Victoria likely to follow Vancouver's lead on marijuana

Victoria likely will follow Vancouver’s lead this fall by regulating illegal marijuana dispensaries, Mayor Lisa Helps said Wednesday.

“Council has already said it would be good for Victoria to take a similar approach and now we have Vancouver’s concrete leadership. So now our staff’s job is easier,” Helps said. “I think it is important to be in concert and solidarity as we move forward on this really complex issue.”

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Vancouver became  the first city in Canada to regulate marijuana dispensaries in what Mayor Gregor Robertson called a common-sense approach after the federal government’s failure to provide proper policies.

“We’re faced with a tough situation, a complicated situation,” Robertson  said Wednesday after councillors voted 8-3 to impose new regulations.

“We have this proliferation of dispensaries that must be dealt with,” he said.

Like Vancouver, Victoria has witnessing a growth spurt in marijuana-related businesses with shops budding up all over the city.

In May, Victoria council directed staff  to develop new regulations for the shops, patterning  their approach after Vancouver. At the time, staff estimated there were 18 marijuana-related businesses operating in the city. It has since grown to 19.

Vancouver  has blamed Ottawa’s restrictive medical marijuana laws for the rise of pot dispensaries in Vancouver — to 94 from fewer than 20 just three years ago.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose had sent strongly worded letters to the city and police warning against the plan. She said Wednesday she was “deeply disappointed” with the decision.

“Marijuana is neither an approved drug nor medicine in Canada and Health Canada does not endorse its use,” she said in a statement. “Storefronts selling marijuana are illegal and under this Conservative government will remain illegal. We expect the police to enforce the law.”

Helps said police have tried to enforce existing laws, but the cases repeatedly get thrown out in court. “So the police can do all the arresting and enforcing they want, but the courts don’t lay charges because it is very difficult to determine who is doing the ‘dealing.’ Is it the owner? Is it the 21-year-old employee? So that is the fundamental challenge that the minister of health and the minister of justice and the court system are going to have to grapple with together,” Helps said.

 Helps said it’s better for Victoria and Vancouver to take a united stand.

“We’re going to have to sort this out with the federal government. I think it’s a more cohesive approach if we say: ‘Look, these are the things we are doing as cities and having a united voice with the federal government rather than each city taking its own approach,” she said.

Vancouver’s  new rules mean dispensaries must pay a $30,000 licensing fee, be located 300 metres from schools, community centres and each other, and some shops will be banned from certain areas.

Vancouver council also voted to create a two-tiered licensing system, allowing compassion clubs to pay a fee of just $1,000. To qualify as a compassion club, one must be a registered non-profit, serve members and provide a minimum level of other health services such as massage therapy or acupuncture, as well as be a member of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.

Helps said she supports a two-tiered approach. “There have been, I think, compassion clubs in Victoria that have been providing medicine to people for some time now in a very careful and caring way.

They are not in it to make money. They’re in it to provide medicine and they have been very strong advocates and very good community members. So I fully support a two-tiered program in Victoria.”

Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang said the clubs provide other services such as nutritional and psychological counselling and help people transition from marijuana to other medicine if possible. He suggested the clubs could funnel the money saved from paying a lower fee towards the creation of addiction programs.

Coun. Geoff Meggs told council that medical marijuana was not an issue that the city wanted to take up, but one they were forced to handle because of Ottawa’s “backwards” policies.

The councillor had strong words for Ambrose.

“Wake up. You are completely out of touch with the realities on the ground,” Meggs said.

Jamie Shaw of B.C. Compassion Club Society, Vancouver’s oldest dispensary — and one which would be forced to relocate under new rules — called the new regulations a “historic move.”

Helps said Victoria staff are expected to report back in September and that the public will have an opportunity to weigh in on the new regulations.

Vancouver council’s decision comes after four days of pusblic hearings in which many complained about a proposed ban on edible products such as brownies and cookies. But the city held firm, arguing the treats appeal to children and it is difficult to control their contents.

— with a file from The Canadian Press

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