Burnside Weed Dispensary, located at 3175 Harriet Rd. in Victoria, is just a stone’s throw away from the municipal boundary of Saanich, which does permit such shops. Wolfgang Depner/News Staff

Saanich in no hurry to open doors to pot shops

As Canada moves towards the legalization of marijuana, Saanich takes a wait-and-see approach in enforcing existing prohibition

As the City of Victoria continues to refine its policy around marijuana dispensaries, Saanich has no immediate plans to allow such enterprises as legalization approaches.

“Operation of a storefront cannabis retail business is contrary to federal law,” said Kelsie McLeod, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich. “Saanich works to ensure that our processes align with federal marijuana legislation.”

Federal legislation also prohibits the cultivation of marijuana unless the business has received zoning for such use and possesses a valid medical marijuana growing licence from Health Canada.

Saanich has granted one business – Emerald Health Botanicals located at 101-4226 Commerce Circle – a business licence to grow medical marijuana following a rezoning and public consultation process.

“It is also important to note that this business holds a valid federal licence and does not sell marijuana products from a storefront,” said McLeod.

She made these comments as the clock towards the legalization of marijuana as a recreational drug for adults ticks down. The federal government has promised to legalize marijuana by July 1, 2018 after having campaigned on the promise in October 2015.

“Saanich is aware of possible changes to federal legislation that could take effect in July 2018,” she said. “Staff will continue to monitor federal changes and note any potential impacts for [council] to consider.”

If this sounds straight forward, it has been anything but. While Ottawa controls the legislation that would legalize and control the sale and consumption of recreational cannabis, all governments bear the burdens of legalization without necessarily reaping its financial benefits.

While Ottawa is responsible for controlling production, age standards and impairment penalties, provincial governments will have the ability to regulate distribution systems (as is the case with alcohol). Provincial governments also possess the power to determine municipal rules and regulations around licensing, distribution, consumption and health and safety standards, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) said in a position statement.

“These local roles could range from updating zoning bylaws to enforcing new impaired driving laws, and potentially much more,” it read.

Municipalities appear especially concerned that federal legislation might saddle them with “unsustainable financial or operational burdens” and municipal leaders across Canada have joined provincial leaders in expressing concerns about achieving legalization within the timeframe set by the federal government. Manitoba’s Premier Brian Pallister last month called on the federal government to delay implementation for a whole year until July 1, 2019. Municipal leaders have also called on the federal government to share some of the revenues from the legalization of pot to help offset any additional costs.

In short, much work remains across the country, and Greater Victoria offers itself as a microcosm.

All dispensaries and compassion clubs in the Greater Victoria area operate outside existing federal rules governing the production of non-medicinal marijuana. In other words, they are illegal. But this reality has not stopped their proliferation in the City of Victoria, whose political leadership believes that they can fit into any future regulatory framework.

However, neighbouring communities including Saanich have been less tolerant. While Saanich has received about a dozen inquiries from individuals interested in operating medical marijuana cultivation or storefront cannabis retail businesses, staff have weeded them out early in the process.

“Before an official application is received, interested parties speak with a contact in the planning department who outlines requirements [such as federal licensing and rezoning] and process,” said McLeod. “Prospective businesses who do not meet initial requirements do not move on to submit an official business application.”

Others have been daring, with the repercussions to show for them. Earlier this year, RCMP raided Langford’s first and only pot shop not once but twice within a month. Langford Mayor Stew Young could not have sounded more resolute in his opposition to free-standing dispensaries, heaping plenty of blame on the federal government. Langford has also taken steps to control the location of future dispensaries.

This approach stands in stark contrast to the apparent laissez-faire attitude that has prevailed for the most part in Victoria, where pot shops can achieve compliance by applying for both a rezoning and business licence. While Victoria will not issue a business licence until it has approved rezoning, cannabis retailers may continue to operate as they work towards rezoning, an approach that has left some of more than 30 dispensaries outside the zoning requirements, others without a business licence.

This group includes Burnside Weed Dispensary, located at 3175 Harriet Rd. While inside Victoria’s municipal boundaries, its location near the Saanich border gives Saanich residents easy access to its products and services. In fact, the dispensary says on its website that “it serves all the local communities of Victoria BC. This includes Saanich, Sooke, Colwood, Langford and Oak Bay.”

The Saanich News contacted Mayor Richard Atwell around the issue but did not receive a reply following several calls. Rosetta Duncan, the owner of Burnside Weed Dispensary, said in an email that she “would much appreciate an opportunity to share with you our mission and goals and perhaps with your skills you can help to facilitate those objectives in a progressive manner.”

Several follow-up calls, however, were left unanswered. The Saanich News also contacted the dispensary days prior to shooting the video that accompanies this story online.