Taking care of business: uncertainty colours Vancouver Island pot shop wave

Communities responding in different ways as entrepreneurs line up to take advantage of looming new pot laws

Rick Schmok showcases some of the product available at the Nature's Source Society in downtown Nanaimo.

Justin Trudeau has made a large group of Vancouver Island entrepreneurs very excited and left a larger group of public officials desperately seeking guidance.

Since Trudeau’s election in November, the interest in marijuana dispensaries on Vancouver Island has ballooned as business interests have tried to leap ahead of the queue on the legalized sale of pot.

Led by more than 30 dispensaries in the city of Victoria, the informal count of Vancouver Island pot shops is now around 50, and includes facilities in communities like Sooke, Sidney, the Cowichan Valley, Chemainus, Nanaimo, Port Alberni and Campbell River.

Alex Robb is the community liaison for the Victoria-based dispensary firm Trees, which has three outlets there and a fourth in Nanaimo.

Robb acknowledged the current Wild West climate surrounding the industry, but said there is an opportunity for businesses and communities to work together for their mutual benefit.

He said the Island is home to a significant group of knowledgeable growers and marketers with professional ideas on how to protect consumers and create an industry that can thrive, despite fears being created by the boatload of speculators looking to cash in.

“It is already a market and an industry that was already pretty highly developed on the Island,” he said. “Our aim is to be a legitimate business.”

Right now, that is not the case. According to police, every one of those 50-something stores is currently breaking the law. It is the pending change of that law that has authorities from Port Hardy to Esquimalt struggling with how to deal with either their presence, or the fact that something similar is coming soon.

Campbell River welcomed its first two dispensaries this month with police raids within days of their openings. Victoria tolerates its shops, while working to develop a regulatory framework. Nanaimo RCMP watched the city’s shops expand for months before raiding three of them in December, but have taken no action since. And Port Alberni — just the second city in the entire country to pass a dispensary bylaw — granted Vancouver Island’s first official pot shop business licence in March.

The rest of the Island seems to be watching and waiting for direction.

While the industry has taken advantage of non-profit exemptions to avoid business licensing requirements in some communities, the City of Duncan has thus far deflected overtures because it has no such exemption.

Mayor Phil Kent said that buys his council time. It can wait for specifics from the federal government on what the marijuana law actually will be before drafting regulations to address it.

Most other Island municipalities are taking the same tack, but some can’t wait until spring 2017, which is when Canada’s health minister Jane Philpott told the United Nations General Assembly the law dictating how pot can be sold would be ready.

Campbell River is, as we speak, rushing to get a bylaw in place to make its dispensaries illegal under city bylaws, a situation Port Alberni addressed in the opposite fashion with a licensing bylaw enacted three months after the first dispensary opened there.

“Other towns have had marijuana dispensaries open up and they’re getting themselves way behind the eight ball trying to catch up,” councillor Jack McLeman told the Alberni Valley News.

“I would like to see Port Alberni be proactive and control if they become legal where they are and if they’re not legal, get rid of them in the end.”

The main issue for municipalities is that once marijuana becomes legal, any problems arising from its use — or misuse — could be left to local authorities to deal with. That means bylaw and licensing enforcement and that will come with a cost.

In anticipation of that, earlier this month, Vancouver Island communities endorsed a resolution asking higher government to set aside a portion of the tax revenue it will collect from pot and give it to municipalities for enforcement purposes.

“Like the gas tax — we get a portion of that revenue,” Kent said.

According to Robb, his company has no interest opening stores in communities where it isn’t wanted. That’s why it closed its Campbell River store when it became clear council was uncomfortable with its presence.

He has had conversations with Courtenay, Cumberland and Nanaimo and wants to find legitimacy in community partners that want to get ahead of the curve and work together on building a regulatory framework.

“We want to find communities that want to start the process early,” he said. “I think they have the opportunity to shape it.”

While he says Trees respects the will of councils as the elected representatives of a community, it does not feel the same way about police, who he feels have basically responded to the dispensaries according to the whims of each detachment’s senior officer.

Late last year, the office of the police complaints commissioner urged the City of Victoria to provide its police service with a more clear direction as to expectations on dispensary enforcement. The RCMP, however, has no community board directing its priorities.

Police are in a similar position as local government. For them, the law is perfectly clear. But the need or desire to enforce it is much less certain.

E-Division RCMP media relations officer Cpl. Janelle Shoihet said compassion clubs and medicinal dispensaries cannot legally sell to the public, even if they have a license to produce.

Police can investigate and take action at any time, but if, when, and how is dependent on circumstance.

“Enforcement actions are specific and unique to each community, as would be the practical issues which are tied to enforcement action,” Shoihet said. “Each detachment sets their own priorities based on the local circumstances in their community and public safety need.  It wouldn’t be appropriate for us to comment generally, on the practical issues for policing each unique community.”

And it looks like the uncertainty will continue for at least a year.

“We will introduce legislation in spring 2017 that ensures we keep marijuana out of the hands of children and profits out of the hands of criminals,” Philpott said in her April 20 prepared speech to UN delegates.

“We will work with law enforcement partners to encourage appropriate and proportionate criminal justice measures. We know it is impossible to arrest our way out of this problem.”

Robb said the more progressive marijuana firms have tried to build and adhere to their own regulatory standards — based on existing federal standards — through the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries. They want to make it easy for the authorities to adapt pre-existing methods for certification and inspection.

“(The CAMCD said) if you guys want to continue to exist you have to up your standards. The more organized businesses are following exactly that. The less organized will not be able to continue,” he said.

The dispensaries are betting on the government seeing wisdom in that model over other models like selling marijuana through government liquor stores. Ultimately, Robb thinks dispensaries can survive if they demonstrate they are the best way to serve communities.

“That’s the model Trees has pursued, to run it as legitimately, and by the book, as much as possible,” he said. “There will be a boom and then a retraction. What will close a lot of dispensaries is not the police or bylaws, it will be simple economics.”

— with files from Black Press