City to debate a zoning bylaw that excludes cannabis sales from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

NPA councillor Rebecca Bligh is pushing to make space for harm reduction programs and low-cost cannabis products to quell the city's overdose crisis

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      On Thursday (May 24), NPA councillor Rebecca Bligh advanced a motion to consider amending a prohibition on the sale of cannabis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

      The exclusionary zone was created in 2015 as the result of several public hearings on licensing rules for medical cannabis dispensaries. As it stands, Section 11 of the City of Vancouver Zoning and Development regulations states no cannabis retail hubs can exist in the city's most impoverished neighbourhood.

      The bylaw affirms no cannabis store can legally operate in the area outlined on the map below, except for sites with a property line on Hastings Street or Main Street. These shops also can not be situated within 300 metres of a school, community centre, or another dispensary.

      City of Vancouver

      The initial intention of the exclusionary zone was to limit the proximity of dispensaries to “youth and vulnerable populations”. 

      With the support of research from addiction specialists and harm reduction activists, Bligh’s motion argues the zone fails to achieve that goal. In fact, many believe it exacerbates the problem.

      Since legalization on October 17, 2018, municipalities have been tasked with updating the licensing framework for privately-owned cannabis stores. Before the recent federal shifts around the plant, the Greater Vancouver Area (GVA) was home to over 100 pot shops operating quasi-legally with various development and sales permits—some with none.

      Now, only six stores in the GVA are licensed to sell federally approved products. Any organization providing cannabis without government approval is stamped “black market” and at risk of seizures, fines, and jail time for employees. 

      The bylaw prevents harm reduction efforts

      Bligh's motion argues the exclusionary zone, which was reinforced when the city revisited the licensing system, stands in the way of substitution programs vital to tackling the city’s overdose crisis.

      The motion states there have been more than 3,600 fatal overdoses in British Columbia—more than 1,000 of which in Vancouver—since April 14, 2016. The spike in deaths intensified due to an increasingly contaminated supply of drugs laced with the synthetic-opioid fentanyl, as well a rise in opiate addiction.

      Despite the bylaw, a number of substitution programs continue to operate within the exclusionary zone, including the Overdose Prevention Society and High Hopes Foundation, to mitigate a crisis long-since dubbed an "epidemic". These grassroots organizations provide cannabis, safe consumption sites, and other community support services to the city's drug-addicted and homeless at little-to-no cost.

      These operations have thus far existed on charitable donations and volunteer efforts, and are led by harm reduction activists like Sarah Blyth. Now cannabis is legal, however, it creates potential avenues for these public services to operate through regulated channels with more consistent support.

      If passed, the motion stands to advance the efforts of these programs and, at its crux, champions the findings of researchers like UBC professors Dr. M-J Milloy and Dr. Evan Wood, and Dr. Mark Tyndall, executive medical director the BC Centre for Disease Control. Their work over the last several years reinforces the role of cannabis, in various forms, in helping a recovering addicts manage symptoms of withdrawal, replace hard drugs, and increase the success rates of recovery.

      Bligh is asking the council to consider amending the bylaw to allow for “well-considered exceptions” to the city’s current prohibition on cannabis stores looking to operate in the exclusionary zone.

      She argues cannabis retail hubs in the DTES, specifically those following the model of “a community cannabis store with a social enterprise and research focus”, could provide low-cost options for individuals looking to use the plant as an alternative more dangerous substances.

      The motion is slated for Tuesday’s (May 28) regular council meeting.