Pot Alberni: breaking ground or breaking rules?

Port Alberni becomes second city in Canada to regulate marijuana.

The City of Port Alberni has chosen to regulated medical marijuana dispensaries.

The number of marijuana dispensaries in Port Alberni has increased to seven since Justin Trudeau was sworn in as prime minister last November.

Trudeau was elected, in part, on a promise to legalize marijuana.

“We will legalize, regulate, and restrict access to marijuana,” reads the platform of the Liberal Party of Canada—though no details are given about what speed this legalization might occur.

For marijuana dispensaries in Port Alberni however, it doesn’t seem to have mattered.

It took mere days after Trudeau’s win for WeeMedical to open its doors on Third Avenue.

“The writing’s on the wall… the Liberals are in, it’s being legalized,” operator Justin Liu said at the time.

As of today, Liu, has received one warning letter from the Port Alberni RCMP informing him that “if your illegal business practices do not cease, I will consider taking action in the future which may include your business being subject to search and seizure of offence related evidence and persons associated with your business being subject to charges related to contraventions of the CDSA (Controlled Drugs and Substances Act) for unlawful possession of cannabis marijuana, for possession of cannabis marijuana for the purpose of trafficking and for trafficking cannabis marijuana.”

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But as of yet, the Liberal government hasn’t come forward with a plan, a timeline or a strategy.

According to the Canadian Press, a briefing note for Trudeau that they obtained via an Access to Information request states that not only will the federal government have to negotiate with the province in order to legalize marijuana, Canada will have to negotiate internationally as well.

Currently, Canadian Press reported, Canada is a signatory to three international conventions that require “the criminalization of possession and production of cannabis.”

In an interview with Canadian Press, Errol Mendes, a constitutional and international law expert at the University of Ottawa, said that while the international conventions make legalization difficult, they don’t make it impossible.

“There’s no international treaty where you cannot make reservations,” Mendes told the Canadian Press.

“The problem is the government having to explain why it’s doing it, why it feels it has to do it…”

But while the federal government works on delivering its platform promise, municipalities are left to grapple with dispensaries popping up in their storefronts. And given this is a federal issue, there doesn’t seem much that municipalities can do.

Currently, selling marijuana—whether medical or recreational—is illegal under Canadian law, said Port Alberni RCMP Inspector Mac Richards.

Despite this, the City of Port Alberni voted to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries at its Jan. 25 meeting.

It wasn’t an unanimous decision. Throughout the three months that city council debated the issue, it was split between Mayor Mike Ruttan and Coun. Denis Sauve on the ‘no’ side and the rest of council on the ‘yes’ side.

“When I made an oath to this office, I made sure that I follow certain ethics to protect the community.

“The fact is that you’re asking the city to regulate an illegal activity­—I’m not going to support letting this dispensary operate illegally,” said Sauve, a retired RCMP officer.

“I have consistently not voted in favour because I do not believe that it’s the right thing for us to do,” Ruttan said mid-January.

He added that he believed it was “unfair” for the federal government to have downloaded it onto municipalities—but that he was committed to upholding council’s decision.

“But it doesn’t matter—this is what council has voted for and I believe that council’s position is fairly clear. It is this council’s best attempt to control the uncontrollable.”

Coun. Sharie Minions, though she voted for regulations, agreed.

“It shouldn’t be on the municipal agenda but it is a problem in our community. If we wait it will probably just get worse and worse and worse by the time the federal government does something about it,” she said.

Couns. Jack McLeman voiced approval over the city acting proactively on the issue.

“Other towns have had marijuana dispensaries open up and they’re getting themselves way behind the eight ball trying to catch up,” McLeman said.

“I would like to see Port Alberni be proactive and control if they become legal where they are and if they’re not legal, get rid of them in the end.”

Port Alberni became the second city in the country to implement marijuana dispensary regulations.

Vancouver was the first city in Canada to regulate marijuana when it passed bylaws spelling out the requirements for opening up either a medical marijuana dispensary or a compassion club.

The latter of the two requires a non-profit licence from the province and both require a business licence—$30,000 for dispensaries and $1,000 for compassion clubs.

The regulations imposed in Vancouver and Port Alberni are similar: either 300 metres or 1,000 m from schools and other dispensaries and only in certain commercial zones.

However, both cities have regulations that perplex Aaron Brevick, a Port Alberni native who recently returned from Fort St. John and opened a medical dispensary on Athol Street.

“My concerns basically went unheard [by city council],” said Brevick.

“For me, I’ve always been told ‘we don’t care if you smoke pot but don’t leave it out, don’t have a bong sitting around when people come to your house.”

He’d prefer a more discreet approach.

“I’m not a big fan of the open glass storefront policy that’s being mandated. I believe that people should have the choice of privacy,” said Brevick.

“Just being open a week, I’ve had so many people express gratitude for having a place that is quiet.”

Brevick isn’t happy with how short the time was between the 5 p.m. Jan. 25 public hearing and the 7 p.m. council meeting where the regulations were approved.

“They moved ahead with it so fast with only 10 minutes between meetings. That to me says that they did not consider any public input.”

While time between meetings was short, marijuana dispensaries have been discussed by either the public, staff or council at all six council meetings since the first dispensary opened its doors in Port Alberni.

Brevick remains unconvinced that due process was given.

“They never should have done this,” said Brevick but admitted that it is dispensaries like his that have put municipalities across the country in the position that they are.

The City of Saskatoon considered regulation at a Feb. 8 committee meeting. A staff report stated that federal and provincial governments would have to approve business licences for a medical marijuana dispensary.

The City of Victoria is also considering regulations and currently collecting public input from residents.

It’s unclear what role the province will play in the marijuana debate. In October, Premier Christy Clark said she’d work with the feds on whatever they proposed.

“If and when they make changes, we’ll work with them to make sure that the changes can be effective in B.C.,” Christy Clark said in an October 2015 Black Press article.

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