Canada: Municipalities Grapple With Regulating Legalized Marijuana

Photo Credit: RICHARD LAM

Local governments are next at bat as the complicated process of regulating the sale of recreational cannabis continues ahead of federal legalization later this year.

On Thursday, the provincial government introduced three bills that will amend different B.C. laws and essentially hand municipalities “control of their own destinies,” in the words of one Metro Vancouver mayor.

Local governments across B.C. must now determine if — and if so, where — they will allow marijuana dispensaries in their communities.

“We’re quite happy with the legislation as it gives local governments the power to say yea or nay (to dispensaries),” said Delta Mayor Lois Jackson.

Delta, which won a court injunction to remove an illegal dispensary in 2016, plans to seek public opinions on the issue before determining its approach. But Jackson said she has major concerns about the use of cannabis and the cost of regulating it.

Cost is also a concern in neighboring Surrey, which has already been working on legalization, said Coun. Mike Starchuk.

A delegation recently took a “canna-bus” tour of Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and Denver to look at best practices. Each city has different laws around advertising, buffer zones and the number of licenses available, Starchuk said. Surrey plans to use what it learned to determine where dispensaries will be allowed and how the city will inspect and monitor them.

“After the tours, I have a little less heartburn about the regulation aspect and a little more heartburn about the dollar value,” said Starchuk.

It is unclear if municipalities will get a share of tax revenue from pot shops in their communities. A statement from the Ministry of Public Safety said legalizing cannabis is not expected to generate “significant revenue” in the first few years. There will also be significant costs associated with setting up the provincial regulatory framework.

The provincial government does not plan to cap the number of licenses issued to each community, leaving that up to local governments to decide.

“Some local governments or Indigenous nations may choose not to allow retail cannabis stores, while others may choose to limit the number and location of stores that are permitted to operate within their jurisdiction,” said the statement.

The B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch will have control of the supply of legal cannabis and plans to sell it from government-run stores and wholesale it to licensed private retailers, as it does with alcohol. Anyone over the age of 19 will be able to purchase and possess up to 30 grams of cannabis and smoke it anywhere tobacco can be used, except beaches, parks and playgrounds.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said his council is opposed to legalization “as a concept,” but he wanted to wait until staff has studied the issue before speculating on how Richmond will deal with legalization.

“I’m sure council will have a discussion, and there will be different views put forward,” he said. “My thinking is that there is no rush. Let’s take our time and make the right decisions.”

As Richmond currently bans dispensaries, council will begin with the “fundamental question of whether to allow them at all,” the mayor added.

White Rock council has expressed similar apprehensions about allowing pot shops, hitting the “pause button” on debate earlier this year with a zoning amendment to block cannabis retailers from setting up before legalization.

Staff are reviewing the legislation and a community forum is planned for early May, said an official. After a round of public discussions, staff will make a recommendation to council.

Other municipalities are taking a more liberal approach.

New Westminster council has signaled it will allow dispensaries, with Mayor Jonathan Cote telling Business in Vancouver in November that “cannabis will be part of our retail distribution.”

In 2015, Vancouver began licensing illegal marijuana dispensaries, a move that may make it more difficult to regulate existing shops once the provincial and federal legislative framework for legalization is fully known.

“I don’t fault Vancouver for doing it that way, but I expect they’ll hear from a litany of people who don’t want to change how they’ve been operating when legalization occurs,” said Starchuk.

Apart from a handful of B.C. municipalities that license illegal dispensaries, most communities are starting with a clean slate.

City of Langley Mayor Ted Schaffer said council is awaiting information from staff before making any decisions on what it will allow in his community.

“As a council we have not had any discussions on the matter,” he said.

Chilliwack council has not discussed its plans for regulating retail sales, preferring to wait until legalization to discuss the various options, said a spokesperson.

Mayor Sharon Gaetz was on vacation Friday, but in the past she has warned the process will take time.

“As communities we are all in the same boat, listening for what our neighbors will decide to do,” she told the Chilliwack Progress in February.

Abbotsford is in the process of reviewing its bylaws. Once more is known, council will review the city’s land-use regulations and business licensing options, said a spokesperson.