Vancouver’s mayor tells unlicensed dispensaries to “just get with the program”

It’s going to get worse before it gets better for the city’s unregulated cannabis stores

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      Vancouver’s cannabis dispensary landscape is about to get a drastic makeover.

      Weed may be legal in Canada but that doesn’t mean local storefronts are clear to stay operational. In fact, recent comments from the mayor forewarn the imminent demise of the city’s unregulated pot shops.

      According to the latest numbers from the City of Vancouver, where more than a hundred unlicenced stores operated before October 17, only 14 are set to take their place going into 2019. So far, four cannabis retail stores have obtained the necessary municipal licences, with another ten waiting in the wings. Once municipally-approved stores receive a provincial licence, they are free to open and start distributing from a list of federally-approved cannabis producers.

      Anyone else needs to “just get with the program”, according to Vancouver’s mayor, Kennedy Stewart.

      Speaking to the Straight at City Hall today (December 17), Stewart says the fact that stores are getting licensed is proof enough that transitioning to the legal channel is possible—but there is only enough room for those who shut their doors and play by the city’s new rules.

      “If they (the four already licenced stores) can do it, I don’t see why the others can’t,” says Stewart.

      “It’s not like these bylaws were sprung on these people,” he said. “They’ve known for quite some time, for many months, that this is what is coming and what’s been in place. They’ve had lots of time to adjust, so that’s what they should be doing.”

      Last week, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled in favour of Vancouver’s bylaws, ordering longtime dispensaries, like Karuna Health Foundation and Weed Glass and Gifts, to shut down. Many of these dispensaries have been illegally providing storefront access and educational resources to community members looking to learn more about cannabis for years. For many, the stamp of the black market meant a roadblock in transitioning to licit channels.

      “I’m not quite buying that it’s a hardship,” says Stewart, when asked about the licencing process that excludes existing stores on zoning and land-use technicalities. He says his best advice for dispensaries struggling with the transition is to shut down. 

      Following Friday’s judgment, the city's planning department also made it clear that dispensaries were to fall in line—immediately halt operations and pay their part of the nearly $3 million in operational fines issued to illegal stores to date—or face further prosecution.

      In a release, Kaye Krishna, Vancouver’s general manager of development, buildings, and licensing, said the win for the city “signals that any cannabis retail store operating outside city regulations can and will be enforced against using all the tools at the city’s disposal to the fullest extent moving forward.”

      The planning department is in charge of granting development permits—the first step in receiving a municipal licence—which have historically been denied to many dispensaries, including several businesses involved in the court case.

      Stewart didn’t directly answer whether or not the city intends to grant some leniency to cannabis stores that operate on the basis of providing medical access; instead, he points patients to the already backlogged provincial online store for now.

      “I know that people who have medical conditions that require marijuana can order it online. I know that there is a supply problem, but there’s not a lot at the city level that we can do about that,” he says.

      “There just going to have to follow the provincial regulations.”

      Currently, Canadians with a medical licence to obtain cannabis are only permitted to order online from licenced producers (LPs)—many of whom are struggling to keep up with the supply demand now they are also serving Canada’s vast recreational market. The current Canada Post strike is also exacerbating delivery times.

      For Vancouver’s impoverished—most of whom don’t have a fixed address or credit card—the existing network of dispensaries was their only access point to the alternative medicine.

      As for opioid substitution programs offering cannabis as harm reduction, Stewart says he doesn’t equate the two operations at all.

      “It is very different. One thing is exploring a retail opportunity and the other is saving people’s lives...For me, they’re completely separate.”

      Studies show regions with legally protected dispensaries have lower rates of dependence and deaths due to opioid overdose. Currently, Vancouver has no infrastructure to support harm-reduction programs using cannabis as a means of substitution for drug addiction.

      While there is currently no timeline for the crackdown on dispensaries refusing to cease operations, Stewart does say he will allow for an adjustment period following the court decision.

      “I don’t want to be heavy-handed,” he says.

      “I am really looking at these businesses like they’re any other business now that cannabis is legal. But I think they need to show willingness that they’re willing to move ahead.”