B.C. civic leaders heard conflicting views Monday on whether Vancouver's renegade approach to regulating marijuana retail stores – in defiance of federal government opposition – is legally defensible and a viable option for other communities.
Legal experts speaking to a forum on pot regulation at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention agreed the storefront sale of marijuana is illegal in Canada.
But municipal lawyer Francesca Marzari said Vancouver is within its rights to set and enforce civic standards for pot stores that aren't shut down by police, who in Vancouver don't consider them a policing priority as long as they don't sell to youth or have ties to organized crime.
Tonia Winchester, a former Seattle prosecutor who co-chaired Washington's successful legalization initiative, said Vancouver has been thrust into the position, as her state was, of searching for solutions in the absence of federal leadership as legal rights to medical marijuana expand and legalization advocates push the envelope.
"It's not clear cut that it's a federal question only," Winchester said.
"I do think there is room for municipalities to take action similar to what Vancouver has done and create regulation to support what's already happening in reality – which is there are retail stores springing up all over the place."
Vancouver has 120 dispensaries now and is currently considering applications for a total of 176, of which 75 are for non-profit compassion clubs.
Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang predicted 15 to 20 will ultimately be licensed.
The city's onerous multi-step approval process bans pot dispensaries within 300 metres of schools, community centres, daycares or each other.
The new licensing system also bans the sale of baked or edible marijuana goods, out of fear they could be consumed by children, even though a recent Supreme Court ruling made it legal to possess and make edibles for medical purposes.
Outlets that refuse a city order to close face fines of up to $10,000 a day.
Jang said advertising by Vancouver pot stores had become "crazy" with garish signage far beyond what any other business is permitted and scantily clad women and youth hired to promote pot products, including candy, on street corners.
The federal government has threatened to use the RCMP to close dispensaries if the City of Vancouver won't but Jang said he sees no reason to believe that will happen.
Winchester said Vancouver's approach could serve as a template for de facto legalization elsewhere but added it may be easier in cities policed by municipal forces rather than the RCMP.
She noted U.S. federal authorities have not cracked down on Washington's retail pot system even though marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
But franchise lawyer Tony Wilson cautioned Vancouver's system remains fraught with risks for both the city and others.
He said marijuana storefronts are breaking the law, regardless of whether they sell pot from illegal grow ops or from licensed medical producers, whose product can only be obtained by mail order.
That puts landlords at risk of their buildings being confiscated under civil forfeiture law, said Wilson, who suggested Vancouver's steep $30,000 licensing fee might even be seen as proceeds of crime, making the city a "conspirator in illegal drug trafficking."
Landlords who rent to weed merchants have also had difficulty obtaining insurance, sometimes for the entire building or strip mall, he added.
Washington State, which legalized recreational marijuana sales in a 2012 referendum, now has 250 licensed producers and 137 retail stores.
The state has taken in $64 million in tax on marijuana so far in 2015, Winchester said.
A recent change will allow Washington's medical marijuana patients to buy from the retail recreational pot stores as well. They also have the option of growing their own – each patient is allowed up to six plants.
Canada's federal government has tried to outlaw home growing by permitted medical marijuana patients, but it continues pending a court decision.
Other municipalities continue to grapple with where to allow new federally licensed medical marijuana producers, which are to sell only by mail order to doctor-approved patients.
Six such producers are already licensed in B.C., including Tilray in Nanaimo, whose application Winchester stickhandled.
Many more are proposed, including nine in Maple Ridge alone, and one on First Nations land near Penticton. Municipalities continue to worry they will unnecessarily industrialize good agricultural land.
The entire pot regulation landscape could shift again, some panelists suggested, if the federal Conservative government is toppled in the federal election.
A Supreme Court of Canada ruling this year found medical marijiuana does not have to be sold only in bud form. File photo.
Public health officer urges reform
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said he supports "sensible, objective fact-based" reform to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana, with tight enforcement to keep it out of the hands of youth and achieve other public health goals, including the funding of prevention, education and treatment programs.
"Under a prohibition regime, you can do very few of these things," he told a UBCM forum Monday, reiterating his past support for change.
Kendall asked if parents would rather see their 20-year-old buy cannabis, if they were going to use it anyway, from a regulated government monopoly, or from a corner dealer who may hand out pot laced with fentanyl.
"I think you need to get ahead of this," Kendall said, predicting the illicit marijuana market will otherwise continue to boom, without any safeguards for public health.