One year after the first cannabis dispensary was licensed in Vancouver, activist Dana Larsen says the City’s pot shop bylaw is still flawed.
The bylaw, imposing location and permit requirements on any marijuana dispensary wishing to operate in Vancouver, was passed in June 2015.
Vancouver’s pot shops were invited to begin applying for licensing by August 21 of that year–but it took until May 2016 before the first licence was issued.
Two years after the bylaw was passed, and one year since the first licence was issued, only nine more marijuana dispensaries have been granted business licences.
Larsen said he applauds the City for accepting dispensaries, but branded the bylaw “very flawed” and the fact so few licences have been issued as “ridiculous.”
“The rules they put in place are far, far more strict than the rules you have around liquor establishments,” said Larsen.
“I think most people in Vancouver support local dispensaries and would like to see the rules opened up a little bit.”
Under the City bylaw, dispensaries must be in commercial zones, at least 300 m from schools, community centres, neighbourhood houses and other pot shops.
They must then apply for a development permit, and if successful, apply for a business licence, at a cost of $30,000 for retail stores or $1,000 for compassion clubs.
Some 176 pot shop operators applied when invited back in 2015. Most were unsuccessful. Some never opened, some voluntarily closed.
Two years after the fight began, 51 pot shops remain open in violation of the bylaw, facing daily tickets and injunctions from the City.
While the City has recouped $125,000 in tickets issued, it is still owed more than half a million dollars by defiant pot shop owners.
Larsen owns two pot shops, both called the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, on Hastings St and Thurlow Street respectively.
His Hastings shop was rejected due to its location, but the Thurlow Street branch is successfully making its way through the licensing process.
“I’m in an interesting situation because I’m on both sides of that coin,” said Larsen.
“In practical terms, both places operate in the exact same way, we haven’t stopped or changed anything.”
Larsen says his Hastings shop has huge support in the community, and is the third oldest pot shop in Vancouver, paving the way for other dispensaries that came after them.
But, he says, the City is putting pressure on them to leave and is working towards an injunction against them, whereas newer establishments are being licensed.
“It seems kind of backwards that the places being permitted are places that don’t actually have any activist cred, aren’t even opened yet, and are getting these permits.
“There’s an irony for me … that when there was no bylaws, and when it was sort of more illegal than it is now, we had no problem with us being there,” said Larsen.
“But now they put in bylaws, those mean we have to go after nine years of being welcome in our community and that seems strange to me.”
Larsen doesn’t hold out much hope for things changing anytime soon either, despite the Cannabis Act bill introduced by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in April this year.
“Even when that law passes, you won’t be able to go and buy Trudeau-approved cannabis in a shop,” said Larsen.
“You’ve got the provincial governments that have to move forward and none of them seem enthusiastic or excited about doing this in a rapid way.”
And since you can also grow your own, says Larsen, it’s unlikely police will be able to tell the difference between pot from legal suppliers, home grown pot, and illegally supplied pot.
“There’s a supply of cannabis that can’t be tracked and so that will make it impossible to enforce,” said Larsen.
“I think we’re going to have this dual track system. Whatever the federal and provincial governments put in place, and locally licensed dispensaries… that will continue to operate.”
“I think it’s going to be a very slow process, and we’re looking at several years before this is resolved.”
Much of the proposed federal legislation focuses on stopping minors getting hold of pot, one of the public health goals underpinning the City of Vancouver’s bylaw.
But Larsen says that whole argument is a red herring.
“The hysteria over a minor potentially buying cannabis in a dispensary I think is much exaggerated,” said Larsen.
“I really think that if minors are not getting cannabis from a dispensary that’s because dispensary operators are not wanting to sell to minors, not because the City made us.
“I don’t think there was ever a big issue with dispensaries selling to minors in the first place.”
In the end, Larsen says, Vancouver needs more marijuana dispensaries, not fewer, as it attempt to tackle the ongoing fentanyl crisis.
He cites a study out of the US showing that allowing medical cannabis use correlates significantly with lower opioid overdose deaths.
“When [police] raid a dispensary and shut it down they’re killing people. It’s as simple as that,” said Larsen.
“We need more dispensaries, we need more marijuana in Canada, we need it more widely accessible than it is now.”
“Dispensaries save lives.”