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British Columbia Richmond, B.C. vows to shut doors on legal marijuana dispensaries

Buttons are displayed at The Dispensary in Vancouver, B.C. Thursday, March 6, 2014. City councillors in Richmond, B.C., say they are not prepared to allow storefront sales of marijuana in their city regardless of what model Ottawa eventually settles on once the drug is legalized.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Councillors in Richmond, B.C., say they are not prepared to allow storefront sales of marijuana in their city regardless of what model Ottawa eventually settles on once the drug is legalized.

The city is considering a bylaw that would ban illegal marijuana dispensaries, which other cities are controlling through business licences, and local politicians said they want it to continue even when marijuana is legal.

"Legalization doesn't mean to say we have to follow suit," councillor Bill McNulty said in an interview. "We want to keep a safe community. … Just because the federal government is there doesn't mean to say they always make good decisions."

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Ottawa is expected to table legislation this spring that will legalize and regulate recreational marijuana over the next two years. Last month, a task force recommended against allowing liquor stores to sell cannabis and the federal government may let the provinces decide where it can be sold. Earlier this week, council received a committee recommendation to amend a bylaw that would not permit dispensaries in any zone of the city. While the stores are still illegal under federal law, they have proliferated in cities such as Vancouver and Victoria, where local governments have opted to require business licences rather than shut them down.

"At this time, [dispensing marijuana] is an illegal activity and it's prohibited," Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said in an interview. "If we allow an illegal activity to carry on in this city, how do you deal with any other illegal activity?"

The recommendation is up for a vote next week. Mr. Brodie and Mr. McNulty are confident it will pass unanimously. The motion notes council can reconsider the issue once the federal approach is clear.

John Conroy, a lawyer who was involved in a case that forced Health Canada to rewrite its medical marijuana rules last year, said a ban after marijuana is legal would not stand up in court.

"They don't have the power to prohibit in terms of criminal law, but they can certainly make things difficult for people using their zoning powers and things like that," he said.

"Practically speaking, they may get away with it for a period of time, but they're just going to bring legal proceedings on themselves at some cost."Currently, the only sales permitted are through Health Canada's licensed medical-marijuana system. It was overhauled in 2014 and now allows about 30 industrial-scale growers to mail their products directly to patients who have a doctor's prescription. It was rewritten again in 2016 and now allows medical marijuana patients to grow restricted amounts of cannabis on their own or designate someone to do so for them.

Richmond's plan to ban dispensaries is much different than the approach in neighbouring Vancouver, where dispensaries operate under a business licence issued from the city. Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang, architect of the country's first dispensary bylaw, said other cities would be well advised to do the same.

"I say to any municipality, adopt an appropriate public-health approach to the problem as opposed to an enforcement approach or an ideological approach," he said. "If you adopt a public-health approach, your chances of managing an issue are far better and that's why [Vancouver] chose the approach we did."

Mr. Jang said the process to obtain a licence – which regulates storefronts, not the product being sold – is very thorough and includes community input and strict rules on location. Those who fail to apply for a licence properly and continue to operate illegally are fined and taken to court if they do not cease operations.

Mr. Jang said he suspects legalization of marijuana would not change much in Vancouver, other than minor things such as age restrictions.

"I think of marijuana as like a dozen eggs or alcohol," he said. "There's clear rules on how alcohol is produced by the federal government and provinces decide basic things on distribution and cities implement it. There's really no difference."

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