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Up to two or three dozen dispensaries in Vancouver are expected to receive licences once they start rolling out this spring.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Marijuana dispensaries that have gone through a rigorous vetting process to get a coveted licence from the City of Vancouver could find themselves out of business anyway when the federal government legalizes the drug.

Earlier this week, provincial Health Minister Terry Lake said he would prefer to see liquor stores – not cannabis shops – sell recreational pot once it's legalized. That prompted Councillor Kerry Jang, Vision Vancouver's lead on the marijuana file, to say Thursday that the city would owe nothing to those owners who went through the lengthy process of getting the new class of business licence to sell the illegal substance within city limits.

(For more on Vancouver's dispensaries, read The Globe's in-depth explainer: Vancouver's pot shops: Everything you need to know about marijuana dispensaries)

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"That's the shifting nature of this business – they asked us to regulate," he said in an interview. "That's a business decision they made and a risk that they take, like any other businessman."

City council passed the bylaw last June to curtail and control the more than 100 illegal stores. At the time, Mr. Jang's colleague Councillor Geoff Meggs said it was a "wake-up call" to a federal Conservative government pushing a law-and-order approach to shutting them down, a position Vancouver police deemed a waste of resources and time.

Up to two or three dozen dispensaries are expected to receive licences once they start rolling out this spring.

"What [the licensing plan did] was really force the issue in a number of ways and certainly it brought the federal government in to talk about the issue, because it was something the city was facing all by itself," Mr. Jang said Thursday.

Since then, dispensaries have cropped up throughout the province and Toronto is seeing a boom that could bring up to 100 shops in the coming months.

Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott was non-committal when asked whether liquor stores, pharmacies or dispensaries would be the best outlet for legalized marijuana.

"This is an important question and one I hope to have a good answer for you in the coming months, but it would be premature for me to give you an answer on that at this point," she said Thursday after a meeting in Vancouver with her provincial and territorial counterparts.

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The federal Liberal government has remained mum on the surge in shops, noting it is just starting the process of moving toward legalizing the drug. Mr. Jang said the city is hoping to see a public-health approach to both medical and recreational storefront sales of cannabis.

That means that some of Vancouver's oldest dispensaries – non-profit compassion clubs with strict membership rules for medicinal patients – could still have a public-health role. Mr. Jang suggested they could transition to become places where patients go to get cannabis advice and services rather than products.

Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, said her trade organization is not opposed to different models of distribution as long as interests of patients aren't overshadowed.

"We've been asking for dispensaries to be regulated for 20 years," said Ms. Shaw, who also works at the 18-year-old B.C. Compassion Club Society.  "So to be told now by some parties that we shouldn't be regulated because we're not legal, when that's exactly what we've been asking for?"

She added that liquor stores may not be the best outlet for marijuana.

"Cannabis and alcohol do heighten each other's effects," she said. "So a lot of people that usually use one or the other, if they can pick them up in the same place, you're encouraging more mixed use."

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Despite the dispensaries still being illegal, Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the federal Conservatives, called on Ottawa this week to speed up the regulation of these pot shops. Less than a year earlier, as the former health minister, Ms. Ambrose said she was "deeply disappointed" when Vancouver passed the controversial dispensaries bylaw.

Mr. Jang called her statements this week "quite a stunning reversal" and said they showed the Conservatives' "lack of leadership, or lack of thought, around that file."

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