Editorial: City leads way on pot shops

With marijuana shops outnumbering Starbucks locations by a healthy margin, the City of Victoria is trying to bring some order to an industry that is exploding. With no federal hand on the wheel, the city has no choice but to take the helm.

About 18 months ago, Victoria had four marijuana-related businesses. The current estimate is 30, including about 26 storefront marijuana retailers.

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Leaving aside the Alice-in-Wonderland aspect of illegal shops springing up unimpeded on every corner, the city has to show leadership, since no other level of government is doing so.

The city proposes a string of regulations that would control the effects of medical-marijuana businesses on the community, while maintaining access to medical marijuana.

The suggested regulations include an annual licence fee of $4,000 to $5,000, a ban on anyone younger than 19 being in the stores, a requirement that health-warning signs be posted, a ban on consumption on site, specific security measures and a prohibition on marijuana shops conducting any other kind of business on the premises. Shops would have to be at least 200 metres from similar stores and from schools.

It’s a long list that will leave some operators squirming, but the city has to get this Wild West situation under control. As Mayor Lisa Helps points out: “Many are operating without business licences, and it’s not fair for other businesses.”

As far as Helps is concerned, the city should go even further and require all dispensaries, including the existing ones, to go through a rezoning process. Rezoning is expensive, time-consuming and includes consultation with local land-use committees.

Her hope is that such an onerous process will winnow out some of the shops. It’s a good idea because operators will have to prove they are serious about working with the city and the community.

In the absence of federal intervention, cities across Canada are dealing with similar problems. Vancouver had 176 licence applications from dispensaries and approved only 11 of them. One of its tactics was to charge compassion clubs $1,000 for a licence while billing for-profit shops $30,000.

Victoria doesn’t see any benefit to a two-tier system, although it certainly seems like an effective way to limit the numbers. In addition, Victoria’s licence fees have to recover costs, and can’t tack on extra amounts just for the heck of it.

The city wants to hear from residents about the proposals, with online comments at victoria.ca and an open house at city hall from 6 to 7 p.m. on Feb. 22, followed by a town-hall meeting.

Helps said she doesn’t want it to turn into a wide-open discussion on marijuana. She might be dreaming.

As Esquimalt council discovered with its public hearings on a minor variance for a proposed sewage plant, public meetings can take on a life of their own. It will take a strong person in the chair to limit the discussion.

However, with thoughtful input from residents and business owners, the city can craft regulations to put reasonable limits on the industry.

As it stands, if you open a marijuana dispensary in Victoria, the city has nothing to say about it, but if you try to sell balloon animals on a downtown street without a busker’s licence, you’ll get a ticket.

That just doesn’t make sense.

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