The City of Port Alberni has some decisions to make about the transition from medical marijuana dispensaries to cannabis retail businesses, following a committee of the whole meeting that drew input from the public.
Most of the meeting on Monday, Nov. 19 involved discussions of location and distance between retail stores.
Bylaw services manager Flynn Scott and interim city planner Joe Calenda presented a report to council, recommending that cannabis retail businesses be permitted in four different commercial zones within the city: South Port, North Port, Johnston East and the Redford Commercial Area.
With Port Alberni’s current Business Licence Bylaw, medical marijuana dispensaries are not permitted within 1,000 metres of each other. However, Calenda said he is recommending that council do away with these separation distances for retail stores.
“We are not recommending any separation distances between cannabis retail stores,” he said. “I don’t know why we’d want to do that anyway. From our perspective as a land use, there’s really no difference between a cannabis retail store or a clothing store.”
He pointed out that although cannabis is a legally regulated and age restricted operation, the retail stores are otherwise the same as any other business.
Calenda did recommend a 300-metre distance from schools, after receiving a letter from School District 70 board chair Pam Craig. Calenda said the distance is for optics, rather than harm reduction.
“The students…have two feet and a heartbeat,” he said. “So if they want to go to the store, it doesn’t matter if it’s 300 metres away or 500 metres away or 1,000 metres away.”
Scott said that the province has established “enforcement units” for monitoring these retail establishments that will work with the local RCMP and bylaw services. “In terms of our own bylaw operations, it would be the same as any other business,” he said. “There’s conditions of your business licence and regulations in place that you need to abide by, and failure to do so will result in a suspension or a revocation of your business licence.”
Scott pointed out that each application sent to the city from the province will be on a case-by-case basis. Council will be able to approve or reject projects after consultation with the public, although the final decision is ultimately up to the province.
Residents of Port Alberni had mixed reactions to the recommendations to council. Charlene Patterson, who owns Char’s Landing on Argyle Street, argued that cannabis stores should be regulated like liquor stores.
“We could just copy those guidelines over to cannabis and start there,” she said. “We have the opportunity to start fresh. So we look at what’s working now in our city, and I believe what is working is how we are distributing alcohol.”
Shaun Standley, who owns Full of Beans Play Cafe, agreed that he would like to see the city follow the lead of BC Liquor, with a restriction for businesses located too close to one another.
“The idea of having your market share totally condensed doesn’t make sense from an economic development standpoint,” he said.
His wife, Rebecca Standley, also spoke up to express concern that a cannabis store opening near her business would discourage patrons, who are usually families and young children.
“I feel like not putting some kind of restrictions on the sale of cannabis would be really detrimental to a lot of the efforts that myself and other business owners in the area have made in the last several years,” she said. “The setback is not just optics. It’s optics that have an effect on where people go and where they’re willing to take their children.”
A few residents argued that cannabis retail stores should all be placed in one central location. Sam Brownlee pointed out that permitting the stores in one central spot makes enforcement much easier.
Some argued that a separation distance should be required to avoid an overabundance of competing businesses, while others said putting up separation distances would be restricting access to those who use cannabis for medical reasons.
Because Monday’s meeting was a committee of the whole, no decisions were made. Comments from the public will be passed on to a future meeting of council, before the city considers a change to bylaw regulations.