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British Columbia Vancouver slowly but surely shutting down rogue pot shops

Don Briere, owner of Weeds Glass and Gifts, organizes marijuana edibles at one his cannabis dispensaries in Vancouver.

Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak

Vancouver's approach to regulating illegal marijuana dispensaries is working, says the councillor who helped develop Canada's first municipal pot licensing regime, even if almost half of the stores continue to operate outside the bylaw.

Councillor Kerry Jang, point person for the governing Vision Vancouver party on the marijuana file, said that regardless of how long it takes to shut down these rogue shops, the city's regulatory program – not police raids – is paying off. The strategy is meeting the city's public-health goals of stamping out sales to minors and cutting down on the armed robberies now plaguing Toronto's illegal dispensary sector.

"To everyone who tries to count the pennies, I say, 'Well, did we achieve what we wanted to do?'" Mr. Jang said. "We are in the process of achieving [all those public-health goals] very successfully compared to other jurisdictions.

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"To me that's what the people of Vancouver wanted."

Fifty-one shops are flouting the bylaw and remain open, according to an official update provided Tuesday. All of those are subject to daily fines. However, it could still be months before a B.C. Provincial Court judge decides whether to grant injunctions that the city has filed against 27 of the worst offenders.

On the plus side, eight shops are operating with a special business licence, 47 applicants are in the process of trying to acquire this approval and 38 have now shuttered their doors.

Mr. Jang said the city's distancing rules have kept most stores away from places where kids congregate and its security requirements for business-licence applicants have raised the bar for all dispensaries, which is helping to keep their employees and products safer.

Meanwhile, bylaw officers have issued 1,221 violation tickets, many of which are $1,000, for operating outside of the city's licensing regime. Only 301 of these fines, however, have been paid.

Don Briere, owner of one of Canada's biggest chain of illegal marijuana dispensaries, said he is disputing each and every ticket each of his six Vancouver locations receives.

"There's millions of dollars coming in and millions of dollars going out [in expenses and taxes]," said Mr. Briere, who added that he has paid lawyers more than $300,000 to fight several municipalities for the right to stay open.

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Mr. Jang said any bylaw ticket issued can become evidence in court, which the city will use to prove the offending dispensaries should be shut down for operating outside of its "fair and accessible" licensing regime.

Mr. Jang said he likes the city's chances in court even more after a B.C. Supreme Court judge granted the neighbouring municipality of Delta a permanent injunction against a medical dispensary franchise last summer .

That judge ruled that WeeMedical Dispensary Society was operating a pot shop without a business licence from Delta and in contravention of the municipality's zoning bylaws, as well as outside of federal marijuana laws.

Ottawa is expected to table legislation this spring that will legalize and regulate recreational marijuana over the next two years. Last December, a government-sponsored task force recommended against allowing liquor stores to sell cannabis and that Ottawa let the provinces decide where it can be sold.

While the stores are still illegal under federal law, they have proliferated in cities such as Vancouver and Victoria, where local politicians such as Mr. Jang argue their rules can eventually be adapted to any national framework regulating the storefront sale of the drug.

All dispensaries and compassion clubs across Canada still operate outside the federal government's medical-marijuana program, which permits about 30 industrial-scale growers to sell dried flowers and bottles of cannabis oil directly to patients through the mail.

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Public pressure mounted on Vancouver to do something about these illegal shops after their numbers spiked from just 14 in 2012 to about 100 in the spring of 2015, when city council began public hearings into crafting its current dispensary bylaw.

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