Robson Square cannabis vendors arrested, with charges recommended by Vancouver police

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      After weeks of issuing warnings and tickets to cannabis vendors in Robson Square, the Vancouver Police Department has arrested four vendors and recommended charges for a fifth individual.

      All in all, 11 charges for trafficking and possession for the purposes of trafficking have been recommended.

      At a press conference this morning, Deputy Chief Howard Chow told local media that Sunday's raid of Robson Square's outdoor cannabis market was part of an ongoing investigation known as Project Apprentice.

      Chow said police seized nine pounds of dried cannabis, along with 28 pounds of assorted edible cannabis products and more than $4,000 in cash. Police also collected weapons including bats, pipes, and batons.

      Chow released the name of one individual, 42-year-old David Hill of Vancouver, who was charged with one count of trafficking and one count of possession for the purposes of trafficking. Other names will be released after Crown counsel approves the charges recommended by the VPD. No charges have been proven in court.

      All individuals have been released from police custody and have been instructed not to return to the area. Chow said one man was already arrested for doing so.

      "More charges against further individuals are expected," said Chow, adding that the arrests are the result of considerable work by officers over the last six weeks.

      Over the last two years, vendors have been setting up tents and tables in the public square outside the Vancouver Art Gallery to sell cannabis and cannabis edibles. Chow said that in recent weeks, the number of vendors in the square has increased, with some vendors travelling from outside of the city.

      The market's growth led to an increased number of incidents requiring police attention, Chow said, including reports of hard drugs being offered, cannabis being offered and sold to teenagers, underage individuals selling cannabis, and assaults and violence.

      The deputy said police have been taking an incremental approach to the issue using undercover officers.

      "The message to drug traffickers is that if you continue with this activity, expect more charges and arrests," he said. "Your next sale may be to a police officer."

      When asked by a reporter about the charges in the context of legalization, Chow said that while legal cannabis might be on the way, proposed legislation doesn't make space for open-air markets such as the one at Robson Square.

      "There have been no discussions by the government in terms of the trafficking issue being legalized in this form," he said.

      "We aren't expecting that on July 2 it will be open season where you can have tables and sell large quantities of marijuana."

      Asked by another reporter what the VPD's response was to the idea that the market was a form of protest, Chow made it clear that while the VPD respects an individual's right to protest, it doesn't see the vendors in the same light.

      "Let's face it," he said. "The traffickers are walking out with thousands of dollars in their pockets. This is something that we have to put a stop to."

      At the suggestion that the pop-up tents provided cannabis access to people who might not have access, Chow said that with more than 100 dispensaries in Vancouver, "there are enough locations that you can get marijuana in the city."

      In early December, the Straight spoke with vendors after they were issued warnings by the VPD. One vendor, Tara Brunskill, said she'd happily play by the rules if the city created regulations that would allow for the market.

      “There’s no reason to fight about it because the rules are the rules, but they’re saying, ‘Get a business licence or a permit’,” Brunskill said.

      “Whether it was $200 or a $1,000, I’d pay for one. The problem is, they’re not going to give us one."

      Neil Magnuson is a Vancouver cannabis activist associated with the Cannabis Substitution Project, a weekly opioid replacement program that operates out of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) building on East Hastings every Saturday.

      There, he and a group of volunteers hand out cannabis care packages to individuals seeking alternatives to hard drugs.

      In recent weeks, he's taken to joining the vendors at Robson Square and setting up a table of his own. He said that while police might see their activity as unlawful, vendors are providing Downtown Vancouver's less fortunate with easy access to affordable cannabis. 

      "I'm very upset with what the VPD has done," he told the Straight by phone earlier this afternoon. "Everyday we get people coming up to our tents telling us we're saving their lives."

      He said the market exists as a protest, partly because of the regulations that prevent dispensaries in Vancouver from carrying edibles; a method of consumption that he said can be of great help to an individual withdrawing from opioids.

      "The edibles aren't available, and access [through dispensaries] is fine, but the prices are high," he said. "If there was proper access and the regulations were reasonable, then we wouldn't be here."

      Magnuson says he intends to return to Robson Square despite Chow’s warnings.