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British Columbia B.C. cities vote to defy Ottawa’s stand on pot shops

Medical marijuana clone plants are shown at a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Calif., Feb.1, 2013.

Jeff Chiu/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Local governments in B.C. have declared they have the authority to license medical marijuana dispensaries, defying the federal government's opposition to regulation of the illegal stores.

Delegates at the Union of B.C. Municipalities convention voted in favour of a resolution endorsing the position that they have the power to regulate pot dispensaries. The resolution states that an ongoing court challenge of Ottawa's medical marijuana laws has created uncertainty while pot shops proliferate and cause problems in B.C.

Vancouver Councillor Heather Deal said the vote sends a strong message to Ottawa, which has not provided reasonable legal access to medical marijuana despite court rulings requiring them to do so.

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"We have to do it because they're not doing their job. They are continuing to be at odds with the federal courts," she said after the vote.

"That leaves cities in the untenable position of not being able to deal with a product that is legal, yet opposed by the federal government. We have to use the controls and the tools that we have."

Vancouver recently became the first city in Canada to approve regulation of its 100 marijuana shops, imposing a $30,000 licence fee and requiring the shops to locate no nearer than 300 metres from schools, community centres and each other. Victoria is considering similar rules.

Municipalities in B.C. have the power to regulate land use through bylaws, but the resolution marks a symbolic strike against the federal government's handling of medical pot.

Corisa Bell, a Maple Ridge councillor and president of the Lower Mainland Local Government Association – which brought the resolution – told the crowd of local politicians that something needed to be done to curb the proliferation of illegal stores.

"This rapid growth of unregulated businesses poses a significant risk to our youth, public health, and has an impact on our local economy," she said. "If, however, they are carefully managed and regulated, these businesses can play a role in improving the health conditions that affect numerous people."

Selling pot over the counter is illegal in Canada regardless of whether it's medical or recreational. Health Canada recently sent letters to 13 dispensaries threatening raids by the RCMP if they did not shut down, though the Mounties have not yet acted on those threats.

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Esquimalt Councillor Susan Low spoke against the resolution, saying Ottawa and the courts should regulate medical marijuana, not local governments.

"Medical marijuana is a health service. That's not part of local government's jurisdiction. I'd be very uncomfortable trying to do that. I'm not qualified to do that," she said after the vote.

"Right now, medical marijuana dispensaries are illegal, so in Esquimalt we won't be issuing business licences for them. We simply can't licence someone to do something that's illegal."

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