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Four B.C. pot dispensaries can seek licences; three suing after rejection

Hilary Black, club founder, is photographed outside the B.C. Compassion Club Society in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, April 21, 2016.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Four Vancouver cannabis dispensaries that enjoy support from the community can pursue a coveted business licence despite operating closer to schools and community centres than allowed, says the independent panel that can grant exemptions to the city's new bylaw.

But three other dispensaries are suing the city, arguing the five members on the Board of Variance unfairly rejected their appeals – under pressure from city staff – to operate within the 300-metre buffer zones.

On Wednesday, while thousands of cannabis users were celebrating at Vancouver's Sunset Beach 4/20 party, B.C. Compassion Club Society founder Hilary Black was speaking at a hearing along with several patients and the non-profit's long-time lawyer and prominent cannabis activist John Conroy.

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Ms. Black, who started the non-profit dispensary in 1997, said the board recognized that her 6,000-member organization would have to shut down if it was required to move to a new location, further away from the two private schools that opened after Canada's oldest dispensary was founded.

Their appeal was also buoyed by the support of the community and recognition of the club's effective approach to harm reduction and holistic medicine from numerous levels of government, she said in an interview.

"A handful of dispensaries in Vancouver are giving back in a number of ways," she said.

Ms. Black, who now works for Canada's largest licensed marijuana producer, praised the board for granting the appeal.

"They're citizen volunteers and they're used to dealing with the size of decks and issues around parking lots, so they have been thrown into the middle of a very complex issue," said Ms. Black.

The board has now given four dispensaries a second chance to continue pursuing a business licence from the city and panel members will hear the remaining 45 appeals into November.

Andreea Toma, Vancouver's director of licensing, said 22 applicants have now made it to the second of three licensing stages and the first business licence will likely be awarded to a pot shop in the next month.

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Meanwhile, the rest of the city's roughly 100 dispensaries must shut down – even if they are awaiting an appeal with the board – by April 29 or face fines from the city and possible injunctions.

In the past week, S.W.E.D. Cannabis Society and the Green Cross Society filed lawsuits in the Supreme Court of British Columbia asking for a judicial review after the Board of Variance rejected their appeals earlier this year. Robert W.E. Laurie, the lawyer for the two dispensaries, said he planned to file another lawsuit for Vancity Medicinal Society on Friday.

Mr. Laurie said his three dispensary clients are asking a judge to force the board to rehear their appeals and, in the meantime, let the stores continue operating.

"The Board of Variance hasn't done their job and, therefore, the purpose of the judicial review is to sort that out," Mr. Laurie said Thursday.

Rohan Gardiner, who manages the Green Cross Society dispensary on Kingsway, said in an affidavit sworn April 20 that the city's assistant director of planning told the board members that they had no power to relax the strict application of the 300-metre buffer zones.

"I recall [the chair] indicating by his words and conduct that 'If we have no ability to actually change these decisions, why are we here right now?'" Mr. Gardiner added in his affidavit. "It was not clear whether the Board of Variance, at my appeal on March 2, 2016, was certain as to its mandate because they appeared to make up the rules and proceedings as they went along."

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Mr. Laurie said his three dispensary clients are asking a judge to force the board to rehear their appeals and, in the meantime, let the stores continue operating past the April 29 deadline.

Provincial politicians have been pushing for pot to be sold through liquor stores or pharmacies – not dispensaries – once recreational use is made legal next spring, 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.

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