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Police complaint commissioner calls for VPD policy on marijuana shops

Vancouver Police Board to discuss matter Thursday
The City of Vancouver is expected to issue its first business licence to an illegal marijuana dispensary in the spring. An estimated 100 pot shops operate in the city. Photo Dan Toulgoet

B.C.’s Police Complaint Commissioner Stan Lowe wants the Vancouver Police Board to implement a “clear and objective policy” that outlines the police department’s approach to dealing with the city’s illegal marijuana dispensaries.

In a letter Lowe wrote to the board in November 2015, he said the policy should explain the Vancouver Police Department’s enforcement strategy against pot shops and describe the police’s role as it relates to the city’s new bylaws to regulate dispensaries.

“I am of the view that the Vancouver Police Department could benefit from the creation of a clear and objective policy in the area of enforcement as it relates to marijuana dispensaries,” wrote Lowe, whose letter is included in an agenda package for Thursday’s police board meeting. “Although the department has established some internal directives and identified enforcement priorities, I believe the department could benefit from the assistance of the board in developing clear policy to assist officers in their exercise of their discretion and discharge of their respective duties.”

Lowe wrote the letter to the board after learning it dismissed a complaint in September from a citizen concerned that police were not enforcing Canada’s drug laws and allowing dispensaries to proliferate. An estimated 100 pot shops operate across the city.

Despite Lowe’s request for a policy, the VPD will likely not make any changes to its approach in dealing with the pot shops. Deputy Chief Doug LePard has written a response to Lowe’s request and recommended the police board, whose chairperson is Mayor Gregor Robertson, not take any action at this time.

In his recommendation, which the police board will vote on Thursday, LePard said it would be premature to develop a policy because the city is still working out its new rules to license the pot shops. As well, he said, the Trudeau government has indicated it will legalize and regulate marijuana.

“The board will revisit this matter when the impact of the city’s new bylaw and pending federal legislative change becomes clearer,” said LePard, noting officers will continue to follow a directive issued by the VPD executive in January 2015. “This is a very simple matter – frontline officers must consult and receive approval from their district commander and the VPD organized crime section before taking any enforcement action against a marihuana dispensary pursuant to [drug] offences.”

LePard said the issue of illegal dispensaries is “complex and fraught with misunderstanding.” For example, he said, Lowe noted the city’s regulatory scheme envisions properly licensed pot shops would comply with Canada’s drug laws.

“However,” LePard said, “the regulatory scheme deals with land use and cannot make legal what is currently illegal in the [Controlled Drugs and Substances Act]. In other words, Vancouver’s new bylaw cannot bring the marihuana dispensaries into compliance with [drug laws] and selling marihuana remains a criminal offence.”

Added LePard: “For this reason, it would not be appropriate to create a policy that is harmonized with the city’s bylaw, since the VPD must independently decide whether or not to enforce the criminal law, and should be informed, not guided, by the city’s bylaw.”

In June 2015, city council passed a new set of regulations to license the city’s illegal pot shops – not the marijuana. To get a business licence, an operator has to meet zoning requirements, undergo a criminal record check, sign a “good neighbour” agreement and meet building codes. Successful applicants have to pay a $30,000 annual licence fee for a retail shop, or $1,000 annual fee for a “compassion club.”

So far, the city has identified 12 operators who could possibly receive a licence by the spring. The city is still reviewing other applications and has provided no estimate on the overall number of shops it may license.