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Pot shops applying for permit grapple with Vancouver’s stringent rules

Don Briere, owner of Weeds, Vancouver’s largest chain of pot shops, said just one of his nine locations had been approved – a storefront on a commercial block in the southeast.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Of the nearly 200 pot shops wanting a business licence from the City of Vancouver, only 11 have cleared the first hurdle. But the city is promising that the number of applicants who could ultimately be able to open their doors may double.

The city announced Monday that of the 176 applicants, only 11 – six of whom want to open non-profit compassion clubs – had met the stringent 300-metre distancing rules meant to keep shops away from schools and community centres in a bid to limit young people's exposure to the controversial storefronts.

That handful of shops now have a month to submit their applications for inspections and for the permit review stage, in which neighbours will have an opportunity to weigh in on whether they should be granted the special licences.

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The licences will cost compassion clubs $1,000 and retail marijuana shops $30,000.

The compassion clubs will take much longer to prove to the city they are offering the therapeutic services claimed before they can be licensed, but the first for-profit stores could get their final approvals as early as January.

Don Briere, owner of Weeds, the city's largest chain of pot shops, said just one of his nine locations had been approved – a storefront on a commercial block in the southeast.

He wants the city to relax its distancing rules to allow for more stores, because he said it would be very difficult to find other suitable locations.

"There's schools everywhere," said Mr. Briere, who ran a large network of illegal grow operations in the 1990s and had his controversial East Vancouver café and dispensary raided a decade ago. "Vancouver has one of the highest densities of schools in Canada; there's private schools, there's the social centres."

For the small number of existing stores that either refused to apply for the new licences or cropped up since the deadline passed in August, the city threatened to use fines and even court injunctions for those that didn't "close their doors immediately."

The city also told another 30 applicants that they might be able to get through to the next stage once it breaks up 10 clusters that have shops located closer than 300 metres from each other.

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Each store in a cluster will be evaluated on a demerit system that includes whether it is a for-profit business, has had neighbours complain about its operations in the last year, done unlicensed renovations or had a history of poor practices. The applicant with the lowest score for each cluster would win the right to move ahead with the permitting process.

The city also gave a grace period of six months for all failed applicants to continue operating and try again with a different location.

City staff had previously estimated a maximum of about 94 locations could operate under the spacing guidelines of the new bylaw, but Councillor Geoff Meggs said public-health concerns dictated that such a small percentage of applicants got through to the next stage.

"If it's 11 [successful applicants], it's 11 more than were there legitimately before," said Mr. Meggs, who said in June that he hoped such regulation would send a clear "wake-up" call to former Conservative health minister Rona Ambrose. "This is a way that we think will balance public demand for this substance with good practices in terms of sale and management of street fronts and business communities."

Still, he lamented that there were "unexpected consequences of the way the policy was developed," namely that two of the city's oldest compassion clubs were rejected.

"I support the policy, but I regret the way it has worked for the [B.C.] Compassion Club [Society] because it met so many tests of public acceptance," he said. "I'm hopeful that a solution could be found in that case."

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Jamie Shaw, spokeswoman for the B.C. Compassion Club Society and president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, said, as expected, her 18-year-old organization will have to apply to the board of variance for special permission to stay within the buffer zones imposed by city staff. The compassion club had a private school, now a "trusted neighbour," open across the intersection from its storefront four years after it began serving patients, she said.

Dana Larsen, who has long campaigned for legalization of marijuana, said he also would be approaching the board to see if his West End location could remain open 290 metres from a neighbouring school.

"The irony is we've been open seven years during a time in which we had no licence and nobody minds," he said. "Now that they're moving forward with legalization, we get shut down."

All dispensaries and compassion clubs across Canada still operate outside the federal government's medical marijuana program, which permits about two dozen industrial-scale growers to sell dried flowers and bottles of cannabis oil directly to patients through the mail. Public pressure mounted on the city to regulate these shops after their numbers rose exponentially from just 14 in 2012 to more around 100 when city council began public hearings into crafting a dispensary bylaw this past spring.

The outgoing Conservative government, staunchly against harm reduction and the medical or recreational use of pot, repeatedly warned Vancouver to stay away from regulating the shops and demanded local police enforce the law and shut them down.

Mr. Meggs said he expects the city's relationship with the federal government on the issue to "dramatically improve" once the Liberals, who campaigned on legalizing marijuana, come to power.

"Co-operation beats conflict every day of the week," he said. "But there's lots to learn about the sale of this substance and I'm not one who thinks it should be completely wide open."

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