Victoria's mayor says her city will look to emulate Vancouver's plan to regulate marijuana dispensaries despite warnings from the Conservative federal government that they are illegal and threaten public health.
Councillors in Vancouver approved a plan this week to create a new class of business licence for dispensaries, impose hefty licensing fees and keep them away from other operators, schools and community centres. Processing of the licences is expected to start in the coming months.
Municipalities across British Columbia are trying to figure out how to deal with medical marijuana dispensaries after about 135 sprouted in the province, including around 100 in Vancouver. The rest of the country is believed to have fewer than two dozen.
(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)
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said her staff are studying Vancouver's guidelines and will report to council in September about imposing similar regulations on the provincial capital's 19 dispensaries and compassion clubs. Ms. Helps said Victoria, like Vancouver, was forced to look for ways to regulate the retail shops after they doubled in number over the past year.
"This is way outside of our jurisdiction. We should not have to be stepping into this, but the reality is these issues are showing up on our streets and in our communities, so we need to," Ms. Helps said. "I really hope that if it's a landmark moment for anything, it's a landmark for the federal government to act as a partner to cities, sit down with us and figure this out together."
Until then, she said, Victoria will look at crafting legislation similar to Vancouver's bylaw. Vancouver will charge an annual licensing fee of $30,000 for commercial dispensaries and $1,000 for non-profit compassion clubs, and outlaw them within 300 metres of schools, community centres and each other. Dispensaries and compassion clubs have two months to apply for licences. Dispensaries operate outside the federal government's medical marijuana program, which permits about 20 industrial-scale producers to sell the drug in its dried form directly to patients through the mail.
"Our staff don't have to reinvent the wheel, they can look at the policies that Vancouver is implementing and bring those to us here," Ms. Helps said.
A coalition of 33 local governments surrounding Vancouver voted last month to put a resolution forward at the Union of B.C. Municipalities annual convention this September asserting the right of local governments to regulate dispensaries. The group will present a similar motion to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual convention in 2016, after failing to meet a submission deadline for this year's event. Many are waiting to see how Vancouver implements and enforces its new bylaw before contemplating their own, said Rick Glumac, a first vice-president of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association and a city councillor from Port Moody.
"There's an interest, especially within the Lower Mainland, amongst municipalities to be able to regulate this industry municipally in the absence of any higher-level directions from the government," Mr. Glumac said.
While the provincial Health Minister has voiced support for Vancouver's push to regulate the dispensaries, his federal counterpart, Rona Ambrose, warned councillors not to go through with their plan and said she was "deeply disappointed" by the vote. She said the bylaw would make it easier for kids to smoke marijuana, that storefronts selling pot are illegal and she expected "the police to enforce the law." She has not said whether her department will intervene.
Ms. Ambrose was unavailable for comment on Thursday, but Kerry-Lynne Findlay, Conservative MP for Delta Richmond East, reiterated the request for police to shut down the dispensaries.
"These stores have absolutely no regard for the rule of law," Ms. Findlay said in a CBC radio interview.
Ms. Helps said Victoria's police force has tried this approach, but cannot stop new illegal businesses from opening.
"The police can do all the enforcing they want, but the courts don't feel like they have enough evidence, and that is exactly why we are in this position," Ms. Helps said. "So I would really encourage the federal Health Minster to talk to the federal Minister of Justice."
Vancouver police spokesman Constable Brian Montague said dispensaries selling cannabis products will remain a lower priority for the drug squad than criminals trafficking harder drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin and fentanyl. He said the department will investigate when it identifies a risk to the public, such as sales to minors, and has executed search warrants at nine locations over the past year. Still, almost all of those stores re-opened within weeks, he said.
"It is an effective tool for arrests, but it's not a solution to shut down an illegal business," Constable Montague said. It takes an "extremely long time" to analyze any cannabis products seized, and investigators must spend hours surveilling the location and doing undercover work to get charges approved in a dispensary bust and while respecting a suspect's legal and privacy rights, he said.
"It's important for the average person to realize it's not as simple a process as they may think."
Vancouver's plan to charge marijuana dispensaries $30,000 and compassion clubs $1,000 for business licences puts the cost many times higher than other businesses in the city. Here is a look at what different types of businesses are charged:
Community association: $2
Barber shop: $245
Pet store: $248
Steam bath/massage parlour: $269
Adult entertainment store: $333
Private liquor store: $372
Marijuana compassion club: $1,000
Escort service: $1,204
Pacific National Exhibition (PNE): $16,331
Marijuana dispensary: $30,000