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Pot shop licences won't be issued until next year

The City of Vancouver received 176 applications for marijuana dispensaries
The City of Vancouver received 176 applications from people wanting to get business licences to operate marijuana dispensaries. Photo Dan Toulgoet

It could take six to eight months before the City of Vancouver makes history in Canada and issues the first-ever business licence to a marijuana dispensary, according to the city’s chief licence inspector.

That’s because city staff has to review 176 applications it received as of Aug. 21 and begin a lengthy examination on how many applicants meet the new regulations approved by city council in June.

“Should everything fall into place and somebody has met all of our regulations and meets all of our rules, at the earliest we would issue a business licence would be six to eight months,” said Andreea Toma, the city’s chief licence inspector.

The first step for staff will be to determine how many of the 176 applicants meet the zoning requirements, which call for pot shops to be at least 300 metres from a school, community centre or another dispensary and be located in specific zones. That process could take up to two months, Toma said.

Those applicants who fall outside the zoning requirements will be required to close their pot shops within six months and may reapply for a new location in an approved zone.

If an applicant meets the first step, the process becomes more rigorous, with the city examining an applicant’s past business practices and whether he or she has been in trouble with the law. Signing a “good neighbour” agreement and meeting building codes related to health, fire and signs are also required to get a licence.

Of the 176 applicants, 69 have the potential to become so-called “compassion clubs” while the rest applied as a retail business. A compassion club must pay an annual $1,000 licence fee while retail operators are charged $30,000.

Though Toma said there are too many variables to estimate how many of the 176 applicants will receive a business licence, Vision Coun. Kerry Jang said his guess is that fewer than 20 will be successful.

“I could be off, depending on what staff finds,” said Jang, who based his estimate on talking with people in the industry and learning of some of the applicants’ past business practices and criminal history.

As he emphasized during the public hearings in June, the city’s goal was to regulate the dispensaries — not the marijuana, which would require the federal government’s approval — and set guidelines that would be directed more to compassion clubs.

“The key thing with compassion clubs is they try to get you off marijuana and replace with other alternative medicines or procedures,” said Jang, noting compassion clubs must provide specific health alternatives under the new regulations.

Jamie Shaw, communications coordinator for the B.C. Compassion Club, the oldest dispensary in the city, said the club is one of the applicants. But, she said, the club is well aware it doesn’t meet zoning requirements because it is located across the street from a private school on Commercial Drive.

Shaw said the club has looked at other locations but said they are expensive and some landlords don’t want dispensaries operating out of their buildings. She said the club’s recourse will be to appeal before the Board of Variance.

“It will all be in the hands of the Board of Variance,” she said, noting the club has a good reputation in the neighbourhood, including letters of support from the Stratford Hall school.

The latest estimate from the city is that about 100 pot shops continue to operate in Vancouver. Toma said the city will tally how many of those 100 operators applied to the city for a licence and how many didn’t. That tally will also determine how many people applied to set up new dispensaries.

Const. Brian Montague, a media relations officer with the Vancouver Police Department, said he is aware new shops have opened up since the city passed the new regulations in June.

This is a fact Jang also pointed out, saying one has since opened near Broadway and Renfrew. Residents of various neighbourhoods have also notified the Courier of new shops setting up over the past two months.

Montague said police know of one shop where the operators said they were operating simply to make money before the new regulations kick in.

“In a store downtown, where we executed a search warrant, the operators didn’t make it any secret that once the licensing came into effect, they were just going to shut down,” he said.

Under the new regulations, the city now has the power to close a dispensary. Toma wouldn’t speculate on when enforcement, which can include court action, will begin against pot shops that don’t meet the city’s new regulations.

Meanwhile, police continue to raid pot shops, the most recent occurring on Aug. 12 at the Limelife Society on Rupert Street. Police said the dispensary had links to organized crime.

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