Ottawa's Cannabis Act, Bill C-45, passed third reading in the House of Commons on November 27, little more than seven months before the federal government’s July 1, 2018, target date for legalizing recreational marijuana. The bill must be approved by the Senate and achieve royal assent but the writing is on the wall that legalization is on the way.
The B.C. government has yet to reveal how it plans to regulate retail sales for non-medicinal marijuana.
Whether it will follow Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick’s lead and restrict sales to government-run stores or Alberta and Manitoba’s approach of leaving cannabis retailing in the hands of the private sector is anyone’s guess.
During the 2017 provincial election campaign, BC NDP leader John Horgan said he favoured a “mixed” approach that would involve both public and private sectors.
Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth’s public consultation process on the legalized cannabis retailing issue ended November 1.
Speculation is that the B.C. government will reveal its favoured retail method before the February budget. Whatever process is chosen, however, municipal politicians will want to have a say in where cannabis is sold in their jurisdiction.
Municipalities are at various stages in developing policies for licensing and policing marijuana retailing in their jurisdictions.
Business in Vancouver asked mayors and other representatives in municipalities what retail method they favour for cannabis.
In 2015, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to license illegal marijuana dispensaries.
City statistics note that, as of November 14, 100 marijuana dispensaries operate in Vancouver; 67 of those stores have been subject to city enforcement such as ticketing or court injunctions. The remaining 33 are abiding by the city’s licensing system, which prohibits marijuana shops from operating within 300 metres of a school, a community centre or each other.
Dispensary operators pay the city a yearly $30,000 administration fee plus a second, annual zoning-and-development levy that ranges up to $5,100, depending on square footage. Fines for failing to get licensed are $1,000, and the city has issued 2,313 tickets. Only 424 (18.3%) of those fines have been paid.
“It’s just, simply, a common-sense approach to dealing with the explosion of medical marijuana shops in our city,” Coun. Kerry Jang said at the time. “We’re not regulating the product; we’re regulating the business.”
No dispensaries operate in Richmond, and Mayor Malcolm Brodie said the community supports council’s opposition to retail outlets in the city.
“Everything has been done so quickly that, probably, there would be a public process before we came firmly down on [forbidding dispensaries in Richmond],” Brodie said.
Were the province to require Richmond to allow bricks-and-mortar cannabis retail outlets in the community, Brodie said he would prefer that they were either pharmacies or government liquor stores and not privately run dispensaries.
Brodie opposes cannabis cultivation on farmland because he doubts that the crop would be secure. He said production should be on industrial land.
The Corporation of Delta won a 2016 court injunction to close the first dispensary that opened in the community: WeeMedical Dispensary Society. The business reopened almost immediately as WeeCare Med Society but has since shut.
Mayor Lois Jackson told BIV that she does not want dispensaries to operate in her community because products might contain mould and pesticides. There is no standardization of products, she said.
Medical marijuana from licensed producers is tested for strength and purity, and the federal government’s plan is for all recreational marijuana after July 1, 2018, to go through scientific testing, but Jackson remains unconvinced.
“We tested the stuff that came out of [WeeMedical Dispensary Society], and it was all over the map,” she said. “There was everything in there from soup to nuts.”
Jackson added that many residents do not want to have dispensaries in their neighbourhoods and that it is a basic tenet of democracy for them to be able to get their municipal politicians to listen to that view.
She would not rule out the possibility that council would approve a rezoning so a dispensary could open. Were that to happen, she said there would be restrictions similar to those in Vancouver to keep dispensaries a certain distance from each other. Jackson opposes cannabis cultivation on farmland, saying that industrial warehouses are better suited to that form of agriculture.
Police closed Burnaby’s first cannabis dispensary, and none currently operate in the city.
Mayor Derek Corrigan told BIV that he would like to see cannabis sold in government liquor stores because “we have a great deal of respect for that structure, and we think that it is likely that, in that environment, there won’t be a problem with selling to young people.”
He believes training at pharmacies or private dispensaries would not be as high as that in government liquor stores because many of the people employed at pharmacies or dispensaries could be minimum-wage workers.
“In the future there may be a liberalization of those sorts of rules, but I think you should exercise caution when you’re doing something new.”
West Vancouver is waiting for cues from the provincial government before it begins public consultations and decides how legal dispensaries will be zoned.
“There’s no point consulting with the public if we don’t know what we’re consulting on,” said West Vancouver Mayor Michael Smith.
Smith said the retailing of marijuana should be consistent across the province and follow the regulatory framework that is applied to alcohol.
City of North Vancouver
The City of North Vancouver will not zone or grant business licences to marijuana dispensaries until recreational cannabis is legalized. Currently five are operating in the municipality. None have licences.
City council is waiting for the provincial government’s marijuana retail and distribution framework before it decides how the city will handle zoning.
District of North Vancouver
The first marijuana dispensary in the district was shuttered in May after the municipality sought and received a BC Supreme Court injunction against it. The municipality is going through a similar process to try to close the one remaining dispensary in the district.
District council has argued that the provincial government should be responsible for all warehousing and distribution of marijuana consistent with B.C.’s alcohol distribution and have a mix of private and government-run outlets.
The district also wants cannabis retail policies similar to those of the North Shore’s other two municipalities.
No cannabis dispensaries operate in New Westminster, but mayor Jonathan Coté told BIV that the city would have a “liberal” attitude toward recreational marijuana retail sales once the product becomes legal.
He said the city has shut down dispensaries because it did not want to set a precedent of allowing the illegal businesses to operate.
“We want the opportunity to have that discussion about how [dispensaries] should be regulated and not have a situation where some stores are grandfathered because they were there before the regulations were in place,” he said. “New Westminster will take a very liberal approach to this, and cannabis will be part of our retail distribution.”
Coquitlam city council is waiting for the provincial government to release its plan for marijuana production and distribution before it decides how the city will handle the legalization and zoning of recreational marijuana dispensaries.
In 2012, city council voted unanimously to ban unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries and closed the only location in the city.
The City of Port Coquitlam closed two dispensaries earlier this year. Cannabis Culture, a cannabis retail chain co-owned by Canadian cannabis rights activist Marc Emery, shut its doors in February after city bylaw changes, two RCMP raids and various fines.
In March, Port Coquitlam passed an additional zoning bylaw that banned the sale of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia. The bylaw allows for commercial medical marijuana production through site-specific zoning.
In a letter to B.C. Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth, the city noted that local governments should have the ability to prohibit public cannabis consumption. The letter asked that marijuana revenue sales be split 50-50 with local governments to help cover additional police and enforcement costs.
Surrey amended its bylaw in 2011 to ban marijuana dispensaries that were not licensed by the provincial or federal governments.
“We’re not in [the business of regulating cannabis retail sales] to make money off of business licences,” said Surrey Coun. Mike Starchuk. “We just want to make sure what we’re doing and what we’re getting is cost-neutral.”
He added that legalized cannabis will likely increase fire-fighting costs and other city budget expenses.
Starchuk stressed that the city cannot prevent people from using Surrey agricultural land to grow marijuana but added that much of it does not have electrical or water services.
The city has already begun mapping out locations where marijuana stores could be zoned.
Starchuk and representatives from the police, municipal finance department, Fraser Health and bylaw enforcement have visited U.S. municipalities to learn how they deal with marijuana legalization.