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Board of variance to hear from 62 marijuana shop operators

Yep, this is about to happen… I’m going to knock out 650 words on the city’s board of variance. No, my editor isn’t punishing me. And, no, I didn’t lose a bet.
The city’s board of variance will be busy most of this year hearing appeals from pot shop operators, including owners of the B.C. Pain Society on Commercial Drive, who don’t meet new zoning requirements. Photo Dan Toulgoet


Yep, this is about to happen…

I’m going to knock out 650 words on the city’s board of variance.

No, my editor isn’t punishing me.

And, no, I didn’t lose a bet.

I just thought you might want to know what the heck this board does because it will likely be in the news from now until at least November.


One word: Marijuana.

From Feb. 17 until Nov. 16, the board of variance will hold separate hearings for 62 owners of illegal marijuana dispensaries whose development permit applications were rejected by the city.

Why were they rejected?

Because their pot shops didn’t meet new zoning requirements approved by city council in June 2015. In other words, their pot shops were too close to a school, or community centre, or neighbourhood house.

The good news for the 62 owners is an appeal gives them a chance to keep the doors open. The bad news: If an owner loses an appeal, the doors have to shut within six months.

Deciding their future will be the five-member board of variance. They are chairperson Gilbert Tan and members Jag Dhillon, Namtez (Babbu) Sohal, Martha Welsh and George Chow, the retired Vision Vancouver city councillor.

The board, which is appointed by city council, has some definite power. Although city committees or council can present information to the board on appeals, it cannot influence board decisions. All the board’s decisions are binding.

Meetings are generally held the second Wednesday of each month at city hall and begin at 1:15 p.m. The public is welcome and allowed to speak to the board.

The day before the meeting, the board jumps in a van and visits or drives by the sites under appeal. So that means the board could visit more dispensaries this year than a drug squad.

The tour will include stops at the B.C. Pain Society, Point Grey Cannabis Ltd., Divine Ventures, The Green Rhino, The Healing Tree, Canada Bliss Herbal Society, Lime Life, Karuna Health Foundation, the B.C. Compassion Club Society and many others. (The city has a complete list of the 62 shops on its website.)

I called up Tan to get his thoughts on presiding over the hearings. He didn’t want to say much. But he was good enough to stay on the phone with me for a few minutes.

“It’s sort of hard for me to talk about it as subject,” he said. “It’s so sensitive and quite controversial.”

Tan said he couldn’t give a general statement on the board’s approach to hearing the appeals but said “hardship” — and whether the operator is facing such a thing — will factor into decisions. What “hardship” looks like is open to interpretation, he said, adding that each appeal will be heard on its own merits.

The city’s website sheds a bit more light on the “hardship” clause, saying the board must be satisfied “the strict application of the bylaw would impose an unreasonable restraint or unnecessary hardship on the use or development of the property.” Or, the board must be satisfied “the special circumstances giving rise to hardship upon which an appeal is based are unique to the property in question.”

“But we don’t base it on financial grounds,” Tan said after I told him some pot shops, particularly so-called compassion clubs, say they can’t afford to move because rent is expensive.

All this effort by the board of variance — and the city’s work to set up a business licence scheme — could potentially be turned upside down when the Trudeau government makes good on its promise to legalize and regulate marijuana.

Trudeau has not said when that will happen, or what legalization looks like in relation to pot shops. Could it be that pot shops will be irrelevant? Maybe legalized pot will be sold in liquor stores. Food trucks, anybody?

All open questions.

For now, the city and the board of variance are on their own to provide what answers they can on an issue that continues to burn across the country, all the way to Ottawa.