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British Columbia Mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart wants Vancouver to become a global hub for cannabis research

Vancouver mayor-elect Kennedy Stewart poses for a photo outside City Hall in Vancouver, on Oct. 22, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

At a time when many Canadian cities are turning their backs on the economic possibilities of cannabis legalization, Vancouver’s mayor-elect says he will push for his city to become a global hub for marijuana research.

Kennedy Stewart says he intends to bank on Vancouver’s “really established cannabis culture” to help attract businesses and encourage high-level research into making commercial products, such as new marijuana-infused beverages. He also wants to attract academics to engage in much-needed trials examining the drug’s therapeutic potential.

“With the [illicit storefront] retail, with the history of usage, we can really go and get the RnD attracted to the city,” he said in an interview before his election victory. “So instead of hippies on street corners, it’s people in lab coats doing the kind of medical and pharmaceutical-industry activities we need, but also developing new products for recreational use.”

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In recent years, a handful of commercial medical-marijuana producers have boosted the local economies of several small towns across the country that were amenable to the new industry. Now that recreational cannabis is legal, communities can change their municipal bylaws to accommodate a raft of companies that are expected to get federal approval to grow, sell, process, test and research the drug.

Mr. Stewart, a former NDP MP who was elected last Saturday, told The Globe and Mail that he will begin crafting his cannabis plan by seeking input from local companies and the research community. He said he will also ask the Vancouver Economic Commission to use its tools to help boost the nascent sector. Meanwhile, he will take a lax approach, he said, to shutting down the several dozen illegal dispensaries still operating in the city, which are fighting a civic injunction in B.C. Supreme Court and are unlikely to receive a provincial retail licence.

Catherine Warren, CEO of the commission, says she sees clear economic opportunities for Vancouver in the sector, in particular companies that advance the study of the plant’s chemistry, develop point-of-sale software or track, verify and certify quality assurance.

“Ventures in the legal cannabis sector will also require significant innovation and face similar challenges met by existing stakeholder groups: access to affordable industrial space and competition for smart capital and talent,” she said in an e-mailed statement. “The work that VEC does to address these kinds of growing pains … will ultimately benefit the legal cannabis sector.”

Across the Salish Sea in Nanaimo, mayor-elect Leornard Krog said he has no plans to embrace the industry, even though publicly traded Tilray employs many people at its production site in the Vancouver Island community.

In Toronto, a re-elected John Tory is expected to continue a crackdown on the city’s illicit dispensaries and has told the provincial attorney-general that he supports legalization but is worried about its negative impacts on public health and safety. Communities across Ontario are expected to begin getting licensed private cannabis shops by April of next year.

Courtland Sandover-Sly, president of the non-profit B.C. Independent Cannabis Association, said a positive message from a politician in power could hold a lot of sway in an industry fighting outright opposition in many communities across the country.

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“Saying that Vancouver is open for business may be enough. People just need a reminder that Kennedy Stewart or any mayor isn’t anti-cannabis and seeking to make life difficult for these entrepreneurs,” said Mr. Sandover-Sly, who is also a financial consultant for underground dispensaries hoping to become legal.

There are cannabis businesses other than growing and retailing the drug, he said, that can contribute to a local economy, such as tech firms creating software to track product inventory.

“You can see it at the trade shows across Canada: Ninety per cent of the businesses that have booths are support businesses," he said. “They’re companies that have lights for hydroponic use, there’s rolling-paper companies, there’s so many of these ancillary businesses that work with the industry.”

Still, B.C. has less than half the 69 federal cannabis production licences issued in Ontario over the past four years, despite long being home to thousands of people linked to the underground cannabis sector. Mr. Sandover-Sly said Vancouver’s push might encourage a reverse brain drain of professionals to return to B.C. from Ontario and Alberta, where they went to work for licensed cannabis firms.

With a report from Frances Bula

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