Fourteen applicants are one step closer to running a licensed marijuana dispensary in Vancouver as the city attempts to impose some control on the illegal retail sale of cannabis.
The applicants include a current owner who acknowledges a past association with the Hells Angels, and the identity of those behind seven others remains unknown. Letters published on the city's development services website had names missing or redacted.
The city has received public feedback from those within a two-block radius of these prospective locations, which are now awaiting a development permit before being audited for a new business licence.
Provincial politicians are pushing for pot to be sold through liquor stores or pharmacies – not dispensaries – once recreational use is made legal, but Vancouver is continuing with its landmark regulation that could see these illegal storefronts winnowed down from more than 100 to just several dozen this year.
Andreea Toma, the city's director of licensing, says regardless of what form legalization takes, the standards in place now will help Vancouver regulate face-to-face sales of the drug.
The 14 dispensaries that have passed the first stage of Vancouver's new licensing system. Blue markers represent for-profit marijuana dispensaries. Green markers represent non-profit compassion clubs, which are subject to lower fees but must include a range of services.
"We still maintain that what we're doing is within our jurisdiction, which is land use and business licensing – that is a municipal government's jurisdiction," Ms. Toma said. "We know that [the status of the drug] is going to change, it's just a matter of when and how and we'll gladly work with the federal government."
Ms. Toma said these pot shops cropped up and forced the city to regulate them because "it was clear that the system the federal government does currently have for accessing medical marijuana does not work."
Rocco Dipopolo, whose EVO Medi Society dispensary is one of the 14 in the next stage of licensing, said he is happy that Vancouver will eventually have the number of pot shops cut in half and praised the city "bending over backwards" to help applicants through the process.
If a development permit is issued, then a store's employees and owners must show that they don't have any drug convictions in the past five years, Ms. Toma said. After that, dispensary owners (for-profit shops) pay $30,000 and compassion clubs (which must offer therapeutic services on site) $1,000 to obtain a coveted new business licence.
Mr. Dipopolo was once a Hells Angels prospect as a youth in the early 1990s and says he has long turned the corner on that life to become a successful businessman who also owns a tattoo parlour, a gym and a boxing clinic. He says he has no criminal record and nothing to hide.
Asked if his past associations should preclude him from running a dispensary, he said: "I don't know what to say to you, if someone wants to live in the past, they can go ahead and live in the past – it doesn't concern me no more.
"I wouldn't be moving forward with this [dispensary] if I thought that I was doing something wrong," he said, adding he refuses to sell to anyone under 25 years old and buys his products from growers licensed under the old medical-marijuana system.
The storefront sale of cannabis products is illegal because these dispensaries procure and sell their products outside Health Canada's licensed medical-marijuana system, which was overhauled in 2014 and now allows about 20 industrial-scale growers to mail their products directly to patients who have a doctor's prescription.
Provincial and territorial health ministers are meeting with their federal counterpart this week in Vancouver, with B.C.'s Terry Lake saying he is not in favour of the dispensary model of distribution, which began surging several years ago in Vancouver and now is taking hold in Toronto.
About 130 applications submitted for approval from the City of Vancouver were rejected for being within 300 metres of schools or community centres. Roughly half of those have applied to the board of variance to issue a special exemption to continue with the licensing process, Ms. Toma said.
Starting next month, the board will begin hearing the first of these appeals and continue to do so at a rate of five per meeting, Ms. Toma said. The meetings take place every two weeks.
Another six or seven stores will emerge from clusters of shops that are too close together and move on to the next stage, she added.
The first new business licence will be issued this spring and those dispensaries still not taking part in the application process must voluntarily close down come April 20, she said.