There is a huge case about to go before the BC Supreme Court in September- a group of around 50 dispensaries in Vancouver are joining together in a test case to file a challenge of the city’s zoning bylaws- which are often used to deny dispensaries business licenses- in a precedent-setting case that will determine the fate of half of Vancouver’s dispensaries.
What is a test case?
A test case is a case that sets a precedent for another case involving the same question of law, and the City of Vancouver, the dispensaries, and their respective lawyers have all agreed to it.
Dori Dempster, the Executive Director of The Medicinal Dispensary, explained to CLN:
“We’ve filed a suit as part of a group of dispensaries that have banded together with 3 lawyers. Essentially, one dispensary- the test case- will be put in front of a judge. All participating dispensaries can provide testimony and witnesses, but only one dispensary is the test case.
The judge will make the decision on that dispensary, and that ruling will be a blanket ruling for all dispensaries taking part.”
Since only one dispensary will be selected as the test case, this approach is more efficient and less costly because it eliminates the need for every dispensary to file their own suit against the City.
Win or lose, the ruling will apply to all participating dispensaries, and until this case concludes, these dispensaries will have temporary immunity from the city’s injunctions, although they may still be subject to enforcement actions like tickets and fines.
Dispensaries that are not participating in the test case are not so lucky.
Vancouver has around 100 dispensaries, according to the Georgia Straight, and the city began licensing them back in 2015, but so far, only a dozen or so licenses have been granted while the city has filed injunctions against more than half of the dispensaries.
CLN talked to Dana Larsen, the owner of the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, about being one of the dispensaries involved in the test case, why he thinks dispensary newcomers are getting licensed while mainstays like the BC Compassion Club Society are not, the real reason why the city decided to license dispensaries in the first place, and so much more.
CLN: What inspired the dispensaries to band together as a test case?
Dana Larsen: The idea was that we all had similar and overlapping issues and that unifying our efforts meant we could team up and pool our resources to have a better chance of setting a solid precedent instead of each of us going it alone.
This case will have huge implications for the dispensary scene in Vancouver. Do you think other dispensaries in other parts of the Lower Mainland and even the rest of the country will follow suit?
Absolutely, and I think the result of our case will either inspire others to do the same thing or inspire different legal strategies, and I think overall, we’re going to see a lot more legal challenges and court cases in the coming years as dispensaries try to survive and the Cannabis Act gets passed.
We’re already seeing many provisions in there getting challenged in the courts. I expect a lot of confusion around dispensaries, like we have now, and a lot of court cases and challenges.
If we’re successful, I think we will be setting a precedent that will be very useful for a lot of dispensaries out there.
Are these Constitutional challenges being based on the outcome of the Allard case?
That’s a big part of the basis, although you should talk to our lawyer, Kirk Tousaw, because he’d be the best person to speak on our legal strategy and the precedents that we are working with, but certainly, Allard has been incredibly useful for dispensaries, cultivators, and cannabis in general.
So even with legalization this year, there’s still a lot more work to be done?
The Cannabis Act is by no means our final job as cannabis activists. It’s got a lot of flaws and it’s got a lot of good things, and it certainly is a historic step forward, but we have decades of work still ahead of us because it’s not the end of cannabis activism any more than letting women vote or ending sodomy laws solved the issues of women’s and LGBT rights.
Even our alcohol laws are still being tweaked and altered many decades after alcohol prohibition, which is just a short blip compared to cannabis prohibition.
It’s going to be a long battle.
Part of the cannabis act is that every city and province can say no to whatever parts they don’t want. We’re seeing provinces like Quebec banning home cultivation and there’s plenty of cities across the country that seem to see their duty as saving their city from marijuana, and so it will be a city by city battle over the next few years.
Do you think it would be better if the federal government came up with a comprehensive plan?
I don’t think the federal government can do that under our constitution and the way things are structured.
But with the question of Quebec banning home cultivation, the Justice Minister was asked what they thought of that since it’s not the jurisdiction of the provinces to ban that, and the Minister said something along the lines of how they weren’t going to court and fight Quebec over it because they’d rather let the activists and cannabis people do that battle, and that to me is not right.
Ultimately, that kind of stuff will be a civic battle and I don’t know if there’s really any other way of dealing with that.
Were you guys planning on putting forward any witnesses or provide any testimony?
I’m not aware if we’re doing any of that. I haven’t been asked to testify and I don’t think we have anybody specifically testifying. We’re contributing financially and organizationally and things like that, but I don’t think I’ll be speaking at the hearing.
How do you feel about the legal cannabis retail system as proposed by the Cannabis Act?
As a dispensary operator, I have mixed feeling about transitioning into the legal system.
On one hand, I’d love to keep doing what we’re doing, and the only thing that changes is we have a permit and we just carry on, but on the other hand, joining the legal system means we have to cut off all of our current suppliers and sell licensed producers‘ products only- we’re even restricted to selling raw buds!
So we can’t sell any of the medicinal products we sell like extracts, capsules, and edibles– where the real medicinal value is- and so I don’t want to transition to the legal system, I want the legal system to transition to me.
We’re doing the right thing but I don’t know how it’s going to go but I think it’s something we’re all thinking about.
It is too bad about how restrictive the rules are when it comes to cannabis products.
I mean, patients still have some access to more products that aren’t just dried flowers from the licensed producers. They can get some oils but they’re also not very strong and they’re not really what I would call real medicinal grade at the levels that you’d need to treat tumours and serious ailments- you need a lot of cannabinoids and those products just aren’t available.’
Eventually, it will be resolved but I’m not optimistic that we’ll see edibles and extracts legalized next year. I think it will take longer than they anticipate and that we could even see a change in government with the federal election next year, and that will be distracting to the point where politicians won’t want to try and pass more cannabis stuff during the election.
If the Conservatives get in next year, we won’t see edibles legalized and we’ll probably see a certain amount of pullback on cannabis as well.
When it comes to licensing your dispensaries, is it true that each location needs to get a license?
Yes, that’s correct, you need a different permit for each location because the location itself is key.
Our location on Thurlow still hasn’t been given a permit, but neither has the BC Compassion Club Society, which is the city’s oldest and most recognized dispensary! I think that is shocking
Meanwhile, the places that have gotten permits, a good chunk of them are newcomers who weren’t even open when we started who were able to get a good location because they had the advantage of knowing all the rules before they got their location, and that seems wrong to me.
I still don’t think we’ll get our permit before the civic elections, and really I think the city’s whole permitting process was a stalling technique to hold off until they got more clarity from the government.
It was a means to get the dispensaries off their back by saying “Look, we’re going to give you permits, it will just take some time” and it also got the pepole that don’t like dispensaries off their back by saying “look, we’re putting some rules in place and we’ll start shutting these places down but it’s going to take some time”, and so they were able to maintain the status quo and put the fear in new dispensaries enough that they were able to slow the new ones from opening.
Ultimately, I think its very likely that early next year, the new city government will say “It’s a new day, and licenses are only good for one year anyways, so we’re just not going to renew any of them and make a bunch of new rules that may or may not include dispensaries”, and it will be a whole different ballgame.
Is it true the business license fees are $30k?
Yeah but when you add it all up it’s about $35-40,000. The base fee is $30,000, but there also a bunch of other special fees that only dispensaries have to pay that pushes the total up even more.
It’s by far the highest business license fee in the city, the second highest is the one specifically for the whole PNE!