Vancouver city council to consider loosening cannabis retail rules for Downtown Eastside

Motion asks council to have staff suggest amendments to policy that affects the gritty neighbourhood

Vancouver city council pushed back by a day discussion on councillor Rebecca Bligh's motion | Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver city council is set to discuss a motion on June 12 that could lead to the loosening of restrictions for cannabis stores in the Downtown Eastside.

Council on June 11 pushed back by a day discussion on Councillor Rebecca Bligh’s motion that aims to end the City of Vancouver’s policy to only consider new applications for cannabis stores in the Downtown Eastside if they are on Main or Hastings streets. It asks staff to come up with wording for an amendment to the current policy in part because cannabis use could help some stay off harder street drugs.

The city’s policy is often referred to as governing an “exclusion zone” – a description that bothers the city’s chief licence inspector, Kathryn Holm.

Holm told Business in Vancouver on June 7 that the city’s cannabis policy for the Downtown Eastside is misunderstood.

“It’s been incorrectly presented, and incorrectly understood,” she said. “It is not an exclusion zone, and that is how it is being described, and that is not true.”

Four retail stores in the Downtown Eastside have development permits and are going through the provincial process to become fully legal.

They are at:

• 529 E Hastings Street (Hastings and Jackson St);

• 151 E Hastings Street (Hastings between Main and Columbia);

• 369 Columbia Street (Hastings and Columbia), and;

• 231 Abbott Street (Abbott and Cordova).

The potentially legal stores on Columbia Street and Abbott Street defy council’s current policy to limit stores to Main and Hastings streets but owners of those potential stores received development permits before council’s current policy was put in place.

Bligh’s motion comes on the heels of the B.C. Court of Appeal ordering the Downtown Eastside’s only cannabis store, the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary at 880 East Hastings Street, to close.

Dispensary spokesman Dana Larsen had said that he wanted the store to remain open but he agreed to close the store's cannabis sales because he did not want to put others at risk if he defied the court and was found to be in contempt. The store remains open but no longer sells cannabis. 

The B.C. Court of Appeal ordered nine specific cannabis stores to close, including the one on East Hastings, but not dozens of others that are also operating and lack provincial licences and city business licences because those nine stores were part of a lawsuit that the city launched last summer. Originally, that lawsuit targeted 53 stores and all but nine had closed by May 31, when the court issued its recent order.

The dispensaries named in the lawsuit had rejected the city’s right to regulate their presence and therefore refused to get a business licence, or even a development permit, which confirms that the land use for their site meets city criteria. The dispensaries’ owners wanted the B.C. Court of Appeal to set aside a December B.C. Supreme Court decision, which said that they had to close because they did not have city authorization to operate. An appeal to the December decision remains possible but the stores must stay closed during that appeal. 

The main restrictions that the city has for aspiring cannabis-store owners across the city is for sites, which are not to be within:

•300 metres from another store;

•300 metres from a school, community centre or other gathering place for youth; or

•on a street that the city deems as being a minor or residential road.