One of the medical marijuana dispensaries facing legal action from the City of Vancouver is speaking out after filing a suit in the B.C. Supreme Court to fight for his right to stay open.
The City of Vancouver has filed injunctions against 17 pot shops in the city to force them to close, claiming some of those stores generate noise and nuisance complaints and have been uncooperative with City staff.
Chuck Varabioff, owner of BC Pain Society on Commercial Drive, has filed his own legal documents against the City and told Daily Hive he rejects their allegations.
“It makes me laugh out loud,” said Varabioff. “None of that applies to me, absolutely none of it… We’ve had zero police issues… I just don’t understand why they are targeting me first.”
Under new city bylaws, which went into force on April 29, all dispensaries must be in commercial zones, at least 300 metres from schools, community centres, neighbourhood houses and other approved pot shops. If they pass that preliminary application stage, the dispensaries must then apply for a development permit, then a business licence.
Ultimately, any pot shops operating in Vancouver must have a business licence. So far only one medical marijuana business licence has been issued.
Appeal refused by board
For his part, Varabioff says the BC Pain Society made the proper preliminary application to the City last year, but was rejected on the grounds that it is too close to Stratford Hall private school.
He appealed to the City’s Board of Variance, but to no avail and the shop was ordered to close.
Varabioff refused to shut his doors, potentially facing daily fines of $250 for each day he stayed open, and has now been issued with an injunction from the City. Varabioff says he’s received five tickets so far from the City, but is disputing them.
He argues the appeal process was unfair and that his case was one of the first considered by the Board of Variance, who were then, he says, under the impression they could not overturn the City’s decisions.
According to Varabioff, after his appeal was refused, the City clarified matters with the Board and allowed them to grant or refuse future appeals as they saw fit.
Varabioff says this confusion meant that the B.C. Compassion Club, another medical marihuana dispensary which was also close to the school, had its own appeal granted and was allowed to stay open using the same arguments just weeks after he was refused.
Was the appeal process unfair?
As evidence, he cites an article in Cannabis in Canada, which quotes Louis Ng, Secretary of the Board of Variance, admitting things had changed since those initial hearings. Ng told Daily Hive in an email that his comments referred to appellants themselves preparing longer presentations, and bringing supporters to the appeal meeting.
“I was referring to the Board allowing more time for all parties who attended to speak,” said Ng. “Appeal process is still the same and with more speakers attending, then the Board is taking additional time to hear from all parties.”
But Varabioff says that should be grounds for him to get a new appeal.
“If they’ve admitted it has changed, shouldn’t that give me the opportunity for a new hearing? All I want and all I’ve ever wanted is a fair appeal and I didn’t get it.”
The City of Vancouver declined to comment on Varabioff’s claims, since the matter is currently before the courts.
‘Fighting for what I believe in’
While he waits for the court case to play out, Varabioff says, he is concerned for his staff and his customers.
“People are almost panicking that we’re going to close down… I cater to disabled people, people on fixed incomes, people on social assistance. We offer the lowest price possible for them.”
“I’m fighting for what I believe in and I’m fighting for the rights of others, and hopefully in the end I’m victorious.”
The city introduced the new rules in a bid to regulate the rapid spread of medical marijuana dispensaries across the city, even though they technically remain illegal under federal law. Varabioff says it would have been better for the City of Vancouver to grandfather in the “more reputable” places on a case-by-case basis. However, he commends the City for pushing back against the previous Conservative federal government’s approach to drugs, even if their approach has been “very inconsistent.”
Although Varabioff does not use the product himself, the fight is deeply personal for him, stemming from his experience of his mother’s death.
“The last day’s of my Mum’s life, she was so whacked out on morphine, she didn’t even know I was there when she took her last breath,” he said. “If I were to have the option to give her [cannabis] instead, I would have been able to say goodbye to her properly and normally in a humane way. And that’s what I’m fighting for.”