On the eve of a Supreme Court ruling over a patient's right to edible marijuana, most of the speakers at the first public hearing into regulating Vancouver's booming - and illegal - pot dispensaries urged politicians to reconsider outlawing cannabis capsules or baked goods under the new rules.
More than 160 speakers, mostly marijuana advocates, crowded into Vancouver's City Hall on Wednesday night to weigh the city's proposed attempt to regulate its 94 pot dispensaries, which could be copied by cities across the country dealing with a growing, but legally questionable, industry.
The majority of the 17 people that spoke Wednesday night were in favour of regulation, but criticized recommendations from city staff to outlaw "edibles" because they are unregulated and marijuana cookies and candies appeal to children.
(For more on Vancouver's dispensaries, read The Globe's in-depth explainer: Vancouver's pot shops: Everything you need to know about marijuana dispensaries)
Before the speakers, Vancouver's top doctor Patricia Daly told council that edibles, as they are currently unregulated by Health Canada, are too risky to allow in the stores. To underscore this, she presented statistics that showed two thirds of the 63 people sent to the emergency room with marijuana intoxication during this year's downtown 4/20 pot party had eaten at least some form of cannabis.
Kirk Tousaw, the lawyer representing Owen Smith in the Supreme Court edibles case, told council the risks are not as high as stated by the medical establishment. He acknowledged that edibles do "take a little trial and error – as with all medicines" before people to get the correct dosage, but said they offer a much better alternative for prolonged pain relief compared to smoking pot, which patients must inhale "on an almost continuous basis."
He added that Vancouver should take the approach of Colorado and Washington states, where edible products face safety monitoring during preparation, child-proof containers and strict labelling guidelines.
Brina Levitt, owner of Green Penguin Delights, a company that makes edibles, told council the staff proposal to only allow dispensaries to sell oils, and not capsules or baked goods, would hurt the pot-smoking public.
"By banning edibles, you are promoting the resurgence of street-level distribution of unregulated, unrestricted, untested and unsafe food products," she said.
Ms. Levitt said she first started using marijuana last year after no other medications managed to help her with back pain from a bicycle accident. She said she began her company to supply clearly labelled, safe and reliable products.
She said she supports the dispensaries because "they're selling to patients, access is restricted, it's off the streets and they're not selling to minors."
Under the current law, all of the dispensaries are illegal – whether they are selling dried marijuana or any other form – but that hasn't prevented the city from looking for ways to exert control. Public pressure on the city to regulate the dispensaries in some way has mounted over the past several years, as the number of pot shops has risen exponentially from just 14 in 2002.
The city is considering creating a special licence category for "marijuana-related" businesses, including dispensaries, and rules that include a $30,000 yearly licensing fee as well as mandating that these shops be located at least 300 metres away from schools, community centres and neighbourhood houses. The shops would also be banned on side streets, on Chinatown's historic Pender Street, downtown's Granville Strip entertainment area and in most areas of the Downtown Eastside, except on Main and Hastings streets.
Staff have also recommended that people and non-profits, not corporations, can apply for up to five dispensary licences, which would not be transferrable to other parties.
City Manager Penny Ballem praised the rules as a "nice balanced, rigorous framework" in front of a packed council chambers Wednesday night. She said she expected that only a maximum of about 94 dispensaries would be allowable under the new plan's rules.
Vancouver has at least 98 dispensaries, according to statistics released by the city – by far the most of any municipality in Canada. (In contrast, previous stats have suggested at least 35 other dispensaries are located elsewhere in B.C. and at least 21 are spread throughout the rest of the country.)
The city's new rules will be studied keenly by other cities wary of a federal government strongly opposed to the dispensaries and even medical marijuana.
Dana Larsen, a long-time marijuana legalization advocate and owner of two dispensaries, helped organize a two-hour training session for people who wanted to speak in favour of the regulations to practise their speeches and learn "effective public narrative techniques."
Mr. Larsen's group, Sensible BC, which failed in 2013 to force a referendum on legalization, organized dozens of speakers to attend Wednesday and spoke passionately about amending the proposed rules to allow older, more respected shops like his to stay in areas that would be violate the "excessive" buffer zones. He said he expects the imposed distances could eliminate about half of Vancouver's 98 dispensaries.
Pamela McColl, spokesperson for Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada, said her organization, one of the most vocal groups opposed to the dispensaries, had boycotted the hearings except for sending 18-year-old representative Connor Fesenmaier, who raised concerns about the negative effect the dispensaries have on his friends.
"We think that this city doesn't understand the crisis in this country is its youth," Ms. McColl said Wednesday. "To expose the public to a product that's not tested is just irresponsible."
Her group is concerned that dispensaries will get an air of legitimacy through city regulations and that they only increase young people's access to the drug. She said Canadian youth represent the largest segment of the population smoking marijuana in the country and have some of the highest statistics of cannabis use in the Western world.
In 37 e-mails submitted to the city before the hearing, Ms. McColl outlined how her group is trying to block the city's plan through various channels. Those include a complaint filed to the province's municipal police watchdog alleging the Vancouver department is failing to enforce the law and plans to file a legal challenge alleging the city broke its own bylaws in issuing a handful of dispensaries different permits.
The federal Conservative government has vocally opposed Vancouver's plan to license dispensaries, with Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney writing councillors in April urging them not to proceed. The government has refused to say whether it will intervene to prevent the city from moving forward.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and councillors have avoided commenting on the proceedings while they're in process.
Roughly 130 speakers are still scheduled for the hearings, which are slated to begin again Thursday at 6 p.m. and could last into a third meeting tentatively scheduled for Saturday.