The Countdown Begins: Final Days for More Than 100 Vancouver Pot Shops

Six months after new rules kicked in, some dispensary operators say they're feeling discrimination from officials, real estate brokers and landlords.

by Sarah Berman
Apr 18 2016, 7:52pm

Goodbye weed vending machine? Photo by Aurora Tejeida

As the April 29 deadline draws nearer for more than 100 unlicensed pot shops to close in Vancouver, at least one dispensary operator has made it clear he's not going down without a fight.

"Of course we won't close—I won't close," said pot activist and Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary owner Dana Larsen. "They're going to have to drag me out of there kicking and screaming to get us to close."

Larsen is one of many in the industry unhappy with city councillor Kerry Jang's comments Sunday confirming only about a dozen shops out of 176 that applied for business licenses will be allowed to operate after April 29. Even businesses that have appealed will need to close their doors, Jang said.

"We anticipate some folks will protest, but we're pretty firm on that date," Jang added Monday. "We'll take any actions we need to. We'll start of nicely: 'Hey, the date's here, please close.' If they don't, we'll start looking at other enforcement action, and as I said it will escalate." Jang said the city is "not afraid" to seek court orders against Vancouver weed businesses.

"It's going to be really tough to shut down 100 places that don't want to shut down," Larsen said. "The city's not equipped to deal with civil disobedience like that. If they succeed and shut down all those dispensaries, all that means is they have 100 landlords with broken leases, a couple thousand people unemployed and those weed dealers will go right back to the street corners."

"We gave six months," Jang responded. "These guys figured they were going to be around forever—they took that chance."

Most dispensaries were rejected for being within 300 metres of schools, community centres or other weed dispensaries. Many, like Larsen, have a hearing coming up in front of the board of variance to make a case for why they should be allowed. Larsen says he has letters from his local MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert, doctors from St. Paul's hospital, and other neighbourhood supporters, but he still expects rejection on May 5. So far that board has only granted two exceptions.

As for the 69 shops that decided not to appeal, some say the six months of warning the city provided wasn't enough time to find a new location that abides by the new rules. Andrew Gordon, director of True Natural Healing Society on West Broadway, also says he's faced "discrimination" in finding a new space.

Gordon says some brokers have categorically denied him because he wants to run a pot shop, and others just won't return his calls. "I was on Spacelist every day for six months," he said of his storefront search. "For almost every site I either didn't get a callback or they said they wouldn't be working with us because we're a dispensary."

Gordon says he wants to comply with the city rules, but needs more time to deal with Vancouver's infamous real estate market. He says he's tried asking the city for a three to six-month extension in order to find a dispensary-positive landlord, but so far hasn't heard back.

"Right now it's just survival mode—I have three agents looking for me right now," he said. "At this point we'd take a shoebox, we're not picky."

VICE reached out to two of Vancouver's largest commercial real estate brokers to ask about their rules around leasing to dispensaries. Maury Debuque, Vancouver managing director of of Colliers International, said his company does not have a formal policy, and only acts on behalf of investors. "We don't own any buildings, we're an intermediary," he said.

Hendrik Zessel of Cushman & Wakefield did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

In the meantime, Vancouver's oldest-running dispensary will make their appeal, somewhat ironically, on April 20. Unlike Larsen, BC Compassion Club Society co-founder Hilary Black says she thinks the appeal board will let the 18-year-old Commercial Drive institution stick around.

"I'm very hopeful about this appeal, so for now we'll just trust the process in the city," she said.

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