Vancouver has become the first city in Canada to regulate the over-the-counter sale of medicinal marijuana.
In a 8-3 vote that split along party lines, councillors adopted a legal framework that consists of a new class of business licence plus regulations that will govern the operations of cannabis dispensaries.
The rules will affect more than 85 marijuana storefronts that have conducted their business outside of zoning regulations. While their operations remain illegal under federal law, shop owners will now have to adhere to city bylaws that address matters such as where cannabis stores can set be up and what sorts of products they can sell.
Mayor Gregor Robertson said it would have been irresponsible for the city not to act on the rapid growth and proliferation of medicinal marijuana dispensaries across Vancouver.
“We are in a situation where we act or we sit on our hands,” he said. “We do need a common sense approach and we do need new rules to regulate and control marijuana dispensaries. And I think that this set of rules to control the location and operation of marijuana dispensaries is appropriate.”
Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs acknowledged that the federal government has loudly opposed the city’s plan to regulate marijuana sales. He responded to criticism from Health Minister Rona Ambrose by accusing Ottawa of falling behind changing attitudes on medicinal cannabis.
“Wake up,” Meggs said. “You are completely out of touch with the realties on the ground. The policies that you are advocating are backward and destructive.”
At the same time, Meggs used similarly strong rhetoric to chastise dispensary operators for what he characterized as “tone-deaf” conduct that was not considerate of the communities in which they operate.
“There has not been a consistent record of good neighbourly behavior by the dispensaries in this city,” he said. “That is what drove us to make the steps that are in front of us now.”
Meggs issued a warning to dispensaries, saying misconduct such as sales to minors will not be tolerated.
“I am pleased that there are measures in this bylaw to give the police strength and oversight of these dispensaries,” he said.
Vision Vancouver councillor Kerry Jang similarly blamed the proliferation of cannabis storefronts on what he characterized as the federal government’s failure to address the matter. He stressed the city is not seeking to regulate the sale or consumption of marijuana, but rather is using bylaws to set rules for land use and business operations.
“Reality is here,” he said. “We as a city council must do something for our city and that is these bylaws. I think they are a common sense approach. They are a public health approach to dealing with this issue.”
NPA councillor George Affleck spoke in opposition to the proposed framework. He noted he supports medicinal marijuana, but warned what the city is doing will attract legal battles and likely result in a long feud with Ottawa.
“I think we are going to have a fight from the federal government,” Affleck said. “I think they may walk in here and say we have to follow the rules. So is this the battle that we want to have? Do we want to spend potentially millions of taxpayer dollars fighting in the courts on many different fronts?”
“It has gotten out of control,” he concluded.
NPA councillor Elizabeth Ball likewise said she supports the use of medicinal marijuana but maintained she could not vote in favour of city regulations that appear to endorse activities that violate the law.
“I do not intend to vote for something that is illegal in Canada and that supports an illegal industry,” she said.
Vision Vancouver councillor Raymond Louie emphasized the city’s regulatory framework has the support of the Vancouver Police Department as well as regional health authorities.
Green councillor Adriane Carr voted with Vision councillors in support of the regulations. She described the municipal government’s action on dispensaries as a response to public pressure.
The rules were first proposed in a 28-page staff report that was received by council on April 28. That document was subsequently subject to a marathon series of public hearings that saw more than 200 members of the public speak over the course of four meetings held through June.
The rules that council voted in favour of today only included three noteworthy amendments and are largely identical to those originally proposed by staff. Among the most significant of these changes is the addition of a separate business licence class for compassion clubs. It was also clarified that while stores will not be allowed to sell edibles, they can sell oils and cannabis in capsule form.
The new regulations forbid marijuana shops from operating within 300 metres of a school or community centre. They also say shops should not stand within 300 metres of each other, and stay out of the Granville Entertainment District as well as the Downtown Eastside (as defined by the area around Main and East Hastings streets). As those bans take effect, it is estimated that as many as a quarter of existing operations will have to close or move to other locations outside of those boundaries.
In addition, the regulations forbid the sale of medicinal marijuana in the form of edibles such as brownies or gelatin candies. That provision was adopted despite attracting controversy following a June 11 Supreme Court of Canada ruling which found a federal ban on edibles was unconstitutional.
The framework also carries heavy fees for shop owners, which have thus far not paid money to government beyond federal income tax.
The new business licence for dispensaries will require operators to pay the city $30,000 per year in the way of an administration fee plus a second annual zoning and development fee of a maximum of $5,100 (determined by a shop’s square footage).
Speaking toward the end of today’s council meeting, Vision Vancouver’s Tim Stevenson placed the city’s challenge with marijuana dispensaries within a larger context of prohibition.
“I see no other course,” he said. “We’ve had a war on drugs for a very long time and that has obviously not worked out.”
Stevenson noted that even the NPA councillors who spoke against the regulations said they were in agreement that attitudes have changed and that they believe medicinal marijuana should be available to patients who can benefit from it.
“I think this is common sense,” he concluded. “We are in a position where we have to do something.”