A cannabis evangelist is vowing to refuse an order from the City of White Rock to tear down the marijuana-focused "church" in his beachfront home by the end of the week.
Several months ago, Robin Douglas erected a large tent for Church of the Holy Smoke patrons to gather in the backyard of the home he rents across the road from the tourist promenade along White Rock's beach. Mr. Douglas said up to 50 people a day drop by the makeshift lounge to hang out, smoke cannabis and ponder questions "regarding their spirituality." He said he guarantees patrons protection from police if they are inside his yard, but makes sure they know they could be arrested if they leave the sanctuary.
Mr. Douglas, who refers to himself as Pastor Robin in a series of YouTube videos explaining his doctrine, says his church views marijuana as a sacrament and that its members should be able to enjoy the drug as part of their constitutional right to practice their religion. He said there are about nine other pastors and that his church supports 11 cancer patients by providing them free marijuana donated by friends running illegal farms.
"The city views us as a bunch of pot-smoking hippies and they want us off the beach," Mr. Douglas said Tuesday. "It should be our right, as spiritual people, to use cannabis in a sacred area [where] we can do it safely without bothering anybody else."
But neighbours have complained about the smell, noise and unsightliness of the property. In a submission to council, one nearby resident said "my beautiful ocean view is now tainted with an unsightly ragged tent and three marijuana flags, which they have placed on their property.
"I paid a lot of my hard-earned money so that I could retire in a house by the sea," the letter said. "Now, when I look out my window, I see marijuana flags and groups of people gathered beneath an awful looking tent doing drugs as if it were some kind of teenager hangout."
Over the past month, the city has sent bylaw officers and given Mr. Douglas fines for $150, $500 and $1,000, according to council documents. Since he began leasing the property last November, RCMP have investigated seven complaints related to noise and smoking, but weren't able to gather enough evidence to support any charges, according to the municipality.
Now, after a special hearing at city council on Monday, Mr. Douglas has been given until this Friday to take down the structure and clean up any debris in the yard, which the city estimates could cost $3,000.
Mr. Douglas, who received a nine-month conditional sentence last fall for selling marijuana, said he will continue to run his church, whether or not the structure is removed. He added that the city has "used nothing but underhanded tactics" and never attempted to negotiate with him over the issue.
Karen Cooper, White Rock's head of planning, said the city is not persecuting Mr. Douglas for his religious beliefs, but was prompted to fix a potentially dangerous situation.
"No matter what religion or purpose the assembly was for, this is what we'd be doing," Ms. Cooper said Tuesday. "The site is very small and to attract and encourage the public to come onto the site is a danger."
She said the tent was erected without a permit, the church has no washroom facilities, no fire plan and only one small entrance and exit that could become a danger in an emergency. She added that Mr. Douglas is welcome to find a property that is bigger and zoned for "public assembly."
Kirk Tousaw, a B.C.-based lawyer who has represented many clients in high-profile marijuana-related cases, said several court rulings have denied people's requests to possess and smoke marijuana for religious purposes, but such practices might be enshrined under Section 2 of the Charter, which ensures Canadians fundamental freedoms such as religion. He said a client arguing that same point may launch an appeal of a Federal Court ruling.
"In other words, the courts or the government shouldn't be in the business of determining what religion is or whether one person's religion is real and another's is not – they're in the business of determining whether you sincerely believe it," Mr. Tousaw said. "And if you do, then you should have a religious right to engage in that practice as long as it's not encroaching upon other people's rights."