Vancouver’s Attempt to Sort Out the Pot Dispensary Bonanza is Causing Even More Confusion

The good times are over for now thanks to new laws.

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Feb 4 2016, 5:40pm


Just your average BC vending machines. All photos by the author

A high school student walking to and from Stratford Hall, a private school on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, walks past two pot dispensaries in the three blocks between the transit station and school. They could mistake one of the dispensaries, the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS), for a hippie health-food store. The other, the BC Pain Society, is pretty hard to miss though, thanks to the sandwich board out front: "Got Pot? Our Vending Machine Does!"

One business has been accused of bringing in a growing number of people who are wafting pot smoke across the playground of a preschool three doors down, while the other has given presentations on the pharmacological properties of medical cannabis to Grade 12 biology classes.

Samantha Gayfer, the community development manager at Stratford Hall, says the two dispensaries couldn't be more different in their presence in the community. Yet according to a new city zoning bylaw amendment, both will be shut down for being too close to schools unless they can convince an appeals board to let them stay.

"The BCCCS have been respectful neighbours," she says. "We don't find that their branding and marketing in the community is nearly as blatant as the BC Pain Society down the street."

Vancouver City Council brought in the new zoning restrictions last June to address the explosion of dispensaries without shutting them all down, and the new rules come into effect this month. There are now nearly 100 dispensaries open in the city, and it's not unusual to find multiple pot shops on a single block. In the near future, however, most of them will have to close. The new bylaw requires that dispensaries be at least 300 metres from schools, community centres, neighbourhood houses and one another.

There were no exceptions made for compassion clubs—which offer other services like nutritional counseling and subsidized bud—but the cost of a compassion club license is only $1,000 versus the $30,000 that for-profit shops will have to pay.

Just 14 of the 176 applications met the criteria in the new bylaw and can move along in the approval process. The dispensary with the sandwich board, the BC Pain Society, was not one of them, nor was the BC Compassion Club Society across the street. Both are appealing to the city's Board of Variance.

Chuck Varabioff is the owner of the BC Pain Society's two locations (one, on Broadway, did meet the criteria and is now going through the approval process). He says finding another location is not an option.

"I have a better chance of winning the Powerball in the States than finding a new location that fits the city's requirements," he says, and he's not far off. A look at a map of the city's schools and community centres shows that many prime areas are out of the question, and that's not even considering things like whether there is space to rent, or whether a property owner will rent to a dispensary. But his lottery metaphor fits in another sense, too: the owners of the dispensaries that are allowed to remain open will find themselves with an influx of new customers as the vast majority of their competitors are shut down.

If Varabioff is unsuccessful in keeping the location open, the 14,000 members he says use the dispensary would have to go elsewhere—like the compassion club across the street.

The BC Compassion Club Society dispensary is the oldest of its kind in Canada, and it smells like your weird aunt's house. It predates the private school whose presence would now shut it down.

"We don't think there's any case to make us move," says Jamie Shaw, who has been working at the compassion club for four years.

If the dispensaries win their appeals, they will start the next stage in the permit process, which means submitting more information and inviting comment from the public. But once that process is finished, they will exist legally as businesses in Vancouver (even if what the businesses do is still technically illegal under Canadian law).

"The upshot of all the bylaws is we created a regulatory structure where we said you can exist, and as long as you follow these rules nobody will touch you," says city councillor Kerry Jang. That's a valuable status for a business that has so far only existed in a legal gray area.

Dispensaries have been raided, shut down, and fined in the past in Vancouver, and all across Canada they exist in a state of uncertainty. Last month Good Weeds Lounge in Toronto was raided days after a VICE interview in which the owner, now arrested on trafficking charges, insisted that he had "complete confidence" in what he was doing.

Other Vancouver city councillors, however, criticize the one-size-fits all approach that city council took with the new zoning restrictions. In a statement released Friday, Councillor Melissa De Genova said things should stay the way they are while the federal government figures out what marijuana legalization will look like.

"I find it inconsistent and kind of hypocritical that Council has said no to ride-sharing services such as Uber, claiming that the Provincial government doesn't have any regulations in place yet, but Council is willing to say yes to marijuana businesses even though the federal government doesn't have new regulations in place yet," De Genova said.

There haven't been many hints as to what the new federal rules will be, or when legalization will take effect nationally. Pot has been de facto legal in Vancouver for years since the police said they would not devote resources to simple possession charges or shutting down dispensaries. The new federal laws, however, could mean an overhaul in how pot can be supplied or sold, which has longtime marijuana activist and compassion club owner Dana Larsen worried.

"We don't want to see a crackdown on small scale businesses or home growing," he says.

Follow Jimmy Thomson on Twitter.

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