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Cannabis Court orders shutdown of at least 28 illegal cannabis dispensaries in Vancouver

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A British Columbia judge has ruled in favour of the City of Vancouver in a fight with illegal cannabis shops, granting city hall an injunction to immediately shut down 28 or more stores that were disqualified from getting a business licence under a landmark bylaw passed three years ago.

Provincial Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson’s Thursday ruling stated Vancouver was right to begin restricting the locations of an exploding number of these illicit shops and he rejected the business owners' contention that the city was overstepping its jurisdiction to regulate the storefront sale of the drug, which is a federal matter.

“Retail cannabis dispensaries may well raise issues that touch upon health, safety, public nuisance, and youth exposure, but like every other business operating in a municipality, the operation of cannabis dispensaries may result in land-use conflicts, which will impact upon the local economy and character of a neighbourhood," the ruling stated. ”The critical facts in this proceeding are not in dispute: the non-government respondents each admit that they operate a retail store selling cannabis products, do not currently hold a business licence as required … and that each operate a business that does not comply with … the city’s zoning bylaw."

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Many of the stores locked in the legal battle failed to secure a licence because they operate within 300 metres of one another or a school or community centre, which violates Vancouver bylaws.

He refused to rule on whether Ottawa’s prohibition of storefront medical cannabis sales, which remains in place with the drug legalized, infringes on patients' Charter right to reasonable access to the drug. Lawyers for the offending stores had argued the huge increase in illicit dispensaries across the country several years ago was a result of patients “voting with their feet” after the federal government failed to give people the ability to buy medical marijuana in person.

Kathryn Holm, the city’s chief licence inspector, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail Thursday that Vancouver was very pleased with the ruling and that the offending 28 stores need to shut down immediately or face court-ordered fines, jail time or both.

“We’re working through the details; we will develop and implement a plan to ensure that this ruling is adhered to," she said two hours after receiving the judgment.

As of June 25 this year, the city had issued 3,244 tickets worth $2.4-million to the shops and these must be paid to the city, the judge ruled.

“That’s very helpful and we’re very pleased to see that that was ruled upon – so we will continue to expect payment and collection of those fines,” Ms. Holm said.

Despite long being the face of Canada’s underground cannabis industry, B.C. only has a handful of retail outlets licensed to sell cannabis.

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Vancouver has had 14 applicants proceed past the first stages of provincial licensing hurdles and has approved another four locations as complying with the city’s rules, which means they are awaiting a final decision from B.C. before opening.

John Conroy, one of the lead lawyers for the offending shops, said he was disappointed by the ruling and the judge’s refusal to weigh in on the constitutionality of the current medical-marijuana system.

He said he is now considering challenging this gap in access to storefront sales of medical marijuana in Federal Court, where he and another team previously forced Ottawa to allow authorized patients to grow their own cannabis plants.

As for the stores named in the injunction and any others open without the blessing of city hall, Mr. Conroy said authorities now have the legal right to shut them down. But he said he hopes the city shows some discretion and allows operators such as the B.C. Compassion Club Society, which opened illegally in 1997, to remain open and serving its patients.

“I would expect that those that don’t have the history and reputations and credibility – and who may not be strictly medical – they may be shut down,” he said. “Hopefully the police and the authorities are able to distinguish between those that are and those that aren’t.”

Editor’s note: (Dec. 18, 2018) An earlier version of this article included an incorrect spelling of Kathryn Holm’s name.

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