Council says no to medical pot dispensary

Medical marijuana users in Lake Cowichan will have to get their prescriptions filled

Medical marijuana users in Lake Cowichan will have to get their prescriptions filled by mail or else travel to dispensaries in other parts of the province, because council has made its position clear: not in our town.

On Tuesday, the Town of Lake Cowichan finance and administration committee voted unanimously to deny a business licence to Matthew Brizzi, director of VanCan Medicinal Society (also known as The Green Remedy) which distributes medical marijuana to its prescribed members. Brizzi was seeking to open a dispensary in Lake Cowichan.

In a letter to the mayor prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Brizzi expressed frustration with his application being turned down by the town’s chief administrative office.

“I am looking to open a federally approved member-based operation that will help not only the medical marijuana patients of Lake Cowichan but also the town as a whole because of the reduction in illegal sales,” the letter states, adding the company only purchases its marijuana from federally regulated growers and would only sell to members over the age of 19.

“Since I am federally approved and have all necessary paperwork to operate, I feel forced against my will to open up without a business licence because of the town’s missing regulations.”

The letter also states that Brizzi’s company is working with the City of Victoria to open a dispensary there.

In a report to council, chief administrative officer Joseph Fernandez said the business’s prospective landlord claimed the town does not have the legal right to refuse a licence because the town’s bylaws do not specifically prohibit marijuana dispensaries.

However, Fernandez referred to the town’s zoning bylaw 935-2013 which states buildings and structures will only be used as specifically permitted in that bylaw or in the Local Government Act, and “unless a use is permitted, any other use is expressly prohibited.”

He told the finance and administrative committee that the town does not need to specifically list in its zoning bylaw every single building or land usage that is not permitted.

“There is no way you can list all the things that are not permitted,” he said.

While the City of Vancouver and the District of Squamish have begun regulating the retail sale of marijuana, the retailers are not operating legally. Medical marijuana is federally regulated and the only approved way of purchasing it (from approved distributors) is by registered mail. The City of Victoria is currently considering regulations to allow for storefront marijuana retailers, although, as with other jurisdictions that have done so, these retailers would be illegal but tolerated.

“The bottom line is until the feds change the regulations and allow for retail sales of medical marijuana it should not… be considered by council until such time,” said Fernandez.

Committee chairman Tim McGonigle said staff’s recommendation — that the town wait for further direction from Health Canada regarding retail sales of medical marijuana — was appropriate.

“Whether or not it’s a permitted use within our bylaws, I personally think that federal law supersedes bylaws when it comes to a controlled substance,” he said, adding that communities creating their own regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries are treading on shaky legal terrain.

McGonigle said any changes to the town’s position on business licences for medical marijuana dispensaries in Lake Cowichan will depend on developments from other levels of government.

“I think time will tell if it is decriminalized or legalized then there would be a process to look at whether that is allowable use within commercial zoning or whatever other zoning we so choose,” he said.

“That will be the decision of the [council] at the time, once that decision comes down from the federal government.”

Speaking with the Gazette via email, Brizzi said he was surprised by council’s decision but is “very optimistic” the people of Lake Cowichan will want a change to the town in the form of his business.

“I chose Lake Cowichan is because I believe that many citizens in Lake Cowichan do not have safe access to their choice of medication due to their geographic location,” he said, adding that his primary residence is also in the Cowichan Valley.

With regards to the statement in his letter to the mayor that he feels forced to open without a business licence, Brizzi said: “I do feel I have an obligation to the community to open, in order to help the qualified patients of Lake Cowichan.”

Brizzi said the current system forces patients to get their medicinal marijuana from unknown sources, which exposes them to unguided dosages and potentially contaminated medication.

“Staff’s recommendation to wait until Health Canada gives further direction is a good idea. However, while we sit back and wait for Health Canada to formalize a law, many people are being exposed to harmful substances by purchasing their medicine from unknown sources,” he said. “The sooner I am able to open my business, the sooner I will be able to start on my journey to help people.”