Vancouver’s pot shop boom drew steady stream of public complaints

From potent pot fumes to dispensaries opening a block from elementary schools, the City of Vancouver received a constant flow of feedback about the exploding number of illegal cannabis retailers from the concerned public and neighbouring businesses in the year and a half before it finally took action.

The city logged more than 200 pages of letters, e-mails and calls between January, 2014, and April of this year, as the number of dispensaries bloomed from roughly a dozen to more than 100, according to a Freedom of Information request filed by The Globe and Mail. Those concerns about the industry helped prompt Vancouver to become the first city to craft a bylaw this past June aimed at regulating and curtailing the illegal shops, which operate outside of federal drug laws.

Many of the complaints concerned how close the new stores were located to schools or child-care centres, and the advertising they used to attract new customers. Businesses complained that because dispensaries weren’t required to pay licensing fees to operate, an uneven playing field had been created. Other letters criticized the city’s police force for not shutting down the shops. Neighbours also grumbled about the overpowering smell of cannabis wafting into their own stores.

Councillor Kerry Jang, who was sent many of the complaints as the designated expert on the file for the governing Vision Vancouver, said public feedback about the haphazard shops wasn’t “too heavy” compared with other controversial issues such as certain condo developments or trash on the streets. But the “consistent” correspondence identifying the explosion of new locations operating near schools helped the city understand the public-health risks of inaction, he said.

“[The growth in dispensaries] really came out of nowhere on us,” Mr. Jang said. “It was just like ‘Bang!’ One day there were three or four and the next day there were 60, and then it went up to 100. Our staff were trying to keep count.”

The head of a group representing 13 buildings at the City Gate development, near Main Street and Terminal Avenue, e-mailed the city manager last January complaining that a money-lending business opened up a dispensary kiosk within its store in partnership with the Weeds chain.

Patsy McMillan’s complaint stated that the dispensary was “just steps, literally,” from a YWCA child-care centre and opened “without any community notification, information or input.” She added that a dispensary should not be selling cannabis in the area, because a “toxic mix” already exists where employees of two neighbouring temporary labour firms routinely cash their cheques at the end of each weekday and then buy and consume other street drugs outside the store.  “The [city] has said that they don’t issue [dispensary] licences as this is a grey area within the federal government,” Ms. McMillan wrote in an e-mail. “Does this mean someone could sell booze out of this site as well because it is a [provincial] mandate?”

Her e-mail continued: “I have to say as a reasonable person this seems ridiculous. Do you or do you not control what happens in Vancouver? Please let me know if you are as concerned about this as we are here in the rapidly deteriorating hood.”

In response to the e-mail, the manager of community services asked colleagues to contact the police about the store, as well as look into whether the city can deny building or development permits to these money-lending stores if they are close to schools and liquor stores. (The Weeds location inside the money-lending store shut down months ago

due to a contractual disagreement with the franchisee, according to chain owner Don Briere.)

Another concerned citizen called the city in January reporting nine new dispensary locations after being referred by the Vancouver Police Department, which told him they were not a priority for the force. Still, others complained of one shop offering free product to those who recruit new members. (“Isn’t this called trafficking?”)

In a response in January to a complaint from the head of the Marpole Business Association concerning a block with three new dispensaries, Mr. Jang explained the “quandary” the shops posed to the city because its police force did not have the resources to investigate the low-priority sales of an illegal drug regulated by the federal government.

“The city was able to create bylaws and business licence categories for body rub parlours, for example, because federal and provincial law governing body rub parlours exists and do [sic] not conflict with other laws,” Mr. Jang wrote. “This is not the case with cannabis dispensaries, as I have been advised.”

The city announced in October that of the 176 applicants, only 11 – six of whom want to open non-profit compassion clubs – had met the stringent 300-metre distancing rules meant to keep shops away from schools and community centres in a bid to limit young people’s exposure to the controversial storefronts.

City staff are still breaking up another 10 clusters of multiple shops too close to each other and will let one winning applicant from each of those groups move on to the next stage of permitting.

The city also gave a grace period of six months for all failed applicants to continue operating and try again with a different location.


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