The Vancouver Cannabis Culture dispensary chain sent out 50 pink slips to the employees of its three outlets in the first week of January 2019 and announced closure by the end of the month. This may be a sign of things to come for the city's more than 25 other medical marijuana dispensaries in the weeks ahead.
A December 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of British Columbia gave the city of Vancouver the right to enforce a series of strict bylaws the city enacted in 2015 governing cannabis businesses.
“The Supreme Court decision in December has empowered the city to do things that haven't been done before,” said Dana Larsen, director of Sensible B.C., a pro-cannabis advocacy group that was a driving force behind Canada's nationwide legalization efforts.
The Cannabis Culture chain of dispensaries, which have been in operation for more than two decades, decided to close to avoid the risk of arrest and jail time, according to an Instagram post by Jody Emery aka “The Princess of Pot,” co-owner of Cannabis Culture.
That leaves at least 25 other Vancouver medical dispensaries in limbo, expecting a city crackdown by the end of January 2019.
“It's certainly possible that on January 31 something may happen and they will shut us down. But what they have been doing is putting pressure that we close on our own,” Larsen told Weedmaps News. He also owns The Dispensary, a nonprofit, membership-supported medical dispensary serving Vancouver since 2008.
Vancouver passed a four-part series of bylaws in 2015 that includes not only hefty licensing fees, but also restrictions that many dispensaries simply can't comply with, including location-specific zoning regulations, such as maintaining a distance of 300 meters (984 feet) from schools and community centers. That's twice as much as that required for liquor stores.
“My location is the third-oldest in the city. The problem is that it is in an industrial area and the bylaws say that you can't operate in an industrial area, only commercial,” Larsen said.
The city bylaws also ban edibles outright, a measure so unpopular that only 10 percent of Vancouver residents supported it in a 2016 poll, Larsen opined in a piece published on Huffington Post Canada that year.
When the operating medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver challenged the city's enforcement of its restrictive bylaws, they lost in Supreme Court. Immediately afterward, the city announced it would be shutting down dispensaries that did not comply.
“This decision reaffirms the city's authority over land use and our municipal business licensing for cannabis retail, and confirms the regulatory regime introduced in 2015 was well within the city's jurisdiction to establish,” said Vancouver City General Manager Kaye Krishna following the British Columbia Supreme Court decision, according to the Vancouver Sun.
“It also signals that any cannabis retail store operating outside city regulations can and will be enforced against using all the tools at the city's disposal to the fullest extent moving forward,” Krishna added.
Vancouver has been ground zero for Canada's cannabis movement since the 1970s when pro-marijuana “smoke-ins” like the Gastown riot filled the historic city center with protestors condemning police raids and undercover operations on cannabis users. While tensions remained high for the next two decades, in the 1990s Vancouver's cannabis activists began opening cannabis cafes and smoke shops on a rundown block of downtown's Robson Street, soon to be known as “Vansterdam,” where consumption, like in Amsterdam, was technically decriminalized. Cannabis Culture, also a magazine, website and television channel (Pot TV) dates back to that era. In 2001 the national Marijuana for Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) act opened the door to legal medical dispensaries and collectives across Canada. By the time Vancouver passed its bylaws in 2015 to attempt regulating cannabis outlets, there were more than 100 operating throughout the city.
Larsen, a veteran of the Vancouver cannabis movement and a former editor of Cannabis Culture Magazine, said he and several other dispensaries will not be following the Cannabis Culture dispensaries lead and closing down, but instead will remain open despite city threats. They are also actively seeking a legal stay that would give them more time to comply and challenge the December ruling.
Complicating matters, Vancouver's three newly legal cannabis shops — Evergreen Cannabis Society and two locations of City Cannabis Co. — must buy their product directly from the government and can no longer buy from growers, which will cause “sticker shock” to clients according to the Vancouver Sun. These new legal shops are also licensed to operate as recreational outlets only and are prohibited from giving medical advice or selling products for medicinal use — an apparent oversight in lawmaking.
“The decision that came back from the Supreme Court did not include the medical question. So we have appealed that decision to the British Columbia Appeals Court, asking them to look at the decision and asking them to put a stay on the injunctions,” Larsen said. He also is circulating an online petition that urges Vancouver residents to call the city council and mayor and ask them to “Save Vancouver's Dispensaries.”
“If you go into these shops and ask about medical they are not allowed to tell you anything,” Larsen said, emphasizing that edibles and extracts, which are the main form of medical delivery for many patients with serious conditions, are completely banned and unavailable.
“Even if we complied with the bylaws, we would have to turn away many long-standing members,” Larsen explained. “We have got thousands of patients that rely on us for medical products, but most of the products they need are not legalized yet.”
The affected cannabis dispensaries in Vancouver that want to continue serving their clients will need a fast decision from the Appeals Court to stay in operation.
“We have about two or three weeks to get that decision,” Larsen said, “and we can put a stay on these injunctions.”