Cities debate marijuana dispensary authority

Not all are ready to follow Vancouver, Victoria in defying federal law to manage purportedly medical pot stores

'Bongy' promotes a head shop in Esquimalt

With medical marijuana dispensaries continuing to open in defiance of federal law, more B.C. communities have joined the call for local authority to regulate what are often little more than retail pot stores.

Lower Mainland communities found majority support at last week’s Union of B.C. Municipalities convention to bypass legal wrangling over medical marijuana access, as a court challenge continues against the Conservative government’s strict controls on growing and selling it legally.

Maple Ridge Coun. Corisa Bell said other cities are facing the same issues as Vancouver, where about 100 dispensaries have opened in a free-for all with street-level marketing to young people. Vancouver ignored instructions from federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose to use authorized sources of medical marijuana, and adopted a licensing system last spring to keep pot shops away from schools, community centres and each other.

Vancouver set a licence fee of $30,000 for dispensaries and $1,000 for non-profit “compassion clubs,” with Victoria preparing to follow suit. But other communities don’t have the same revolutionary zeal.

Esquimalt Coun. Susan Low, whose community banned the pipe-headed mascot “Bongy” from hawking wares of a marijuana paraphernalia store in 2013, said she isn’t qualified to regulate medical pot. The Lower Mainland proposal also doesn’t prevent a patchwork of different rules in adjoining communities, Low said.

Coquitlam Mayor Richard Stewart said the latest resolution seems intended to stick to municipal authority over location and zoning, but it doesn’t say so explicitly, and the UBCM loses credibility when it wanders outside its mandate.

Port Alberni Coun. Jack McLeman said he supports the two-year-old UBCM endorsement of legalizing pot, although his drug of choice for pain is Scotch whisky. He said his council has been approached about medical dispensaries, and invited applications, but no one followed through.

“Just legalize the junk,” McLeman said. “Don’t tell me it’s your aspirin.”

Maple Ridge Coun. Craig Speirs drew laughter from delegates when he said there was “some consternation” when his city’s first dispensary opened, “but it’s proved to have a calming effect on the neighbourhood.”

The motion to support municipal control over pot stores passed in a show of hands, with about one third of those attending opposed.