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Vancouver pot shops not far enough away from kids, school trustee says

Vancouver's school board asked city council last June to force licensed marijuana dispensaries to keep 500 metres away from any school, but the new bylaw created a buffer zone of 300 metres.

Gosia Wozniacka/AP Photo

Vancouver's pot-shop bylaw doesn't keep storefront cannabis sales far enough away from students, a school board trustee says, and he's urging the city once again to toughen the licensing provisions.

The board asked city council last June to force licensed dispensaries to keep 500 metres away from any school, but the new bylaw created a buffer zone of 300 metres. Now trustee Fraser Ballantyne said he has drafted a new motion asking for an increase to this limit after hearing again from a local resident and business owner.

"He said, 'C'mon, help me out. These are your kids, they're walking by these stores every single day,' and there doesn't seem to be any congruence here," Mr. Ballantyne said of the letter he received from the owner of a martial arts studio.

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But Councillor Kerry Jang, the lead on the marijuana file for ruling party Vision Vancouver, called Mr. Ballantyne's motion "a bit of political grandstanding," and said the city will stick to its existing limit, which was approved by experts at Vancouver Coastal Health and the provincial health officer.

"We have a number of applications in process now and we'll see how 300 metres works out. If it doesn't, then we're willing to reopen [the discussion]," he said Monday.

He said the 300-metre rule exists for liquor stores and methadone-dispensing pharmacies, and could be used by the city to regulate whatever form of recreational marijuana sales the federal Liberal government eventually legalizes.

Another part of Mr. Ballantyne's motion asks the city to allow senior school board staff to "participate directly" in the development permit review process for these pot shops.

Mr. Jang said the school board can best offer its input by contributing to the public consultation phase that each applicant must go through.Of the initial 14 applications that have met the city's distance requirements and passed onto the next stage in the licensing process, two appear to be within 500 metres of a school.

David Malmo-Levine, a long-time cannabis advocate and owner of one of those dispensaries, said Mr. Ballantyne's proposed amendment would further stigmatize use of a drug that is not inherently harmful to teens.

"The problem isn't with large use rates, the problem is with abuse rates – and abuse can be addressed with legalization, regulation, education and teaching people how to use this stuff properly," he said.

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Benedikt Fischer, a senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said there is no evidence that enlarging buffer zones will do anything to affect the rates of marijuana use among teens.

"Probably for most of the kids who are intent on getting marijuana, those [extra] 200 metres will not be a discernible distance," said Dr. Fischer, whose organization released a framework for legalizing the drug last year. "Most of the marginal benefit from creating a distance is achieved by the 300-metre [rule], because it's out of sight [from school grounds]."

Dr. Fischer said exaggerating pot's risks or keeping it illegal only serves to make the drug more interesting to younger people. "What we need to do first and foremost is honest, straightforward education," he said.

The school board had asked the city to kick back a portion of the fees paid for the new licences, but Mr. Jang said those fees will only go toward the cost of creating the new regulatory regime and inspecting the dispensaries for compliance. The board can access more funds for youth addiction services through available social development grants, he added.

The storefront sale of cannabis products is illegal because these dispensaries procure and sell their products outside Health Canada's licensed medical-marijuana system, which was overhauled in 2014 and now allows about 20 industrial-scale growers to mail their products directly to patients who have a doctor's prescription.

Liberal MP Bill Blair, a former Toronto police chief who is tapped to oversee legalization, has said he wants strict controls on the distribution of recreational pot, and B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake is not in favour of the dispensaries, which began surging several years ago in Vancouver and are now taking hold in Toronto.

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About the Author
News reporter

Mike Hager is a general assignment reporter at the newspaper’s B.C. bureau. He grew up in Vancouver and graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Huron College and Langara College. Before joining The Globe and Mail, he spent three years working for The Vancouver Sun. More

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