Dana Larsen on fighting for Vancouver’s Dispensaries: Court cases, Injunctions, Exclusion Zones, and Outdated Bylaws

CLN caught up with prominent cannabis activist Dana Larsen for an update on Vancouver’s unlicensed dispensaries and their ongoing fight to stay open.

Dana also told us why he thinks the City of Vancouver should rewrite it’s restrictive cannabis bylaws, why the dispensary exclusion zone in the Downtown Eastside is misguided and wrong, the ongoing battle of Vancouver’s unlicensed dispensaries to stay open

CLN: Can you tell me about what’s going on with the dispensary test case?

Dana Larsen: The last I’d heard was that we’d be hearing back by the end of May on the decision. Although we can’t guarantee anything, I think we have a pretty good chance on getting a stay on things that will hopefully stop any enforcement actions from the City against the dispensaries until the case is heard in the Court of Appeal, which could be another year or more.

So you’ll learn soon if the stay on enforcement will be successful or not?

At the BC Supreme Court, we have a case between about two dozen dispensaries and the City of Vancouver, and we were asking two questions of the court.

One of the questions was whether a city like Vancouver even has the power to write bylaws and regulate an activity that is otherwise illegal and the courts said yes, it does.

We also asked whether the legal system was meeting patient’s needs and whether dispensaries still had a legal basis to exist for medical access to cannabis. The BC Supreme Court didn’t rule on that question, leaving it open.

But because of that ruling, the City has the power to go and enforce against us and to also seek an injunction, which they’ve had the power to do since December although they haven’t actually done that yet.

So at the BC Court of Appeal, we are saying let’s look at this medical question again. The BC Supreme Court didn’t rule on it, and our first question was:

“Which is going to cause more harm- closing dispensaries down in the midst of the opioid crisis while we have this ongoing case over medical access, or keeping them open and letting things continue as they have for many years?”.

I think it’s a pretty compelling argument since we’ve been open for so long that it makes more sense to let us remain open until the legal questions are resolved, than to close us down prematurely.

So we’ll get a ruling on that question at the end of May.

If that ruling is favorable, it means there shouldn’t be any more enforcement from the city against these dispensaries until the case is resolved, so that could be another year in the Court of Appeal. The decision that comes out of that could go to the Supreme Court of Canada if anybody wanted to appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal… but that’s a long way away.

Studies have shown that cannabis, instead of being a gateway drug, can actually be an exit drug that helps people quit more dangerous substances like opioids.

The dispensary exclusion zone in the Downtown Eastside

That’s a very good question and I think that exclusion zone is a very bad idea. Although they say Hastings and Main is allowed, there’s also have such a wide range of exclusions around community centres and schools that it basically makes all of Hastings and Main cut off, too.

Last year, the VPD even seized cannabis being given away at cost or for free at the Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) while other dispensaries in the area were operating, so it’s very bizarre.

When you look back at the hearings the City had, the staff explanation was that they didn’t want vulnerable communities in the DTES to be exposed to cannabis, with the presumption being that cannabis is a dangerous drug and there are already enough dangerous drugs in the DTES and we don’t need more of it.

But that, of course, is absolutely backwards! I wouldn’t say cannabis is the solution to the opioid crisis but certainly, cannabis access could help, and I really think that the City should be subsidizing projects like the Cannabis Substitution Project and others that provide discounted or free cannabis to opioid users.

I think the exclusion zone is ridiculous for a city council that supports access to a safe drug supply and says they don’t want to stigmatize drug users.

The city could certainly start by ensuring there is access to a safe cannabis supply in the DTES.

We need to go beyond that but that’s got to be the first step and they can’t even do that, so it’s very strange.

How did all these dispensary bylaws come about in the first place?

The last city council, dominated by Vision Vancouver, created all of these bylaws and they did it under the Harper government- back when cannabis was illegal and wasn’t looking to be legalized anytime soon. And so maybe the city council had a reason to write the bylaws very restrictively because they were doing it with a very hostile federal government that didn’t want them to do it at all.

But now we have a new city council, and with cannabis being legal in Canada, it only makes sense to me that they should be reopening these bylaws and adjusting them in a variety of ways while getting public feedback to do a better job.

It’s very strange that the city council seems so reluctant to do this. They seem attached to leaving these old bylaws in place even though they didn’t write them and they were written in such a different context. Writing bylaws for medical dispensaries under prohibition is very different than writing bylaws for recreational or personal-use cannabis under legalization, and they should be starting all over again.

How have these overlapping bylaws affected your own dispensary, The Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, located on Hastings?

We don’t have a permit and we are under the injunction so the city wants to shut us down, despite the fact that we’re the city’s 3rd oldest dispensary. We’ve been there over 10 years, and although we are near RayCam Community Centre, that community centre seems to like us and they would probably write a letter supporting us.

But for our Hastings location, there’s a couple issues at play.

While we’re in the exclusion zone, we are located on Hastings which means that our dispensary should have an exception, but our block is actually zoned as an industrial zone. Since it’s got that industrial zoning, we can’t appeal the bylaws to the Board of Variance, so we’re trying to get the city to zone our block differently because when we first moved there 10 years ago, it actually was very industrial but since then, it’s changed a lot.

Now, it’s mostly cafes and retail stores- but even if it was still industrial, it’s a weird rule to say you can’t have a dispensary in an industrial zone. That’s just another way for the city to say you can’t have a dispensary in the DTES.

So our dispensary is still operating but we’re being targeted by the city and they want us out of there even though I think we benefit the local community .

Isn’t it kind of ironic that right across the street there’s a craft brewery in a vulnerable neighborhood- and they’re trying to shut you down.

Yeah, there’s the beer and pizza place (Strathcona Brewing) across the street which opened with very little community consultation. I think if you asked the RayCam Community Centre, they’d be more concerned about a beer parlour being on the corner than our dispensary down the block.

I believe the way the city regulates cannabis, especially medical cannabis, should be less tightly restricted than alcohol, or at least be the same.

But the city restricts cannabis dispensaries twice as strictly as alcohol- actually it’s much more than that considering you can purchase and consume alcohol at restaurants, bars, and clubs, and there are no equivalents for any of that for cannabis.

Vancouver also doesn’t have any licensed consumption spaces either, right?

Courtesy of Trip Advisor.

There is the Cannabis Culture lounge, the New Amsterdam Cafe, and a few dispensaries that might let you smoke on the premises, but none of them are licensed. The city won’t give out licenses and the province has also forbidden it as well, although the province forbidding something can’t stop the city from licensing it.

As we learned from the court decision, the city can license all sorts of things that are illegal and give them a permit anyways. So the city has the power to license consumption sites.

I find it bizarre that the city has safe injection sites (which I support 100%) and safe inhalation sites for hard drugs, but there are no sites for cannabis consumption.

Cannabis users have to go to the OPS for a safe inhalation site where most people are smoking crack and other drugs.

Cannabis users need a place too and it’s bizarre that any kind of smoking area is forbidden. I want to see some sort of ventilation regulations or allowing cannabis smoking outdoors in certain zones or whatever. I’m not saying it should be a cannabis smoking free-for-all, but it shouldn’t be a complete prohibition either.

I even think certain areas of some parks should be allowed because absolute prohibition isn’t in the spirit of legalization.