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Robertson waves off Health Minister’s warning about marijuana dispensaries

Vancouver’s relaxed approach to marijuana allowed medical cannabis dispensaries such as The Dispensary to flourish.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has rejected a warning from the federal Health Minister to scrap a proposal to regulate marijuana dispensaries.

The proposal would create a new class of business licence for the operations while imposing hefty fees and restricting where they can be located.

"The city's approach right now is a common-sense one to deal with regulating the proliferation – we have over 80 of these dispensaries and they exist because of the federal landscape and the actions taken or not taken by the federal government," Mr. Robertson told reporters on Friday after a regional mayors' meeting in Burnaby, B.C.

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The number of marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver has ballooned to more than 80, up from about 20 just a couple of years ago. That rapid expansion has happened without much interference from the city or its police force.

The city has said it had no choice but to regulate dispensaries due to the federal government's inaction on the issue.

Mr. Robertson's comments came hours after Health Minister Rona Ambrose, visiting the Lower Mainland, repeated her warning from a letter to the mayor this week urging him to back away from the plan.

Mr. Robertson said access to medical marijuana is "a real issue" for Vancouver, suggesting the proposal would help the city deal with problems such as unauthorized access and proliferation. The plan is to be discussed at a city council meeting next week.

"As a city, we just can't let these shops be everywhere all over town. And certainly we don't want them close to schools. We don't want access for kids to be as easy as it has been. So we're taking some steps, looking at a public hearing to consider those in the days ahead and we want to be sure, first and foremost, that kids are not getting access as we've seen in the past."

Ms. Ambrose was blunt in her remarks Friday. "I would just say to him, 'Don't do it,'" Ms. Ambrose told reporters in a question-and-answer session after a presentation on immunization.

Ms. Ambrose said Vancouver should instead shut down the dispensaries because they are illegal under federal law. Ms. Ambrose drew a distinction between the Vancouver dispensaries and what she described as the strict, regulated regime of the federal system, which was a response to court decisions that said patients must have reliable access to medical marijuana.

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"At the end of the day, legitimizing this kind of commercial operation, selling marijuana on the street is normalizing it. I think that's a bad message for young people. When you normalize something, the message is that it is normal, that it is OK and that it is safe. It is not safe for kids to smoke marijuana."

Dr. Perry Kendall, B.C.'s provincial health officer, said Vancouver is taking "sensible" measures under the circumstances. He said it is better to have marijuana in a regulated environment even if it is an illegal product, "than to have people skulking around the back streets where cannabis is sold."

Murray Rankin, the federal NDP health critic, said in an interview that Ms. Ambrose appeared to be playing politics with the issue ahead of this fall's federal election to appeal to and consolidate a Conservative base opposed to harm reduction.

The Victoria MP said Ms. Ambrose should not be criticizing Vancouver for trying to deal with this issue, but instead trying to reconcile varied perspectives on managing marijuana. "The status quo obviously isn't working," he said.

But George Affleck, one of three Non-Partisan Association Vancouver city councillors, said council needs to take Ms. Ambrose's concerns seriously because the city might be nurturing illegal activity. He said the majority Vision Vancouver party on council has presided over the creation of the current problems they are now scrambling to resolve.

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