a great idea to combine Vancouver and Seattle on the same trip. You don’t need a car when exploring these two cities. I enjoyed covering excellent Seattle cafes, asides from the original Starbucks.

Update: Recreational Marijuana is Legal in Canada!

Recreational marijuana is now legal in Vancouver and throughout Canada. Check out online marijuana dispensaries. We recently visited Toronto and were surprised to find a shop selling recreational marijuana! Recreational marijuana is legal in more and more US states too. Maybe one day soon it will be federally legal in the United States also, but we’re not there yet.

Vancouver Hotels

Coal Harbour in Vancouver, steps from the Westin Bayshore Vancouver.

We absolutely loved our stay at the Westin Bayshore Vancouver. The views of picturesque Stanley Park are fantastic, so request rooms facing Stanley Park! You’ll love it – especially if you’re also investigating marijuana laws!

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver offers old world luxury charm in Vancouver. Their breakfast buffet is also fantastic. We preferred our stay at the Westin Bayshore, but also enjoyed the Fairmont.

Families and groups of friends will likely find the best value booking short term apartment rentals. You can also book these through sites like!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a booking from these links we receive a commission and it costs you nothing extra. When possible please use them as it helps us help you with your travels!


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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3 thoughts on “Marijuana Laws in Vancouver Before Canadian Legalization

    1. It’s been many years since we’ve been to Ontario but we know the Ontario government is quite conservative when it comes to alcohol sales as well.

  1. Great article that really summarizes the lax attitude here in Vancouver.

    We operate Vancouver’s first online medical and recreational marijuana delivery service. Free delivery in under an hour for premium product at affordable prices.

    We have gone to City Hall, the VPD and spent hours discussing what we’re doing as we want to be open and transparent. Vancouver’s stance is that the mayor and council are pro-pot and want to force the issue with the feds so the laws can be changed and they can be regulated. That they can’t shut down a dispensary for selling recreationally as they’d probably have to shut most of them down. So they say that as long as we’re not a public nuisance, they won’t do anything and to stay tuned for regulation down the road.

    We love Vancouver!

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