Vancouver dispensaries wait for Ottawa's marijuana regulations with cautious optimism

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      Vancouver dispensary owners are anxious about the federal government’s plan to legalize recreational marijuana but confident the process will eventually be to their benefit.

      “We’ve sat with the federal task force and apparently made some really good impressions there,” Jeremy Jacob, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), told the Georgia Straight.

      He recounted a recent visit some task force members made to one of Vancouver's compassion clubs. "According to Mark Ware, the vice chair, he said that certain members of the task force had life-changing experiences while visiting dispensaries," Jacob said.

      Last June, Health Minister Jane Philpott announced that the Liberal government will table legislation to legalize and regulate the distribution and sale of recreational marijuana in the spring of 2017. For Vancouver storefronts selling cannabis—which remain illegal under federal law but are regulated by the city—the million-dollar question is whether or not the new rules will permit them to remain open.

      Jacob, who co-owns the Village Dispensary in Kitsilano, told the Straight that a win for businesses like his would not necessarily see Ottawa specifically say that storefronts can continue to operate but that rules for distribution can be left up to provincial governments, similar to how liquor sales are governed.

      “What we believe is that the provinces will be given the right to set their own distribution models,” Jacob said. “We understand that most provinces are going to go to a liquor-store and pharmacy model. But what we understand is that B.C. is going to be a unique case in Canada.”

      He said operators remain optimistic that if distribution regulations are left to the provinces, B.C.’s government will allow storefronts to continue to exist.

      Jacob suggested that could make marijuana an issue in the 2017 B.C. election.

      “Taking a proactive stance towards inclusive regulations for B.C.’s cannabis industry is what we want to see from our provincial leaders,” he said. “We don’t want to see it go to all the biggest corporations.”

      Sacha Kanow is the owner and operator of Karuna Health Foundation, a dispensary located at Kingsway and Victoria Drive that focuses on medicinal applications.

      He told the Straight there’s still little known about where the regulatory process is headed, but argued it would be “ridiculous” for the government to hand the entire marijuana sector to the liquor industry or pharmaceutical corporations.

      “I think they’ll have to leave the medical dispensaries in place,” he said. “I don’t think a liquor store or a pharmacy is really the best platform.”

      Kanow argued that even the country’s best pharmacists lack the expertise on marijuana that many dispensary operators have spent years or even decades teaching themselves.

      Sacha Kanow's Karuna Health Foundation is one of more than 20 marijuana storefronts in Vancouver for which the City of Vancouver has issued a development permit that says it can operate under regulations established in 2015.
      Travis Lupick

      In another interview, Ehren Richardson, the director of three Vancouver dispensaries called Sunrise Wellness Foundation, emphasized how important marijuana is to the provincial economy.

      “The cannabis industry is deeply interwoven into the fabric of our economy,” Richardson told the Straight. “It generates a lot of jobs, a lot of employment, and a lot of revenue. That has to be considered. There are a lot of small businesses that depend on the future of a legalized market for dispensaries in B.C.”

      Jacob said that where the B.C. economy could take a more significant hit is on the production side of the marijuana sector.

      He explained that during the past half-century of prohibition, it is estimated that British Columbia came to account for as much of 80 percent of Canada’s marijuana production. But since the former Conservative government began issuing licenses for companies to grow medicinal marijuana, most of those permits have gone to businesses based in Ontario.

      “The inclusivity that we have been asking for doesn’t seem apparent in the federal production scheme,” he said. “That is, potentially, very detrimental to B.C.’s economy.”

      Jacob suggested this could leave B.C.’s marijuana-production activities in the hands of organized crime.

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