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Vancouver’s illegal marijuana dispensaries can face fines that start at $250 a day, potentially grow to $10,000 and end in court injunctions.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

When Vancouver's marijuana bylaw came into effect, the city promised a swift crackdown that would dramatically reduce the number of illegal pot shops in the city. Operators can face fines that start at $250 a day, potentially grow to $10,000 and end in court injunctions.

But almost a month into enforcing its landmark rules, the city acknowledges it could take more than a year to gain full compliance from 61 dispensaries, which remain open after losing out on the new licensing process. Some of them pledged to dispute each ticket and launch lawsuits of their own. Those illegal shops could still be open next spring, when the federal Liberal government has promised to table legislation legalizing the sale of recreational cannabis. The new laws are expected to prevent such sales in dispensaries. As of late last week, Vancouver had issued each of these 61 offending businesses at least one $250 ticket for a total of 139 violations.

Andreea Toma, the city's director of licensing, said there is no timeline for shutting down these shops, but an "across-the-board" approach of escalating penalties, including court injunctions, will eventually be successful.

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"Enforcement is enforcement, there is a strategy behind it, we're not coming at this being naive, we are thinking about this, we are trying to be strategic and calculated in terms of what's going to give us the best result," Ms. Toma said. "We need to continue because we've made a commitment to the taxpayers, residents and the business community that this would be a fair and consistent process and when we enacted the bylaw we knew that enforcement was part of it."

The fact that 12 of those tickets have been handed out over the past seven months to one shop that has remained open, despite never entering into the licensing process, underscores how difficult the process can be, she said.

Ms. Toma said the city has not filed for an injunction against this shop, which she would not name, but has been preparing for that next step "in terms of the information that we need to gather."

Vancouver has had similar trouble forcing its two hookah lounges to shut down for violating the city's health bylaw – which bans all indoor smoking or burning of substances in commercial establishments.

The owners of the Persian Tea House and Ahwaz Hookah House were charged in 2009 for this violation.

Today, both lounges defiantly remain open after their appeal failed in the Provincial Court last summer and they were ordered to close within 30 days. Ms. Toma said enforcement action against those businesses is ongoing.

Kirk Tousaw, a lawyer who helped force the government into an ongoing overhaul of its existing medical marijuana system in February, said the strong sales in these dispensaries shows many people support them and that the ruling Vision Vancouver party is loath to create a political problem by attacking them with too heavy a hand.

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"They've got to walk a pretty fine line, so I'm not surprised it's taking a long time to achieve compliance," said Mr. Tousaw, who is representing a handful of dispensaries now fighting the city to re-enter the licensing process. "In some respect, that's a good thing.

"This is new ground for everybody; I don't know why anybody would be in a rush to see things happen."

Last week, Councillor Melissa De Genova's motion requesting detailed monthly updates on the enforcement was referred to staff. Among other data, her motion asked for a tally of how many bylaw officers are engaging in enforcement and how much it costs the city each month to go through with these actions, as what any lawsuits involving these pot shops are costing Vancouver.

The city's approach to regulating the sector, which is illegal because it operates outside the federal mail-order medical marijuana system, contrasts with Toronto's recent pledge to crack down on the landlords of the more than 100 stores that have opened in recent months.

Toronto bylaw enforcement officers were out last week delivering notices to landlords of these shops warning them that they could face stiff fines if they don't kick out their tenants, who are violating a rule prohibiting these businesses. (City staff will unveil their recommendations on regulating the sector next month.)

Ms. Toma said, under its existing bylaws, Vancouver can only take action against the specific dispensaries for these violations, but added that landlords have also been getting notified when a shop is ticketed.

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"We have a number of landlords [who have contacted city hall and asked], 'What do you want me to do? You want me to evict [them]?'" Ms. Toma said. "[We tell them,] 'Really that's up to you and the level of risk that you're comfortable to take.'"

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