Vancouver has become the first city in Canada to regulate the marijuana industry.
After holding four public information sessions, in which hundreds of people voiced up to speak their opinions, city council held a vote. The proposal passed, with eight councillors voting in favour and only three in opposition. City manager Penny Ballem has recognized that Vancouver is breaking new ground, describing this new step forward as “unprecedented in the country”. When it comes to the marijuana industry, Vancouver appears to be on the cutting edge.
The city’s decision to regulate marijuana also comes hot off the heels of the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Smith. This decision found that the Medical Marihuana Access Regulations prohibiting the consumption of medical marijuana in any form other than dried marijuana were unconstitutional.
Prior to the Smith decision, a medical marijuana patient found in the possession of marijuana in any other form than dried could be prosecuted under the Criminal Code. Practically speaking, this meant that a patient carrying a lip balm in their pocket containing marijuana derivatives could be charged with possession, while a patient carrying a large bag of dried marijuana would be protected under the law. It also meant that patients were forced to smoke their marijuana and were prohibited from using safer, more effective methods of consumption, like vaporization. The Supreme Court of Canada held that this distinction was in violation of section 7 of the Charter, which states that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of the person.
So, the future looks bright for Canadian marijuana users. But not so fast...
The controversy runs deep.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is not happy with these developments. Health Minister Rona Ambrose went on record as saying that she was “outraged” by the court’s decision in Smith. In April, the federal government sent letters to Vancouver’s council, police services, and health authorities outlining its concerns with Vancouver’s proposal to regulate dispensaries. Ambrose co-signed a letter with Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney reminding city council and police that the storefront sale of marijuana is still illegal in Canada. In the letter, she stated her deep concern about the plans and warned against the dangers of legitimizing and normalizing the use and sale of marijuana, which she feels will only serve to increase drug use and addiction in this country.
Since the regulations have been passed, Ambrose has continued on, saying that marijuana storefronts “form part of Justin Trudeau’s plan to make smoking marijuana a normal, everyday activity”. She juxtaposes this with the Conservative government’s anti-marijuana agenda, arguing that keeping marijuana illegal is the only way to protect families. Ambrose’s comments are deeply political in nature. She appears to be making them not necessarily to protect the health and safety of Canadians, but to further her own parties’ political agenda. In my view, this diminishes the authenticity of her concerns.
However, criticisms of the new bylaws are not limited to the federal government. Supporters of the marijuana industry are also concerned. The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, while applauding the city’s intentions in passing these laws, warns that they will be too restrictive in practice. They are particularly concerned with the prohibition on marijuana edibles, which means that candies, cookies, and brownies will be banned from storefront shops. Others feel that the $30,000 annual licensing fee for for-profit stores, which is the highest costing permit imposed by the city to date, will make it impossible for many locations to keep their doors open.
But, whatever your position on this issue is, the fact remains, marijuana-related businesses are booming. Over the last two years, the number of businesses related to the sale and use of marijuana has grown by over 100 percent and prior to last week, the city had no ability to regulate how or where those businesses operate.
The new guidelines will empower the city to deal with the growth of marijuana-related business. They establish geographic restrictions with respect to where marijuana-related businesses can legally operate and require operators to sign a good neighbour agreement. Although they impose hefty licensing fees, they also allow an exception for non-profit compassion clubs. At the very least, the city’s new guidelines will help provide a great deal of clarity. They will help to establish community standards. And although they may not be perfect for now, they will surely change and evolve over time.
I look forward to seeing what the future holds.