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Rocco Dipopolo is pictured at his tattoo parlour in Vancouver on Jan. 26, 2018.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Part of cannabis and small business and retail

From the archives: This article was originally published February 13, 2018

Rocco Dipopolo is an entrepreneur juggling three businesses – a tattoo parlour, a gym and a boxing clinic – in East Vancouver, an area of hipster coffee shops and chic duplexes that the 46-year-old remembers as gritty during his delinquent adolescence.

Until recently, he also owned an illegal cannabis dispensary in the city's trendy Commercial Drive neighbourhood. He had to step away from that venture in order for it to secure a coveted business licence from the City of Vancouver.

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That's because, he says, an official check of his criminal history file by Vancouver police – an extensive search of all available intelligence – indicated he was a "danger to the public."

Mr. Dipopolo has no criminal convictions and no charges show up on the province's public online database, but he says he was acquitted of an assault charge and two charges of obstruction of a peace officer in the early 1990s – when he was a prospect for the Hells Angels. His identical twin brother is still a full-patch member of the gang, but Mr. Dipopolo says he has nothing to hide, including the fact that he and his brother regularly hang out with their families with an explicit agreement to never chat about personal business.

"I sent [the police] another letter explaining what I've done with myself for the past 20 years – I've made nothing but moves to make myself a better person," he told The Globe and Mail recently.

He says he can't afford to sue the force to appeal the rejection so that he can again work in the dispensary, a move he says a lawyer recently told him could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Dipopolo says he, as with thousands of people on the margins of the legal cannabis sector, is watching as the Liberal federal government moves to end nearly a century of prohibition this summer – a key government goal is to stamp out as much of the black market as possible.

Canada's police chiefs say those with ties to organized crime or large networks of illegal cannabis farms shouldn't be allowed to participate in the industry. But they also acknowledge that slamming the door to those with past convictions for possession, small-time trafficking of the drug or other minor offences could hinder efforts to end the underground sale of the drug.

Lawmakers are still deciding if and how these people, many with expertise in growing and using cannabis products, should enter the legal market.

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In 2016, just over half the criminal drug offences across the country – 55,000 – were related to cannabis, with three-quarters of those charges for possessing, not trafficking, the drug. Non-white and low-income Canadians have been disproportionately prosecuted and harmed. Amid sustained public pressure, the Liberals recently signalled they are considering pardoning those convicted of these low-level crimes.

Travis Lane, a Vancouver Island consultant to cannabis growers and dispensaries who once managed a chain of illegal dispensaries on Vancouver Island, said federal and provincial governments should not only expunge all convictions related to possession of the drug, but also give preferential treatment to those in the underground trade who want to go legit.

"If you bring in black-market entrepreneurs then you're taking the best away from that illicit side – so you get to have your cake and eat it, too," said Mr. Lane, director of the non-profit B.C. Independent Cannabis Association.

Mr. Lane, who managed liquor stores before entering the illicit cannabis industry, says it's much easier to get a liquor licence than start a legal cannabis business under the system being recommended by the police chiefs. That's because, at least in British Columbia, applicants for a liquor licence face a "much less stringent" background check of their criminal record – as Mr. Dipopolo found when applying for a city licence to run a dispensary.

The current law for Canada's commercial medical cannabis producers allows for Health Canada to use a level of discretion similar to the City of Vancouver's process in granting clearance to aspiring growers.

The federal agency can deny a licence to anyone convicted of a criminal drug offence in the past decade or those – such as Mr. Dipopolo – it has a "reasonable grounds to suspect" have been involved with organized crime or drug trafficking in the past or are still associated with people engaged in those illicit activities.

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The rules appear looser for people applying to Health Canada for a licence to grow their own medical cannabis or have someone else do it for them, stating that those convicted of drug charges within the past 10 years will be denied. A recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed that an increasing number of these individual medical cannabis patients are using this licensing system to grow hundreds of extra plants, creating a shadow market in Ontario susceptible to armed robberies and abuse by organized crime.

This summer, Health Canada is expected to do background checks on directors of those companies aspiring to grow recreational cannabis. The provinces that will allow private sale of the drug – British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia – will conduct their own screening for retailers.

Neil Dubord, chief of the municipal police force in the Vancouver suburb of Delta, said the B.C. Association of Municipal Police Chiefs, a group of more than dozen chiefs that he heads, is recommending that the province disqualify people who have grown for gangs, but not the hundreds of small-time "mom-and-pop" growers that have been doing it for decades.

"Each situation will require discretion and a conversation," he said.

Abbotsford's Deputy Police Chief Mike Serr, a former Vancouver gang officer who helped write a federal brief for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police on cannabis legalization, agreed that authorities should decide on a case-by-case basis whether to license aspiring cannabis business owners with criminal histories.

"That's where we're going to have to find that line: when there's no longer that relationship and we can't find anything to prove that there is that ongoing relationship, then that's when we're going to take a real hard look at that individual," he said.

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"It's a tough one, on the front end it's concerning," he said of Mr. Dipopolo's case. "But, again, there's police officers who have family members [involved in organized crime].

"They're not part of an organized crime family; it's just that they may have that brother or they may have that uncle who has an association or a criminal background and that doesn't preclude them [from becoming an officer] just by that alone."

Both Mr. Dubord and Mr. Serr agree that provincial and federal mechanisms should be created for those shut out of the legal industry to appeal that decision.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, said the argument for including people with criminal pasts in the new legal market, rather than barring them, is sound.

"People become involved in gangs oftentimes because they face other forms of social exclusion, so we are then seeking to exclude them further from participation in the licit economy, which is going to do nothing to stop them from being involved in violent gangs," he said.

"If anything, we might want to do the opposite: take people who are involved with the criminal underworld and provide them with opportunities for gainful employment."

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Prof. Owusu-Bempah said the federal Liberal government has a duty to repair the harm done to Canadians by decades of prohibition, especially minorities who may use the drug as much as white people but are more likely to be charged.

He said Ottawa should also help people with low-level criminal cannabis convictions to enter the legal industry, as the city of Oakland in California, a U.S. state that legalized marijuana Jan. 1 is doing, as well as reinvest some of the tax revenue into those communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.

Mr. Lane, of the B.C. Independent Cannabis Association, said pioneers in the illegal sphere deserve that acknowledgment.

"There should be no doubt that the people who made the point – that cannabis being illegal was unjust in the first place – should not be punished for breaking an unjust law," he said. "If anything, they should be considered the forebearers of the law."

A vendor at a downtown Vancouver pot pop-up market says illegally selling cannabis-infused edibles is about harm reduction. Vancouver police have been cracking down on the open-air marijuana marketplace. The Canadian Press
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly paraphrased Rocco Dipopolo as he described his relationship with his brother. Mr. Dipopolo said he and his brother agreed not to discuss personal business.
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