Despite new objections from the federal government, Vancouver city council has decided to hold public hearings to refine a plan to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries, pressing ahead with new rules that could be in place by the fall.
As council voted 10-1 on Tuesday in favour of the hearings, the federal government released a letter from Health Minister Rona Ambrose and Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney asking councillors not to proceed with the plan because it could facilitate access to marijuana.
"Storefront sales of marijuana legitimize and normalize the use of marijuana and can have only one effect: increasing marijuana use and addiction," the letter said, adding that such an "irresponsible approach" sends a terrible message to youth and would make it easier for them to gain access to marijuana.
New rules would limit where dispensaries can be set up and would charge hefty licence fees.
Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Blaney said they are "deeply concerned" about council's plans.
The letter noted that the courts require the federal government to facilitate access to marijuana when authorized by a physician, but this must be done in a "controlled fashion." Last year, the government set up a network of commercial producers that distribute their product through the mail. "Storefront sales are illegal," the letter said.
The message echoed a letter Ms. Ambrose wrote to Mayor Gregor Robertson and her comments to reporters during a visit to the Lower Mainland on Friday.
But officials at city hall were unaware of the correspondence on Tuesday as council voted and in scrums with reporters afterward. Mr. Robertson earlier rejected Ms. Ambrose's calls to back off the plan. City manager Penny Ballem said she expected the hearings might begin by the end of May and that new regulations could be in place in October.
"Council was clear in referring it: They want a full discussion with the public involved," Dr. Ballem told reporters.
The proposed bylaw changes are in response to the rapid growth in the dispensaries. More than 80 are selling marijuana in the city, up from 20 in 2012. They have mostly operated without interference from the city or police.
Before the vote, councillors called for the hearings to deal with issues such as policing, public complaints, trends in certain neighbourhoods, the legal ramifications of issues raised in last week's letter from Ms. Ambrose and how to manage dispensaries that are near schools.
The current proposal, which was made public in a report released last week, would force dispensaries to be at least 300 metres from schools, community centres and other marijuana-related businesses. Dispensaries, including those currently in operation, would be required to pay $30,000 for a business licence.
Dana Larsen, director of the Vancouver Dispensary Society, said dispensaries in the city largely support regulation.
"We are glad the city is taking action. We want to be regulated and be safe knowing what the rules are and knowing that we're following them."
However, he said, there are issues with some proposals, and some dispensary owners are hoping for changes.
Mr. Larsen, also vice-president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, called the licensing fee "pretty excessive" compared to other such fees in Vancouver.
He also warned the proposed 300-metre buffer zone between dispensaries and similar operations, schools and community centres will force two thirds of Vancouver operations to close.