The City of Victoria is considering rules for its illegal cannabis dispensaries that would be more permissive than Vancouver's landmark bylaw, permitting the sale of controversial "edibles" and allowing pot shops to be located closer to schools.
Medical marijuana advocates in the provincial capital praised the draft rules for the city's 32 existing dispensaries, which will be voted on by council later this week. The new proposal comes as officials in Vancouver began cracking down on dispensaries, handing out tickets to nearly two dozen shops over the weekend.
Victoria is poised to become the second Canadian city to regulate dispensaries, which have proliferated in areas where municipal officials and police departments have taken a hands-off approach. Advocates say Canada now has about 300 dispensaries, which operate outside of Ottawa's mail-order medical marijuana system.
The changes at the municipal level are taking place as a federal task force prepares to begin crafting legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, which could happen within two years.
Victoria's proposed rules would allow dispensaries to sell edibles and operate 200 metres from schools and other pot shops. In Vancouver, city hall adopted rules that keep the shops 300 metres from such sensitive locations and also banned edibles after concluding baked goods and candies infused with cannabis were too attractive to children.
Mayor Lisa Helps said her city's rules are not much looser than Vancouver's, despite recommending a business licensing fee of about $5,000 for successful applicants, compared with the $30,000 that for-profit shops in Vancouver must pay. Under provincial law, she said her city can only charge enough to recover the costs of regulation, while Vancouver has the ability to "charge whatever the heck they want" under its own special charter.
She said the bylaw does not prohibit the sale of edible products because that responsibility would fall to the Vancouver Island Health Authority, which regulates food-production facilities.
"Our staff are very wise to not get the city into regulating things in which it has no business regulating," Ms. Helps said in an interview on Monday.
While it's not clear how dispensaries will be treated under federal legalization, both Vancouver and Victoria say they are pressing ahead with regulation because any land-use rules they create now will eventually apply to any form of storefront sales.
Dieter MacPherson, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, a trade association, applauded Victoria's "very measured approach" to edibles. In their report, city staff acknowledged the need to adhere to last year's Supreme Court of Canada decision – which was in favour of a Victoria-based advocate – that forced the government to allow the sale of ingestible medical marijuana.
Activists such as Mr. MacPherson were upset when Vancouver allowed the sale of cannabis oils but not baked goods, butters or candies, which they argue are safer and more effective for many sick Canadians than smoking the drug.
Mr. MacPherson said Victoria had the benefit of learning from Vancouver's approach, as well as making its rules under a less toxic political climate after the federal Liberals were elected last fall promising to legalize recreational use of the drug.
"Blazing a trail is always going to be more difficult than following," said Mr. MacPherson, who also works for one of the country's oldest dispensaries, the Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club. "But I will give credit where credit is due. ... Council and staff were very engaged with the [medical marijuana] community, and we had ample opportunity to speak to each individual issue and the bylaws as they were being drafted."
Alex Robb, community liason with the Trees dispensary chain, said he is happy that city staff conducted two rounds of community surveys and a town hall discussion before crafting the new recommendations, which also allow for the home delivery of cannabis products.
"In Vancouver, they kind of talked to a few people, then set down the licensing regulations," said Mr. Robb, whose company runs three shops in Victoria and one in Nanaimo. "The City of Victoria really showed that this was a community-engagement process."
Under the new rules, none of Victoria's existing dispensaries would be too close to schools, but many would be clustered too close to each other, and all would have to go through a separate rezoning process where neighbours could weigh in on their businesses.
Meanwhile, Vancouver bylaw officers were out in force this past weekend, ticketing 23 dispensaries up to $250 for each day they operate outside of the ongoing city process, which is expected to hand out its first business licence later this month. The city is pursuing stronger fines and gathering evidence for court injunctions to stop those that remain open – even if they are awaiting an appeal on their licensing application. Another 22 stores voluntarily closed down over the weekend, city staff said.
Twenty have passed at least the first stage of the licensing process, and city staff are reviewing another 19 applications for dispensaries that are too close to one another to decide which might be able to remain open. All of those are permitted to remain open in the meantime.