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Over the past week, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that contaminants such as pesticides and fungicides were found in marijuana obtained from a number of Vancouver marijuana dispensaries. (Eric Risberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Over the past week, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that contaminants such as pesticides and fungicides were found in marijuana obtained from a number of Vancouver marijuana dispensaries. (Eric Risberg/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

STEPHEN QUINN

Health authority is strict on Vancouver restaurants, but not pot dispensaries Add to ...

If you click on Vancouver Coastal Health’s running tally of food-establishment closings, you’ll find that three Vancouver restaurants have been closed so far this month. One for a day, one for three days, and one, which was closed on Sept. 19, is still listed as “pending.”

The restaurants were cited for such things as inadequate dishwashing, unsanitary conditions and pest infestation. The names and addresses of the restaurants are there as well, should you want to avoid them.

The health authority is rigorous when it comes to keeping its website up to date. Inspection reports and closings are published each week, along with the often unsavoury details of each violation. For a media and public used to having the bad news buried, or having to access it through freedom-of-information requests, it is a gorgeous trove of transparency and accountability.

Over the past week, a Globe and Mail investigation revealed that contaminants such as pesticides and fungicides were found in marijuana obtained from a number of Vancouver marijuana dispensaries. The reporting showed that nearly a year ago, Health Canada was warned by a federally accredited lab that samples from several Vancouver dispensaries contained substances “not approved for any human use.” The documents were obtained through the Access to Information Act. The names of the dozen or so dispensaries were redacted, but 13 of the 22 samples tested contained high levels of banned chemicals. The information was sent to Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott’s office in January and no action was taken.

Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang, who has been the city’s point person on the marijuana dispensary file, was appropriately outraged.

“She has failed in her responsibility,” he told me in an interview this week. Mr. Jang says since Ottawa pledged to legalize marijuana, he has been urging the federal government to introduce a quality-control regime. He says his requests have fallen on deaf ears. “Here’s a Health Minister who knew the samples were contaminated,” he said.

According to Mr. Jang, the city has so far licensed four marijuana dispensaries. He says 56 continue to operate illegally and 27 are currently the subject of injunctions. He says 20 others are making their way through the application process.

To be clear, the sale of marijuana – except from licensed producers for medical use – remains illegal. The city stepped in to regulate and license the retail outlets to stop the proliferation of the shops, which had grown exponentially with no controls of any kind.

As for how the city can license a storefront that is in the business of breaking the law, Mr. Jang explains it thusly: “We’re licensing the business and not the product.” He says the federal government’s reluctance to act comes from the fact that the product being sold – for the time being – is illegal and accuses the Health Minister of “hiding behind a legal shield.”

All of this leads to the question of whether the city has a responsibility to ensure that the product sold in the stores it licenses and regulates is free of contamination or toxins. Mr. Jang acknowledges the city has no idea where the dispensaries – licensed or otherwise – are getting their marijuana.

“We tell people it’s an illegal substance and it could be contaminated. That’s why it’s buyer beware,” he said. But, he says, had the city not moved to regulate the stores, the situation could be even worse. “Contaminated or not, we have achieved a public-health goal.”

It is more than a little rich that the city of Vancouver, which points fingers at the federal government for failing to ensure the safety of marijuana sold in illegal shops, gives the same shops business licences to operate knowing that in some cases, the product is contaminated.

The cannabis may be coming from an ethical organic grower on Saturna Island, or it may be coming from an underground bunker in Abbotsford, operated by an organized criminal gang bent on doing everything it can to maximize yield. The point is, we have no way of knowing.

While the city requires criminal background checks from proprietors and employees of dispensaries as a condition of applying for a licence, it has literally no idea where they’re getting their weed. Mr. Jang says that’s a matter for police to pursue if they so choose.

Perhaps as a condition of licensing, the city could require that dispensaries install restaurant-grade dishwashers.

Or maybe conclude that the pesticides found in the weed were being used strictly for cosmetic purposes.

That way, from a health perspective, there might be some accountability.

Because selling contaminated marijuana doesn’t appear to be doing the trick.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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