Marijuana advocates are calling on the City of Vancouver to de-escalate what some see as a new phase of the war on drugs, as bylaw officers visited dispensaries on the weekend to start handing out $250 tickets to more than 100 unlicensed businesses.
Instead of facing police raids, as they might have in years past, the pot shops were handed fines for being out of compliance with zoning regulations brought in specifically to control Vancouver's large number of outlets.
Most of the businesses that were rejected for a development permit and licence have appealed to the Board of Variance, but in the meantime the city has said they have to close – or face daily fines for up to three infractions for each business, which could total up to $750.
The city has been warning for weeks that it was going to crack down on any medical marijuana dispensaries that were not in compliance, but defiant operators said the action wasn't fair and they would stay open rather than shutting down to avoid fines.
Over the past several years, a flood of new pot shops opened in Vancouver, prompting the city to bring in a bylaw requiring them to apply for a licence, which includes a $30,000 annual operating fee and requires them to be at least 300 metres from each other or from any schools.
That led to a rush of applications, but no business licences have been issued yet. The city has rejected 140 of the applicants, because the shops were not in permitted zones or did not meet distancing regulations.
"Beginning this weekend, city inspectors will start enforcement action of any medical marijuana-related use (MMRU) that is in a non-compliant location and continues to operate without a business licence," the city warned in a statement issued last week.
Jeffrey Simpson, who works at Weeds Glass and Gifts, said his dispensary on Burrard Street was served a ticket Saturday, but on Sunday morning he was preparing to open the shop as usual.
He said the bylaw enforcement effort was just another way for the establishment to try to suppress the use of marijuana.
"The war on drugs is continuing … because the people with the vested interests in alcohol, pharmaceuticals and tobacco do not want cannabis legalized. They do not and that's the whole problem," said Mr. Simpson.
He is 82, has used marijuana for 40 years without ill affect and said people who want it should be able to visit clean dispensaries to buy it, rather than looking for it in the streets.
The B.C. Pain Society, which operates two marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver, said it would not close despite the fines.
"I'm staying open. I'm willing to pay my fines. … I'm willing to stay open to serve the public," Chuck Varabioff, the dispensary owner said in a posting on the dispensary website.
Operators at other shops called on Sunday said they were staying open, though they declined to speak on the record.
Ian Dawkins, a spokesman for the Cannabis Growers of Canada, said it is not clear how many tickets were handed out on the weekend, but he didn't think any operators were shutting down.
"I'm sure there is going to be one or two that are spooked into changing their minds but anyone who had their doors open as of [April 29] knew this was a possibility and they are prepared to fight this all the way to the courts if need be," he said. "I suspect the next step is that the city is going to be faced with a lot of very well-grounded lawsuits that are going to take a lot of time and money away from the city's legal budget."
Mr. Dawkins said the marijuana dispensaries being ticketed opened before the bylaw was in place and it is incumbent on the city to work with operators now to find a system that is fair for everyone.
"We're disappointed that the city is already diving into their threatened, heavy-handed approach," he said. "Obviously we are not entirely surprised because they have been making noises about this for the last few weeks, but it's certainly not where we thought we'd be when we first began this process [of developing a marijuana dispensary policy] with the city last year."
Mr. Dawkins said there has been "a breakdown in communication" and he urged city officials to sit down with operators to find a solution.
"We've asked the city to have a moratorium on the declustering of these dispensaries and the threats of closure," he said. "It is basically just asking the city to de-escalate the situation a little bit while we have a more constructive dialogue about what it is they are hoping to achieve."
City spokesman Tobin Postma declined comment Sunday, saying there will be a media availability Monday to discuss the weekend's enforcement action.