The “cannabis dispensary” boom and what the city can — and cannot — do about it

The explosion of cannabis dispensaries and walk-in marijuana clinics across the city is raising alarm in many quarters, not least among regular small business owners who worry about the impact on neighbourhood retail districts, where private liquor stores and even pharmacies are closely regulated, but dispensaries are not.

The growing frustration was perfectly captured in a letter last week to Councillor Kerry Jang, copied to all members of council, from Claudia Laroye, executive director of the Marpole Business Association. On behalf of her members, Laroye spells out the growing concern at the proliferation of “illegal, non-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.”

Jang’s reply, which I’m reprinting below with his permission, is an excellent example of how apparently straightforward issues can be exceedingly complex and ultimately beyond the city’s jurisdiction to solve. Kerry is working with city officials to see if there are innovative ways to handle the problem, but I agree completely with him that this issue won’t be resolved until Ottawa is forced to take action. Here’s his reply:

Dear Claudia,

Thank you for your letter regarding medical cannabis dispensaries that have been opening across the city.

The new Federal laws governing medical cannabis that came into effect on April 1, 2014.   The new Federal law requires medical cannabis be obtained via mail order from licenced producers and must be smoked.  There are also limits as to how much cannabis can be obtained at one time as well as a limited number of strains under this new law.  However, these laws do not take into account that many patients – allowable under the previous Federal law – cannot smoke cannabis and have always used extracted the active ingredients in cannabis to create tinctures or oils, or is ingested as food additive.  These methods require different quantities of cannabis that the new laws prohibit.  Moreover, many patients also had access to strains that had different levels of the active ingredients that are now no longer available.  Indeed, these new laws have limited a patients access to medicine and is the basis of the challenge to the new law at the Supreme Court of Canada.  The case is presently on-going and has resulted in the growth of these dispensaries that serve patients across the city.

This situation has presented the city with a conundrum.  As the lowest order of government, we cannot create a bylaw that would contravene a law or right provided by a senior level of government.  Any city action, such as shutting down dispensaries or creating a business licence category for dispensaries would be in contravention to either the new laws on medical cannabis or on the other hand, a patient’s right to medicine.  The City was able to create bylaws and business licence categories for body rub parlours for example because Federal and provincial law governing body rub parlours exist and do not conflict with other laws.  This is not the case with cannabis dispensaries as I have been advised.

Prior to April 1, 2014, our primary concern with medical cannabis dispensaries were those that marketed to minors and/or trafficking.  These cases are referred to VPD for investigation and a number of these shops were closed (and continue to be investigated and closed) under those laws.

I have been in discussion with our staff about the possibility of using existing land use bylaws to begin to regulate medical cannabis dispensaries.  For example, the City has bylaws that place rules around the location and number of methadone dispensing pharmacies in an area and can they be applied to medical cannabis dispensaries?   I understand you have a meeting with Ms. Brenda Prosken, GM of Community Services and her staff to discuss potential options that can be applied.

Please note that I have asked Ms. Prosken for a memo to Mayor and Council to assist with understanding the issues surrounding dispensaries and steps the City can take to regulate them.

It is my hope that the Health Canada comes to understand that problems they created when they changed the medical cannabis laws.  These concerns were directly raised with them by Mayors and Councillors from across the province at the  Union of British Columbia Municipalities meeting last year.  Other municipalities are reporting the opening of dispensaries as well.  The Federal government needs to revise their new regulations to be consistent with other laws.  Vancouver City Council formally requested the Federal government create a proper regulatory and tax structure for medical cannabis similar to those that exist for alcohol,  tobacco or other prescription medicines by unanimous vote to a motion on this issued I introduced last term.    I urge you and all of the BIA’s meet with your local MP on the matter because they ultimately hold the solution to this issue and we can create the bylaws to suit.

Warmest regards,

Kerry