Is there Justice in the Community Safety Unit cannabis fines?

The road to the legalization of cannabis has been paved with injustice, and one Victoria man is feeling the burn. 

Alex Robb, general manager of eight marijuana stores in three different cities across British Columbia, has received a staggering fine for allegedly violating the Cannabis Control and Licensing Act. 

Last month, he received a whooping fine of $1.5 million

On top of the shocking dollar value of the penalty, Robb himself is being held personally responsible for cannabis sales in the stores that he managed. 

It all begs the question: why such a massive fine, and why has it been issued to an individual rather than a company? 

The fine was issued by the Community Safety Unit, known as CSU for short, which was recently formed to enforce the new laws around cannabis retail. It was issued on the allegation that Robb’s stores sold cannabis outside of the legal scheme as established by law; namely, without a license. 

Under the Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, the CSU director can issue a monetary penalty to those who have sold or produced cannabis without proper licenses. The fines can be enormous because they are a calculation in relation to produce and/or sales. Fines can be equal to twice the retail value of the product sold, produced, or possessed. 

After one of Robb’s stores, Trees of Eden Island Grown, was raided in July, 2019, a forensic audit was conducted. 

The accountant determined that the store had sold nearly $600,000.00 worth of cannabis over the course of two months, when the store was unlicensed. They further determined that the store had a stock worth nearly $200,000.00. 

Doubling the combined sales and stock, and we get to $1.5 million in fines with relative ease. 

Faced with this enormous penalty, Robb was given two options. His first option would be to sign a waiver, which would deny him access to fair proceedings, in exchange for the ability to pay a reduced monetary penalty, which would still break the bank at $771,557.50. If that didn’t sound appealing, his second option would be to proceed with a hearing, and make full answer and defence to the allegations against him. While the latter option may allow him to vindicate himself, bringing his fine down to zero, he does so at the risk of being found guilty and having the entire $1.5 million fine imposed. 

It’s no easy choice. 

But it’s also administratively unfair. 

Naming Robb as an individual is the first problematic piece of this troubling puzzle. 

As an employee of the company, the CSU made a monumental legal leap by naming Robb personally. It is also a leap that has significant implications, aside from the astounding find that he’s been ordered to pay, or else – which is the second disturbing bit: the fine itself. 

An insurmountably onerous fine, like this, waged against an individual could be described as being patently unfair. It could also be described as being quasi-criminal in terms of its consequences. 

It has the potential of following a person for the rest of their lives, indebting them to the government, crippling their finances, and destroying their earning potential. For a self-employed business owner like Robb, it could mean a complete disaster. 

But perhaps the most chilling part of this entire process is the options – or lack thereof – that has been provided. 

If Robb decides to pay the reduced fine, which is considerably more manageable but still absolutely astounding, he will give up his right to a hearing. With that, he will be unable to obtain or review disclosure documents, including the evidence against him and anything related to how the fine amount was actually calculated. He will be unable to plead his case or to rebuff the allegations. 

If he decides to go to a hearing, he will be provided with these safeguards, but will risk it all. 

It’s Sophie’s choice of cannabis. 

But whether we are interested in cannabis justice or not, it’s also a disturbing development that we cannot ignore. This is an issue that has the potential of impacting everyone – particularly given the increasing role of administrative tribunals in modern-day society. 

Administrative tribunals and non-criminal procedural processes must be held accountable. They must have built-in safeguards and mechanisms to meaningful dispute allegations in an open, transparent, and intelligible manner. This, at the very least, means that accused persons should be provided with fulsome disclosure, prior to deciding which course to take. 

The threat of imposing huge fines without procedural fairness flies in the face of what we can tolerate. 

It is legally and morally unconscionable.