Robertson presiding over city hall’s remake of Reefer Madness

There haven’t been many sillier, cynical exercises in recent times than the City of Vancouver’s erratic and unprofessional treatment of marijuana dispensaries.

It is Reefer Madness, 21st century style.

No matter which side you take on the legalization/decriminalization issue, there is a serious bone to pick. Why the two aren’t collectively marching in the streets is anyone’s guess.

If you are against liberalizing the laws, you have the following gripes:

(1) The City of Vancouver didn’t dare prevent these businesses from opening so as not to alienate the cannabis culture before the last election.

(2) It has turned a blind eye to the basic truth that, so easy is it to get a prescription, these supposed medical dispensaries are also there for the walk-in recreational user.

(3) The police were neutralized because the city either presumed the law would change or was prepared to thumb its nose at what was on the books. Not the kind of civic leadership you want to teach the kids.

If you are in favour of liberalizing the laws, you have the following gripes:

(1) The City of Vancouver suddenly took back what it gave when it saw an economic opportunity to levy a gigantic business tax under the guise of costly requisite administration.

(2) Dispensaries were subjected – in some cases after years of unfettered operation – to retroactive regulations more onerous than those for alcohol or tobacco.

(3) The police need to restrain themselves because the law will soon change.

The city used dog-whistle politics to fortify support or opposition. One day, it was live-and-let-live, the next it was almost-all-must-die. Location and operation rules condemned much of what it had condoned. When the city’s board of variance didn’t vary, the squatters were squelched and served notice of closure.

Enforcement starts in earnest this week. Mind you, the $250-a-day fines for defiance aren’t going to shutter many places – even if the maximum $10,000 fines are levied – and the class action-style court proceedings in the months ahead will extend the conflict. The next few weeks and months will be enough of a pain to qualify for a medical marijuana prescription.

So, after doing nothing when it needed to do something, it did a lot when it knew the context it was creating for the cannabis business was bound to be temporary.

As capital swarms the cannabis business in anticipation of legalization, Vancouver has gone from a laid-back leader to an unpredictable bumbler. It is now seriously out of step with the action at the senior levels of government, and a day of reckoning approaches.

Justin Trudeau, who has admitted to smoking pot, exercised a shrewd hand on this issue in the election.  He zeroed in on the zeitgeist and shrugged with his father’s mannerism about the Conservatives’ antediluvian view of cannabis as a gateway drug.

Stephen Harper, who has barely admitted to smoking salmon, was tone deaf. He wouldn’t have lost support to favour decriminalization – those opposed to it had nowhere else to go politically – but in holding the tough line his position hurt more than helped. It is of interest that the Tories have since softened on the issue.

That being said, the chapters ahead are hazy. Legislation next spring will generate a decent debate in the Commons and Senate. By the time the provinces come aboard and the product hits the country, it will be 2018 or 2019.

B.C. has wisely identified cannabis as someone else’s economic problem to police for the time being but its own economic benefactor in the time coming. It might want to work through with the federal government a licensing strategy to permit liquor stores to be one-stop self-soothing establishments. For that matter, pharmacies are also trying to extend their product line – they are drug stores, after all.

In this collision of jurisdictions, the city is going to find it tough to keep in place what it has sanctioned. Another cull might be ahead. Our city, thanks to its initial inertia, let the genie out of the bottle before its time.

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.