When Craig Speirs was first elected as a councillor in the quasi-rural community of Maple Ridge five terms ago, marijuana was a minor issue the police dealt with.
Now, Mr. Speirs and his fellow councillors have nine well-capitalized businesses applying to start marijuana-production facilities in their city. Two are already in operation, even though they do not have Health Canada permits and are technically illegal.
And the Maple Ridge council, like that of many others in cities and villages around the province, has been forced to grapple with the issue.
"It's a visceral shift the last five years," Mr. Speirs said. "There's a lot more acceptance, a lot more wanting to understand the job possibilities, and just wanting to manage the impacts."
Mr. Speirs was one of dozens of local politicians at a session on marijuana on Monday in Vancouver at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention. The event on how to deal with marijuana grow-ops, shifting Health Canada regulations, illegal pot dispensaries, people growing plants in their own yards, and more has become a regular part of the annual gathering.
This year, complaints about crime and policing of grow-ops were replaced by questions about the technicalities of what local governments can and cannot do to regulate the business side of a product that falls under federal jurisdiction.
The general consensus: City councils cannot legalize marijuana. Only the federal government can do that. On the other hand, it is not up to councils to enforce federal drug laws.
Vancouver lawyer Francesca Marzari told the gathering that cities are within their rights to create bylaws that stipulate where dispensaries or unlicensed production facilities are allowed or to charge them fees, as Vancouver is doing.
"Recognizing that they are unlawful doesn't necessarily mean that saying where they can be located is a criminal matter," Ms. Marzari said. "As long as it's understood that we can't make anything lawful, I think it's an acceptable use of local government authority."
That contradictory situation is also what has unfolded in Washington, said a lawyer who worked on that U.S. state's initiative to legalize marijuana.
"Washington State is breaking federal law," said former prosecutor Tonia Winchester, another a speaker at the session. "[The Department of Justice] could go into any store and shut it down."
But the U.S. justice department has not done that. Washington voters first supported marijuana legalization in 2012 and the state has created a regulation and tax system that went fully into effect this year.
Ms. Winchester said B.C. seems to be where Washington was in 2010 and 2011, when people got together and decided to work for legalization.
"Like you, we said, 'We need to do something within our jurisdiction because the federal government is failing to act.'"
Ms. Winchester said voters were persuaded to support legalization with three arguments: It would free up police to focus on violent crime. It would generate income for research and education about drugs, and addiction treatment. And it would take the business out of the hands of criminals.
B.C.'s local-government politicians did not debate those arguments, though.
They wanted to know details of how to manage the quasi-legal industry they now have. A councillor from Sechelt wanted to know what the council can do to regulate noise and dust; Health Canada is not doing it and B.C. legislation says a farm operation cannot be prohibited from producing noise or dust. Another, from Victoria, was concerned about insurance issues. A third, from Chilliwack, worried about how councils deal with the effects of agricultural marijuana operations on nearby residents in a subdivision.
For Mr. Speirs, it is a refreshing new conversation.
And, a sign of how much times have changed, Mr. Speirs himself keeps getting re-elected even though he has energetically campaigned for Sensible B.C., a group that pushes for marijuana legalization, and restricts its membership to people who openly acknowledge that they use marijuana.
Mr. Speirs been smoking it for 45 years, says the retired liquor-store employee, who uses his wine expertise in local courses he teaches on fine dining.