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British Columbia B.C. vows to crack down on illegal marijuana dispensaries with help from government unit

The retail system for cannabis will be almost identical to the one for alcohol, allowing a mix of private and public stores to sell the drug once federal laws change this summer.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP Photo

British Columbia says it will shut down illegal cannabis dispensaries, once the drug is legalized, with the help of a new team of government inspectors who can issue fines of up to $100,000 and recommend jail time.

The provincial government introduced three pieces of legislation on Thursday outlining how recreational marijuana will be regulated. The bills add clarity to proposed rules the government outlined earlier this year.

Among the questions facing the province and cities is how they plan to approach B.C.’s extensive network of dispensaries, which have flourished in recent years and in some areas have received special business licences from local governments. Communities that have rejected these shops outright have had to wage costly and lengthy legal battles to oust these illegal operators.

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Shops that have defied local governments have so far faced few consequences.

The retail system for cannabis will be almost identical to the one for alcohol, allowing a mix of private and public stores to sell the drug once federal laws change this summer. The province, however, will have the sole authority to sell directly to consumers through the potentially lucrative online market.

Rather than using existing liquor inspectors to enforce the rules, a new “community safety unit” will be created within Solicitor-General Mike Farnworth’s ministry. Mr. Farnworth said this enforcement branch will expand as needed when more retail licences are given out after cannabis is legalized by Ottawa toward the end of the summer.

“Those that do not get a licence, but still think that they can continue to operate with impunity will find out that they can’t,” he told reporters on Thursday morning after the bills were tabled in the legislature. “The administrative penalties that we have in the act are significant, so I think that will have the desired effect.”

The majority of the hundreds of dispensaries in B.C. operate in Vancouver and Victoria, where local lawmakers have opted to regulate – not raid – these stores operating outside of Health Canada’s mail-order medical-marijuana system. In Vancouver, dozens of stores have continued to sell the drug without those licences and in areas that are prohibited and attempts to shut them down have been bogged down in the courts.

Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang, architect of Vancouver’s landmark marijuana bylaw passed three years ago, said the province will have an easier time shutting down illegal marijuana dispensaries than municipal bureaucrats.

Once cannabis is legalized, those now operating illegal dispensaries may apply to the provincial liquor agency for a licence. But Vancouver’s 76 cannabis shops operating outside the city’s licensing regime are very unlikely to get the blessing from city hall needed to proceed in the legal industry, according to Mr. Jang, co-chair of a provincial-municipal cannabis committee meeting every two weeks to iron out the remaining rules.

“One thing I’ve learned about that whole process is that landscape changes so quickly,” he said of the reluctance of scofflaws to shut down.

Vancouver has approved special business licences for 19 locations and more than 40 applicants are in the middle of trying to obtain that permission. Another 76 are flouting the bylaw despite being subject to $1,000 bylaw tickets and pending court injunctions that, Mr. Jang said, are now scheduled to start being heard in B.C. Provincial Court this September.

More than 2,900 of these fines have been issued so far, with less than one in five being paid, according to an official update Monday.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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