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Victoria eyes Vancouver as capital ponders cannabis dispensary overhaul

Buttons are displayed at The Dispensary in Vancouver on March 6, 2014. Over the objections of Ottawa, Vancouver is planning to regulate locations of dispensaries and impose a $30,000 business licence on new and existing operations.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Victoria's mayor says she is closely watching Vancouver's bid to regulate marijuana dispensaries because there may be lessons as the B.C. capital grapples with the "regulatory quagmire" associated with such operations.

"Our staff are working very closely to figure out what they have done that we could also do," Lisa Helps said in an interview.

Ms. Helps said city staff have been looking at the issue for several months and are expected to offer some recommendations by May 7.

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Over the objections of Ottawa, Vancouver is planning to regulate locations of dispensaries and impose a $30,000 business licence on new and existing operations.

While Victoria is considering action, Surrey – B.C.'s second-largest city – is essentially sitting out the debate.

Bylaw enforcement manager Jas Rehal said on Thursday the city does not permit dispensaries and patients must get marijuana for medical needs from federally sanctioned sources.

"Our policy is quite clear," Mr. Rehal said, adding that no discussions have been held about changing that policy. "We're comfortable with it."

Sav Dhaliwal, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said on Thursday he has not heard much about the dispensary issue from members.

He expects Lower Mainland municipalities may submit resolutions for discussion at the annual convention in September.

Victoria has 15 dispensaries. "Every week or two weeks, it feels like there's a new one popping up with no oversight because the city has no tools to regulate where they go," Ms. Helps said.

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She said inaction is not an option for dealing with issues they raise, notably a concern that non-patients may get marijuana there.

"We can't do nothing. It's a regulatory quagmire," Ms. Helps said.

"Medical marijuana is legal. The federal government has made that clear. Producing marijuana for medical purposes is also legal. The main step is how to get that into people's hands," she said.

She said dispensaries will not be closed. "We have no jurisdiction to do that and people do need access, but it needs to be done the way Vancouver is approaching it, in a regulatory regime, not just ad hoc as it is right now," she said.

The mayor said she is aware that federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has said Vancouver should abandon its plans because they might normalize access to marijuana for youth.

But the federal minister is refusing to say how she might back up her concerns, prompting some to suggest the Conservatives want the issue alive to rally support from their base in the fall federal election. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has rejected Ms. Ambrose's request.

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Ms. Helps said Ms. Ambrose should work with Mr. Robertson to resolve the issue, but added that cities cannot wait for help from higher levels of government.

"If we wait around for senior levels of government to rescue us, half the stuff we need to do wouldn't get done. This is, again, another situation where local governments need to take leadership."

In a statement issued on Thursday in response to a query from The Globe and Mail, the Victoria Police Department said it is aware of marijuana dispensaries and is working with the municipality, Health Canada, and federal prosecutors on a "co-ordinated approach."

The force said it would continue acting in the public interest to enforce federal laws around the illegal sale or trafficking of prohibited substances with particular concern about risks to young people as well as weapons, organized crime or the prospect of "significant disruption" to public peace.

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