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British Columbia Victoria mulling new bylaws for marijuana dispensaries

The Dispensary, a medical cannabis dispensary in Vancouver April 22, 2015. The City of Victoria is considering following Vancouver’s lead with sweeping regulations for pot shops.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

City councillors in Victoria have asked staff to draft new business and zoning regulations for marijuana dispensaries that could include licence fees and ban minors from the premises in response to public concern over a surge in new outlets.

Bylaw changes that staff were asked for at a meeting on Thursday could limit hours of operation and introduce security requirements, licence fees and age restrictions. Staff will bring forward options for council to consider. Committee members also supported the idea of a public town hall on the issue.

Last April, Victoria had four marijuana-related businesses, but as of last month, it had 18, and they have caused concerns about the exposure of youth to marijuana, and the effects on nearby businesses and their customers.

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Throughout Thursday's debate, councillors acknowledged Vancouver's controversial crackdown on such operations – a move that Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has described as an inspiration for British Columbia's capital city.

"Vancouver showed real leadership, and we have an ally across the water, and I am going to be looking very closely, as I know our staff will, at how they unroll and engage with their public. They obviously do have some different regulatory tools."

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose has suggested Vancouver's bid to regulate dispensaries with a $30,000 licence fee for new and existing operations and guidelines on where they can operate will normalize the sale of pot and make it more accessible to youth. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has rejected Ms. Ambrose's call to cancel the reforms.

Ms. Helps said she agrees with Ms. Ambrose's view that marijuana use in youths can lead to early onset schizophrenia and psychosis. However, she parts from the Conservative minister on municipal regulation, suggesting such action would allow the city to say who can go into or work at the dispensaries.

"For me, that's really important," Ms. Helps told the council members.

"There are a number of thorny issues to be worked out," said councillor Ben Islitt. "I look forward to seeing what staff bring back. I think it is important to show our community and these operators that there is a direction we're moving in."

He also said the plan balances concern in the community with the fact that thousands of people in Victoria consume marijuana for medical and recreational reasons. "That's kind of the new normal. That's the direction North America is going even if federal authorities are a little bit behind the times."

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Dana Larsen, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, said on Thursday that the reforms in Vancouver and Victoria will legitimize dispensaries and improve their operations. He said he and his members will contribute to the debate on Victoria's reforms.

The Victoria Police Department, quoted in a staff report, has raised concerns about the possible infiltration of organized crime into such operations and the lack of effective security measures to protect employees and prevent robberies.

Inspector Scott McGregor told the meeting the force is monitoring dispensaries, but focusing its "limited drug-enforcement resources" on drug trafficking in relation to violent crime, organized crime, weapons and "significant harm to vulnerable populations."

Police prefer to focus on the sale of methamphetamine, heroin and crack cocaine – "drugs that are significantly, negatively impacting the community and bring violence upon the community, which also affects innocent parties," he said.

The inspector said police face an "incredibly high" legal threshold to make the case in court that these businesses are dispensing marijuana for non-medicinal reasons and connect the owners or leaseholders to such offences. In B.C. courts, he said the routine outcome in such cases has been judicial discharges.

In B.C. courts, he said the routine outcome in such cases has been judicial discharges.

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