VANCOUVER – Vancouver’s crackdown on unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries has begun, with bylaw inspectors issuing 44 tickets to date and confirming that 22 stores have already closed.
But many owners are refusing to shut their doors and are mulling legal action, while others are refocusing their business efforts on cities without regulations including Toronto.
“It’s absurd that these businesses that have laid the groundwork for access and legalization are being punished and shut down when they do no harm,” said cannabis activist Jodie Emery.
“A lot of Vancouver dispensary owners in the last year have set up plans to move to other jurisdictions like Toronto because the regulations here are too restrictive.”
Vancouver became the first city in Canada to develop regulations for medical marijuana businesses last year. Dozens of stores have opened in Toronto in the past few months alone.
But Vancouver refused to grant licences to 140 stores that violated certain rules including being too close to schools. Seven businesses have been issued permits and 13 applications are under review.
Bylaw inspectors began heavily enforcing the rules on Saturday. Twenty-three stores were ticketed over the weekend, bringing the total number of tickets issued so far to 44.
Andreea Toma, the city’s chief licensing inspector, said in an interview on Monday that stores that continue to operate without a licence will face a $250 fine for every day they stay open.
Staff will continue enforcement this week while compiling the necessary information to take legal action against locations that flout city rules, she said.
The city’s legal options include bylaw prosecutions that can result in a $10,000 fine or seeking court injunctions to order dispensaries to close, Toma said.
“These are the tools that we have. We’re not coming up with anything new,” she said. “We’re being fair and consistent. This is what we do with all other businesses.”
Some dispensary operators are considering lawsuits to challenge what they say are overly restrictive and unfair regulations.
“Everybody’s talking about litigation,” said Don Briere, owner of the Weeds Glass and Gifts chain. “It’s going to be costly and of course the taxpayer is footing the bill.”
Briere said he had spoken with lawyers and was considering a suit alleging discrimination, because many of his sick and elderly customers will now be forced to travel to get their medicine.
He said five of his six stores were ticketed on Saturday and he plans to dispute the fines.
Chuck Varabioff of the B.C. Pain Society filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court for a judicial review of a Board of Variance decision to deny his appeal to keep his location on Commercial Drive open.
The store was shut down because it was within 300 metres of a school, but Vancouver’s oldest dispensary, the B.C. Compassion Club, is also near the school and was allowed to stay open.
Varabioff said he supports regulating dispensaries, but feels the Board of Variance did not give him a fair appeal and he is refusing to pay the ticket he received on Saturday “in protest.”
“Vancouver was kind of the role model for the entire world for licensing dispensaries, and they have now taken 100 steps backwards,” he said.
Some dispensaries are complying with the regulations. Eden Medicinal Society posted on Facebook that three of its locations were closing and referred customers to its West 10th Avenue location as well as a store “coming soon” on Kingsway.
“This is a turbulent time for dispensaries in Vancouver. Always know that Eden is committed to its patients and we will continue to be chameleons with these new city regulations,” the post said.