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Vancouver is preparing to introduce sweeping new rules for medical marijuana dispensaries, which have flourished in all corners of the city despite a federal law.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake is backing Vancouver over the federal government in the city's bid to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries over Ottawa's objections.

"I understand why Vancouver has done what they have done, because of the vacuum created by the federal government," Mr. Lake told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday, making his first comments on the controversial issue.

"I think they are operating in the interests of their citizens and at least putting some regulatory framework in their city and, as our public health officers have said, they think they are doing it for the right reasons.

"And until Ottawa changes the regulatory environment, cities and municipalities are left to do that."

Mr. Lake's comments put him at odds with his federal counterpart, who has used a pair of letters – one co-signed by federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney – to call on the city to abandon its plans because they could facilitate youth access to marijuana.

But Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has dismissed the federal protest and city council voted Tuesday to proceed with public hearings on its plans – a key step to enacting the policies that have raised federal concern, likely by this fall.

On Wednesday, the Vancouver Police Department announced it had raided a marijuana store after "public safety concerns" were raised, including an incident where a 15-year-old was hospitalized after allegedly buying edible products there. Although staff were arrested, no charges were laid, police said in a statement.

The VPD said it regards the dispensaries as illegal, but is being selective about enforcements. Over the past 18 months, the force has obtained nine search warrants. "Police will take action again if there are public safety concerns, particularly if they involve youth," the statement said.

The city has proposed new rules to limit where dispensaries are located, and also a $30,000 licence fee for new and existing operations. Vancouver is acting because of a surge in dispensaries, from 20 in 2012 to a current total of more than 80.

Mr. Lake also said the province would not try to set up a regulatory framework because he was not sure it would withstand a court challenge. "We don't want to jump into a space that is properly the role of the federal government," he said.

But political scientist Richard Johnston said he expected the Conservatives would be wary about any court action on the issue now because it could prevent them from easily using marijuana access as a political issue.

The Research Chair in public opinion, elections and representation at the University of British Columbia said the Conservatives may be betting the if the dispensary issue is alive, they can woo voters wary about federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's promise to legalize marijuana.

"I think the Conservatives want to draw the Liberals out on this one," he said. "The issue needs to be as alive as possible from [the Conservative] point of view."

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has been vague about exactly what her government will do about its concerns beyond raising them in correspondence and news conferences. Asked twice about the court option at a news conference in Surrey, B.C., last week, Ms. Ambrose dodged the question, vaguely referring to possible police action.

Murray Rankin, the federal NDP health critic, said Ms. Ambrose's evasion is likely politically motivated. The Victoria MP said the Tories appear to be trying to remind their base that they are opposed to marijuana law reform.

"I don't know that they want a solution. I think they want to keep the pot boiling in a pre-election period," he said on Wednesday.

Mr. Rankin noted the NDP supports the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana and wants an independent commission with a broad mandate to study the non-medical use of marijuana.

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