The mayors of two of Vancouver Island's biggest cities are calling on the federal Liberal government to advise them what to do with the illegal pot shops cropping up in their communities and explain more of what the path to promised legalization could look like.
This week, Victoria city council will debate a pot-shop bylaw proposal similar to the one Vancouver passed in June, while Nanaimo's mayor is trying to ease tensions between operators of 10 dispensaries and the local RCMP detachment, which has threatened to raid the stores if they do not stop illegally trafficking cannabis by the end of this week.
Until now, most of Canada's illegal marijuana dispensaries have been in Vancouver, where police maintain they must give priority to the sale of heavier drugs, and civic politicians say they stepped in to fill a regulatory void that was left by a federal government unwilling to tackle the file. Experts predict dozens more could open across the country before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's pledge to legalize and regulate recreational sales becomes a reality, which could take two years or more.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps said the federal justice and health ministers need to provide guidance "as soon as possible" to communities that have dispensaries. Her council will vote on Thursday on whether to move ahead with a new zoning and business licensing bylaw or wait for Ottawa to weigh in on the storefront sales, which remain illegal under federal drug laws and operate outside the mail-order medical cannabis system that Health Canada regulates.
"It's purgatory, and that's why we have to use whatever tools we have, in this case a zoning bylaw, even in the midst of grey to try to draw some solid lines," Ms. Helps said on Tuesday.
"Otherwise, the municipalities are going to have to deal with this issue when we already have parks and infrastructure and sewage and bridges."
Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould was unavailable for comment on Tuesday, and so far has not said what legal pot sales could look like. Minister of Health Jane Philpott has said very little about the future of marijuana regulation. The Liberals have said their first step will be to create a provincial, territorial and federal task force to engage experts on best policy.
Nanaimo Mayor Bill McKay said he finds the issue "so bizarre" given the anti-pot messaging from the former Conservative federal government.
"The previous health minister was very vocal in her opposition to what Victoria and Vancouver were doing," Mr. McKay said. "I'd like to find out from the current Health Minister as to whether she echoes that view of her predecessor."
If Ottawa allows dispensaries to sell marijuana, Ms. Helps said she hopes the federal government will let cities have input about where they can operate, including shops with bricks-and-mortar locations.
Under the rules recommended by city staff, the Victoria bylaw would make sure each cannabis shop is at least 200 metres from any schools or other stores selling marijuana or paraphernalia such as bongs. Staff also proposed a ban on edible cannabis products, like pot brownies, and recommended that all dispensaries pay a business licence fee of $4,000 to $5,000 to cover the cost of enforcement. That is considerably lower than the $30,000 fee facing for-profit pot shops in Vancouver.
Alex Robb, a spokesman for the Trees dispensary chain, which has two stores in Victoria and one in Nanaimo, said business people in his "as-yet-unregulated" sector must learn to work well with city councils and police forces because "they all have different priorities."
Mr. Robb said the Nanaimo Trees location will suspend sales on Friday for one day to show respect to the local RCMP detachment, which has told the city's pot shops they must shut down or they could face arrests and seizures starting that day. Mr. McKay said he was impressed by a coalition of the city's dispensaries that presented council with a proposal this week to self-regulate the quality and sale of their cannabis. He said he has no control over the actions or priorities of the Mounties in Nanaimo, but hopes to meet with the RCMP this week to discuss the dispensaries.
Meanwhile, Port Alberni city council voted last week to allow a controversial dispensary to stay open and have staff make recommendations on how to zone and regulate such businesses.