Tomorrow is moving day for unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver. Technically speaking, all of these storefront operations are illegal. In Canada, patients can only legally purchase medical marijuana through Health Canada's mail-order system. But last spring, Vancouver decided to license and regulate them instead of launching a citywide crackdown. Those who weren't approved were given six months to close, which expires today.
To find out what's happening on the ground, we reached out to Jamie Shaw - former President of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD), a group representing the "gray market" storefronts.
Here's what she had to say about the developing situation and what other cities can learn from Vancouver.
1. How many dispensaries are closing?
"I'm not really sure," Shaw said. "It sounds like it's close to 80 will be asked to close. But there is still an undefined number in the 'de-clustering process' right now that were approved to that point." The de-clustering process involves one store being forced to move to another location because it is too close to another dispensary. Once it relocates, the dispensary can re-apply for a license.
2. How many will stay open?
"It's almost impossible to say what the number of legal dispensaries will be. [City Councillor Kerry] Jang said 20-30....Right now, we're looking at 10-20, but it's hard to say as a lot of people are going through variance or de-clustering."
And that's not enough to cover the city's demand, Shaw says, so the black market could benefit from these closures. "In Vancouver, 30 dispensaries isn't enough unless Burnaby, Richmond, Surrey and other communities outside the city are also allowed to set up dispensaries:"
3. Will any defy the order to close?
Some dispensaries may stay open while they await the results of their appeal to the Vancouver's Board of Variance, which is handling challenges to the city's rulings on applications. "The CAMCD has been asking for some sort of concession made to those who are going through the process and following the rules so that they don't have to close for months in order to see if they're allowed to stay," says Shaw.
4. Why aren't they all complying?
Some are challenging the city's decision because of problems with zoning guidelines. "[They were] told they are too close to the community centre, but the centre isn't really a community centre," she says. "It's an office that runs a community centre. Others were told they are too close to schools, but the school isn't operating anymore. One of them is a school board building, and they used to have classes in there, but they don't anymore. Another was a francophone cultural centre that is an office for all the centres - they aren't one themselves, but they're listed as such."
"One of the things that's causing some problems is that the city used provincial data on where schools are and such, and those aren't always accurate." So many of them will hope to re-open in their present location instead of taking their chances on finding a new, approvable location. "Vancouver's already a tight real estate market. It will be tough for people to find a place that works for them to re-qualify in six months."
5. Will the city budge?
"[Municipal] staff are under pretty tight guidelines in terms of what they can and can't do. What we've been getting from the city is a soundbite saying, 'No, that's the date, that's the date, that's the date.' In terms of what the city will actually do, that's up in the air."
6. Will there be any protests?
"I know there's one place that's planning to stay open on the Saturday as [an act of] civil disobedience, and then they're closing," says Shaw. "I'm not sure if [they're] closing to move somewhere else, but they're closing on Saturday instead of Friday. We have heard that there will be other protests. I don't think that CAMCD is a part of that but I can't speak for CAMCD members."
7. When will the crackdown begin?
"It's hard to say. It's not going to be police though. It will be bylaw officers sending people letters and filing paperwork. It won't be the same as organizing a raid on 70 or 80 businesses. It will be a letter saying you were told to close and will be fined if you're not."
But those penalties are nothing to scoff at, Shaw says. "Those fines can go up to $10,000 per day. Getting fined could actually could be pretty crippling."
8. Has regulating caused the number of dispensaries to spike?
"There were reports of numbers surging out here, but it's been steady since the city decided to regulate," according to Shaw, who adds that crackdowns won't curb the illegal market for marijuana. "Closing dispensaries isn't solving the problem but moving it. That's the piece that I find has been missing from this conversation. The product is there. It's always been there. It's been funnelled through the dispensaries recently, but there's no shortage of product [across the country]."
9. Will federal regulations overturn municipal bylaws?
"That's certainly a possibility," Shaw concedes. "But they've been pretty clear that they will consult with provinces and municipalities...I think it will be more like alcohol, where the federal government sets certain production standards like importing and exporting laws, but provinces are the anchorage of distribution and how that works."
10. What can other cities learn from Vancouver?
"If you don't move to regulate quickly and early, you end up with too many businesses to regulate," Shaw says, noting that this problem has already happened in California. "San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland moved quickly to regulate dispensaries and they haven't had many issues. San Diego and L.A. tried to ignore and then raid them. And when they tried to move to regulations the business was too big to regulate effectively."
She added that the previous Conservative government was naive when it criticized Vancouver for regulating dispensaries instead of enforcing federal law. "The only thing [the government] could have done at that point was bring in the army, which is a bit of an overreaction," says Shaw.