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Vancouver council approves pot shop rules

Federal health minister ‘deeply disappointed’ in decision

Vancouver has become the first municipality in Canada to adopt regulations for illegal marijuana dispensaries and will begin to issue business licences to a maximum of 94 pot shops in the coming months.

City council voted 8-3 Wednesday to proceed with a staff proposal that calls for $30,000 annual licence fees ($1,000 for non-profit “compassion clubs”), criminal record checks and zoning regulations that prohibit pot shops from operating within 300 metres of schools, community centres and each other.

Council’s decision also allows for dispensaries — of which there were more than 90 in the city’s last count — to sell marijuana oils, tinctures and capsules. Staff’s original draft recommended only marijuana oil be sold. All marijuana-infused goods such as cookies and brownies are banned from the shops.

“It’s just, simply, a common sense approach to dealing with the explosion of medical marijuana shops in our city,” said Vision Coun. Kerry Jang who, along with his Vision colleagues and Green Party Coun. Adriane Carr, voted in favour of the regulations. “We’re not regulating the product, we’re regulating the business.”

Council’s passing of the regulations means existing pot shop operators have 60 days to apply for a business licence. The city has drawn up a stringent set of criteria that each operator must meet to be granted a licence, including an examination of past business practices and whether police have deemed the operation a problem premise. City staff estimates the regulations will allow for a maximum of 94 shops.

Operators of non-profit “compassion clubs” will have to prove they meet the city’s definition of such a club, including being registered under the province’s Society act and offering at least two health services such as psychological counselling and traditional Chinese medicine for 60 per cent of operating hours or more per month.

Mayor Gregor Robertson and the majority of councillors said the regulations were necessary because the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper failed in its policies to give people proper access to medical marijuana, despite precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada decisions.

Tied to a court ruling in 2001 that made possession possible for medical marijuana patients is the federal government’s move in 2013 to have all marijuana cultivated for medicinal purposes come from a government dispensary and delivered by mail. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled all forms of marijuana can be consumed by Canadians. Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose said she was outraged by the decision.

In his remarks, Vision Coun. Geoff Meggs pointed to letters he and other councillors received from Ambrose and Public Safety Minister Stephen Blaney, who criticized council for considering regulations for pot shops. The ministers said marijuana sales at pot shops was illegal and will remain illegal under the Conservative government.

“I just want to say in response to that, to minister Ambrose: ‘Wake up, you are completely out of touch with the realities on the ground,’” Meggs said. “The policies that you’re advocating are backward and destructive and they’ve driven us to take the steps that are necessary here today.”

In a statement emailed to the Courier Wednesday, Ambrose said she was “deeply disappointed” in council’s decision and expected police to enforce the law. She said marijuana is neither an approved drug nor medicine in Canada and Health Canada doesn’t endorse its use.

“While Canadian courts have required the government to allow access to marijuana when authorized by a physician, the law is clear that this must be done in a controlled fashion to protect public health and safety,” Ambrose said.

All three NPA councillors — George Affleck, Elizabeth Ball and Melissa De Genova — voted against the regulations, although they said they support the legalization of marijuana and how it can help people in need of medicine to treat illnesses.

“This has been, in effect, policy by neglect that we’re putting together today,” Affleck said. “We have the laws in place that could have dealt with the proliferation of these retail stores. The police, for whatever reason, did not follow those policies, those rules that we currently have.”

The Vancouver Police Department is on record saying violent drug dealers, who trade in hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine, are top priorities for its drug unit, although it has executed nine search warrants over a recent 18-month period on pot shops.

While the police say the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act allows for police to make arrests and recommend charges to Crown, it does not allow officers to close a pot shop’s doors. For example, police raided The Real Compassion Society at 151 East Hastings three times since 2013 but it continues to operate today. Under the new regulations, the city and police can now take action, mainly through the courts, to shut down a dispensary.

Affleck said he believes the regulations will lead to “a myriad of nightmare litigious situations from every level of every kind of group,” including operators who aren’t granted licences and advocates upset about the city’s ban on marijuana-infused goods.

“I think we’re going to have a fight from the federal government itself, potentially,” he said, noting the cost of implementing the regulations, which are estimated at $1.4 million in the first year. “Do we want to spend potentially millions of taxpayer dollars fighting in the courts on many, many different fronts? I don’t think that’s responsible governance.”

Jamie Shaw, communications coordinator for the B.C. Compassion Club, told reporters after the council meeting that she was worried the new regulations will mean the oldest pot shop in Vancouver will have to close or relocate.

The dispensary on Commercial Drive is located across the street from Stratford Hall, a private school that moved to the neighbourhood after the pot shop opened its doors in 1997. The school and the Compassion Club are well within the 300 metres that restricts pot shops from operating.

“Without a specific grandfathering clause, there are still actually options and hopefully we can work with city hall to reach some sort of solution,” Shaw said.  “Overall, I think staff and council have worked really hard to try and balance everybody’s concerns and came up with a great first step.”

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