Councillor Melissa De Genova says the motion she’ll present at tomorrow's city-council meeting was prompted by a desire to treat all businesses in Vancouver with fairness.
“What motivated me to bring it forward was that the City of Vancouver has taken other business licences away, stating that they’re involved in criminal matters,” De Genova told the Straight by phone earlier today (May 14).
She said the city is not applying the same principle to businesses that are engaged with marijuana.
Instead of regulating the market and reducing the number of illegal dispensaries in the city, she said, the city’s bylaw regime has “created a structure for dispensaries and their suppliers to invite organized crime into Vancouver to participate in business”.
“When an individual walks into a marijuana dispensary and they think that they’re supporting local business, they think that they’re getting marijuana in an ethical way,” she said.
“Do they know that it’s being supplied by the black market and is likely linked to organized crime and/or gangs? If we know this is how marijuana dispensaries are supplied, why are we giving them licences?”
However well intentioned it may be, one major problem with De Genova’s motion is that it flies in the face of the law, according to a B.C. lawyer.
“The thing that the councillors are missing is that this motion seeks an outcome that is against federal criminal law,” lawyer Kirk Tousaw told the Straight by phone this afternoon.
Tousaw said no licensed producer would sell cannabis to a Vancouver dispensary because doing so would be in violation of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and would be considered to be trafficking.
He said the fact that this was missed makes him wonder if other motivations are at play.
“I have to believe that the councillors understand the basic state of the law in this area,” he said, “and that says to me that the motivation for this is political and not at all grounded in policy.”
When asked whether or not she was aware that it was illegal for licensed producers to supply dispensaries, De Genova dodged the question.
“What we’re saying is we’re okay for you to do business here by not asking [about supply]. It’s this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ situation, and that’s a concern to me,” she said.
One issue that the City of Vancouver has yet to address is that its bylaws stipulate provisions for “medical marijuana-related use” storefronts. B.C.’s proposed cannabis laws will prevent legal recreational-cannabis storefronts from using words like “pharmacy”, “apothecary”, and “dispensary”. Under Bill C-45, neither the province nor a municipality will have the authority to license a medical storefront.
Asked if this would require an overhaul of the regulations, De Genova said it was something she had mentioned back in 2015 when the bylaws were being written, but she made no mention of whether or not the bylaws would need to be changed.
“I argued this back at the public hearing a few years back, but this is the situation that we’re in now,” she said.
“I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t have access to medical marijuana; I’m arguing the fact that there could be unintended consequences, including things that come with organized crime, including violent crime and money-laundering.”
Sarah Blyth—a former Vancouver park board commissioner, an Overdose Prevention Society founder, and city-council candidate in this fall's municipal election—said that passing De Genova’s motion “would be in bad faith” to the businesses that have already paid the annual licensing fee of $30,000.
“Switching the rules up once you’ve given people licences is really bad business,” she argued. Blyth called it a back-door way of closing down the city’s dispensaries and said it was a bad political move, considering the number of people employed by pot shops in Vancouver. She said it would also harm patients who won’t be able to afford cannabis from licensed producers.
De Genova said she understood the process for patients to obtain medical cannabis through the federal Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR) to be “quite easy”. She suggested that if that option was available to patients, they should cease their use of dispensaries in the interest of public safety.
“I’m saying that there is a legal way to do this right now if they have a prescription, so if that’s going to prevent organized crime and gangs from profiting off business in the City of Vancouver, I pose the question: what’s more important?”
Vancouver is not the only city with an established set of bylaws for dispensaries. Tousaw said other municipalities in B.C. are reacting to legalization in different ways and that although some are looking forward to being included in a legal regime, others will likely be loyal to their patients.
“There’s a subset of dispensaries, and these are primarily the medical ones, that would be committed to their patients and ensuring a source of supply,” he said, adding that the coming legal recreational system is “not a substitute” for the medical system, given its lack of edibles and derivative products.
“It may not even have much flower available for the first three to six months to a year because there is just not enough supply being grown right now to meet what I think the demand is going to be,” he said.
Of De Genova’s call to include the Vancouver Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit in the issue of who is supplying cannabis dispensaries, Tousaw said the VPD made it clear years ago that they considered dispensaries to be an issue of health care and not one of policing.
“I don’t think the VPD wants their time and the major crimes unit’s time to be wasted,” he said. “Presumably, they want to focus on major crimes, and it seems to me there are a lot bigger problems in Vancouver that the police could be working on and are working on."
While Tousaw hopes the motion is defeated by other councillors, he said he hoped that muncipalities and the province are tolerant of the source of supply "while some of the bumps in the transition to legalization get ironed out".
"The worst case scenario would be that patients suddenly are again put in a situation where everybody else's needs except for theirs are coming first."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story quoted Kirk Tousaw as saying, "...There are a lot bigger problems in Vancouver that the police could be working on and aren't working on." In fact, he said, "... and are working on."