Cannabis dispensaries are beginning to make a serious foothold across Canada, but regional attitudes are still holding back businesses in certain cities until clear regulations are in place.
Despite promising to legalize cannabis, the federal Liberals have only just begun the process, creating a scenario where business owners are eager to proceed but unsure of how.
After the election, cannabis consultant Eric Nash’s was flooded with requests from across the country asking how to open dispensaries.
“There’s a public perception of definitely a more lenient approach toward enforcement and laying charges,” said Nash. “With the U.S. moving that way, that perception bleeds over into Canada here and then you’ve got the current government saying they’re going to legalize.”
Up to 200 dispensaries currently operate in Canada, mostly on the west coast, but experts predict dozens more could join them as the slow process of regulation is tackled by government.
Nash said owners still need to be aware that even if the government has promised to reform cannabis laws, they still haven’t yet.
The Saskatchewan Compassion Club was shut down in late October by authorities and now operator Mark Hauk is before the courts on drug charges.
Dispensaries in Nanaimo, where there had been talk of regulation as recently as September, were ordered to shut down today.
Vancouver’s dispensary licensing process also recently announced it had approved 11 of 176 applications to move onto the next stage of regulation, a situation that has left the future unclear for some business owners.
The Best Cannabis Pain Society received permission from authorities to move forward with the application for one of its two Vancouver locations but its main operation, located on Commercial Drive, is being told to shut down after three years in the area.
BCPS founder Charles Varabioff said the location was denied due to restrictions on location. The city’s bylaws require dispensaries to be 300 m from schools, community centres and other dispensary operations. The BCPS is 27o m from a private school and 290 m from a community centre.
Varabioff said he had no problem with increased regulations, but doesn’t think shutting down his operation over 40 m is a responsible decision from the city.
“Obviously the city had to start with some sort of framework,” said Varabioff. “But I think they need to look a case-by-case basis and check to see who the more reputable places are.”
Varabioff said he’s appealing the city’s decision and hopes to have his case heard in February, along with what he suspected will be dozens of other denied applicants.
“I totally expect them to deny up to 80 per cent of the people appealing,” Varabioff said, who felt his case was strong for staying open.
If his appeal is denied, Varabioff will need to choose to either shut down by April 21 or find a new location that complies with all regulations.
“You currently have hundreds of people looking for a zone,” Varabioff said. “I have a better chance of winning the lottery than finding a zone compliant location in the city of Vancouver.”
With moving not an option, Varabioff is in a delicate position with his other Vancouver location likely to be licensed.
“It’s either break the law or shut down,” Varabioff said. “We’re currently breaking every drug trafficking law there is but after that six months we’ve violating the city regulations.”
“If they say ‘no’ do I want to go ahead and continue to operate and try to push the limits? Do I really want to stir the pot?”
Varabioff said closing one of the city’s largest dispensaries, along with dozens of others, will create strain on the new network of approved stores as they try to meet demand from a user group that previously stretched across over 100 locations. He estimated his dispensary brings in up to $3 million into the area each year.
Varabioff has started a petition that he hopes will sway opinion to allow his location to stay open.
“Everyday is something different in this industry,” Varabioff said. “The bigger it gets, the more people will try to get a piece of the action and take you down.”
“The strong will survive.”