"Buyer beware" says Vancouver city councillor to dispensary customers

The city's lead on dispensary licensing continues to blame Ottawa for problems with dispensaries, says pharmacies represent better distribution model

I interviewed Kerry Jang last week to get an update on Vancouver’s dispensary licensing program, as well as to ask how Vancouver hopes to reconcile the illegality of dispensaries with their licensing program. Jang, the city's lead on their dispensary licensing program, says the process so far has been a success, by keeping cannabis away from children and community centres and by stemming the proliferation of dispensaries in the city.

In addition to the seven business licenses already issued, Jang says the city’s regulations have forced the closure of about 30 locations and issued 27 injunctions against approximately 57 unlicensed businesses.  

Kerry Jang

However, as our conversation progressed, some interesting themes emerged. Jang continues to blame Ottawa for all the problems the city is having with dispensaries, from problems with the lack of a regulated supply chain for the cannabis these stores sell, to what he claims is a lack of clarity on the legality of medical cannabis.

Both of these arguments are rather nonsensical. When pressed for what kind of guidance Vancouver still needs from Ottawa in regard to the legality of dispensaries versus the legal, regulated access program, Jang immediately refers to a lack of clarity from the task force on recreational legalization.

These are, of course, two different things. The lack of clarity regarding what recreational legalization will look like really has no bearing on the fact the Federal government has, repeatedly, for years, emphasized that dispensaries are illegal, unregulated, and unsafe.

"Will they say that it can only be distributed through a liquor store or something like that? Because Ontario’s going that way. If that is the case, then really, there’s nothing we can do, we can’t break that particular federal law. Because it still allows access to the cannabis, medical or recreational, so there’s no economic deal with access. Whatever it is, we’ll adjust our bylaws to suit whatever the federal law is, but that’s our position at the moment.” -Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang

Jang also lays blame on the federal government, Health Canada, and Health Minister Jane Philpott specifically, for not warning Canadians that dispensaries’ products are potentially unsafe. He also made several references to ‘data breaches’ at dispensaries, which he says Health Canada should be warning people about.

“We at least need the Health Minister to come out and say: “Beware, don’t share your private information. Don’t treat dispensaries like they are a doctor’s office,” for example. Or “If you buy pot, you may be buying contaminated stuff.” They didn’t do any of that!”

Health Canada has, of course, repeatedly made statements about the health and safety of cannabis in dispensaries. First, with a long-standing statement on the then MMPR website that pointed out that only licensed producers are required to meet the strict requirements of the MMPR for the safe and sanitary production of marijuana for medical purposes, as well as numerous other press releases and public statements.

Of course, Health Canada didn’t specifically ever say ‘don’t share your private, personal medical information with illegal businesses’, most likely because a reasonable individual might consider that as going without saying.

The agency also put out a statement in June reaffirming that products in dispensaries and compassion clubs are illegal, illegally supplied, and “provide products that are untested, unregulated and that may be unsafe.”

In addition, Ian MCleod with the Department of Justice said this in January:

"(Dispensaries) sell untested products that may be unsafe and of particular risk to kids. [...] They are supplied by illegal growers. These are exactly the concerns that the government’s plans will address.”

In addition, Health Canada sent the city of Vancouver a letter in April 2015 urging the city not to go forward with their program due to that, among other concerns, the only access point for medical marijuana is through the legal sources which protect public health and safety. The city explicitly waived off these concerns, saying they were trying to help people access medical cannabis.

So to say that the federal government has failed to inform Canadians as to the safety and security of dispensary cannabis is a flawed accusation.

The city councillor and professor of psychiatry does rightly point out that this was a situation created by the previous Conservative government, who asked for enforcement, but didn’t want to provide the funds necessary to do so. This is a perspective supported by the Vancouver Police Department, as well.

Jang maintains that the city of Vancouver is willing to enforce federal law, but they need the resources to do so. In the meantime, licensing these dispensaries is the most efficient way to regulate and even close most of them, he says.

But now that there has been a change in government — alongside a move toward recreational legalization, and a current, legal, regulated medical access system that, despite its many flaws, is serving over 70,000 patients — the city’s justifications appear to be running increasingly thin.

Jang admits, ultimately, that the city will have to adhere to federal law even if recreational legalization doesn’t include dispensaries. He also says he feels pharmacies are a far better distribution model than dispensaries.

“I think, quite frankly, a pharmacy is a good way of distributing medical marijuana, and I think the pharmacists have now agreed, that they have a role to play in this, and the pharmacy association has endorsed that basic position now.

“As long as they know where the marijuana comes from, where it’s grown, quality, purity, dosage, strength, all that kind of stuff, like any other drug. They also have the patient profiles in a secure setting, unlike some of these current marijuana dispensaries in which there’s been data breaches recently, where patient information is going out. That wouldn’t happen, per se, in a pharmacy or doctor’s office, because they have different protocols.”

Vancouver has emphasized in the past that a business license from the city doesn’t protect a business owner from existing federal law, and now Jang, the city’s lead of the dispensary ticket, says pharmacies represent a better distribution model than dispensaries.

While the city started out trying to provide access to cannabis via an over the counter retail platform, purportedly to quell the growth of dispensaries (proliferation they tacitly encouraged), they appear to now have a tiger by the tail. They haven’t the political will or the funding to shut them all down, but they also appear to be beginning to realize that regardless of good intentions, their licensing program is falling short of creating a functional system.

Unless Ottawa can save this experiment by legalizing independent retailers and somehow legalizing a regulated supply chain, it’s hard to see Vancouver’s Medical Marijuana Related Use (MMRU) experiment ending with anything other than lawsuits and frustration.


You can read our full interview below:

How is the Medical Marijuana Related Use (MMRU) licensing going so far?

“I’d say it’s gone very well. We’ve hit our public health goals, our public policy goals. First of all, we haven’t seen an increase in new, illegal pot shops in Vancouver. We’ve closed over 30 so far and we have 57 currently illegal of which we’re doing enforcement on. I’m not sure of the number, you’d have to check the website. (Note: These figures have not been made public since May of this year. Andreea Toma, Vancouver's director of licensing and inspections, has not responded to Lift’s requests for updates).

“But mainly we’ve managed to keep them away from schools and community centres, which was our first goal, and secondly, we’ve not seen an increase in new ones, unlike the city of Toronto which forcibly tried to close the shops. They all re-opened virtually the next day and they’ve seen an increase in numbers month over month.”

(Note: The city has seen a small increase in that at least one cannabis culture location which previously did not sell marijuana is now openly selling to anyone over 19+ with no medical requirements.)

What’s the plan if future federal regulations still don’t include dispensaries?  

“Well, we’ll have to follow the federal laws. That’s the big question, right? Currently there’s a discussion as to how marijuana will be distributed in the future. So they may decide it goes through liquor stores and pharmacies, but then that’s all falling under federal jurisdiction, so we’ll have to re-look at it when it comes. We can’t even speculate, because we don’t know what forms federal legislation may take. It’s premature to say anything.”

Pharmacy distribution under the current access regulations (ACMPR) has been proposed. Would pharmacy distribution of medical cannabis impact Vancouver’s Medical Marijuana Related Use (MMRU) licensing program?

“Either way, the cities all have the right to land use.  Don’t forget, pharmacies are under distance regulations, as well, depending on what types of drugs they dispense. So if they’re dispensing narcotics or methadone or something, there’s rules for distancing.

“So… they’re expecting medical cannabis, same idea. I don’t know what the distances would be, but because they are being dispensed by a pharmacist, that may change all the rules around it, because they’re trained. As well as the stock they will be selling will have a known quality, quantity, dosage, all that kind of stuff, like a regular medication.

“You know, they’re the ones who are going about how ‘Oh, they’re illegal, you shouldn’t be buying from there.” Well, then say so! And say why! Just don’t say it’s illegal. You should say it’s illegal and it could be contaminated. That’s a far more powerful message than just ‘it’s illegal." - Kerry Jang

“So that will change things. I think, quite frankly, a pharmacy is a good way of distributing medical marijuana, and I think the pharmacists have now agreed that they have a role to play in this, and the pharmacy association has endorsed that basic position now.

“As long as they know where the marijuana comes from, where it’s grown, quality, purity, dosage, strength, all that kind of stuff, like any other drug. They also have the patient profiles in a secure setting, unlike some of these current marijuana dispensaries in which there’s been data breaches recently, where patient information is going out. That wouldn’t happen, per se, in a pharmacy or doctor’s office, because they have different protocols.”

Will the city ensure that those who do receive a business license remain medical? Or is the intention to create a system that transitions into non medical retail in the future?

“That’s entirely up to the federal government. That’s the $64,000 question. Now you have recreational marijuana. Will they say that it can only be distributed through a liquor store or something like that? Because Ontario’s going that way.

“If that is the case, then really, there’s nothing we can do, we can’t break that particular federal law. Because it still allows access to the cannabis, medical or recreational, so there’s no economic deal with access. And that’s the $64,000 question. Whatever it is, we’ll adjust our bylaws to suit whatever the federal law is, but that’s our position at the moment.”

In the past, Vancouver’s position has been that dispensaries existed because of flaws in Canada’s legal access system. With the change in government and the amount of messaging that Health Canada has put out around dispensaries, what sort of guidance is the city of Vancouver still looking to the Federal government for, in relation to medical cannabis?

“Well, first of all, I think the federal government, they’re currently in the process right now. I don’t know where the task force is going, I don’t know what they’re doing. It’s all been closed door meetings, so I have no knowledge. They did not ask the city of Vancouver to participate.

“I’ve also seen that Minister Philpott has been very disappointing as a Health Minister. She, for example, knew that some of the cannabis has pesticides and fungicides that are not fit for human consumption. She did not act on that data. She didn’t issue any warnings.

“And similar with a recent data breach, she’s done nothing. She should at least be sending out a warning saying ‘Cannabis dispensaries cannot be treated the same as a doctor’s office or pharmacy in which your data is secure'. They’ve not done that, which I think is a real failure on the public health part.

(Note, Health Canada has made several statements in the past on the legality and safety of dispensaries.)

“I think what we would like to see from the federal government is to understand better the roles of municipalities, because currently, I know they’re only talking to provincial governments. I suspect the model will be something along the lines of alcohol, in which the federal government provides guidelines as to where pot comes from, how it should be grown, how it should be distributed, it’s purity, and all that kind of stuff. Where it’s up to the provincial government to set up guidelines where it is to be sold in the province. And then it will be up to the cities to actually implement it."

“That’s the federal government. They’ve gotta get their shit together and start doing something about it. We’ve said that from the get go, that we’re only managing storefronts, because we cannot manage the product itself, that’s not in our mandate. We’re not allowed to. So that’s why we’re supportive of the Federal government looking at a legalization structure, but in the meantime we need them to at least start warning people about what they know. It’s what they know and don’t tell us, makes me angry. And that’s why I got mad at Minister Philpott. She knew for a year and did nothing. That’s negligence in my books.” -Kerry Jang

“We have not been included in any of those discussions, so we’re at a loss. And I think, that’s the real message for a story on where we are right now. The city of Vancouver, which has been on the front line of trying to fill a vacuum and manage it sensibly, has been essentially cut out of the Federal process. And nobody knows where they’re going. It’s been a secretive process, largely, from what I can tell, between licensed producers and the federal government. And I’ve not seen any indication that the marijuana dispensaries or the various organizations that represent them have been included, so we’re all like, you know, I don’t know. Good question.”

(Note, this last part is untrue. The Task Force had some 28 roundtable meetings across the country in the past two months with various ‘stakeholders’, patient advocacy groups, lawyers, etc. The Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries was invited to the Vancouver roundtable, as was Kirk Tousaw, for example. No individual business interests like dispensaries or Licensed Producers have been included in any of these round tables, according to Health Canada. Task Force chair Ann McLellan even toured a Vancouver compassion club, at the club’s invitation, and had a ‘life changing experience).

Okay, that relates to the Federal Task Force on non medical legalization, but what further guidance on medical is needed? The Federal government has been clear that dispensaries are not legal. So what extra guidance does Vancouver feel they need on the medical ticket?

“On the medical side? Well, certainly are they going to go through pharmacies, are they going to go through some outlet that has, where members have gone through specific training, all that kind of stuff? We would love to have some input on that. Or at least present the pros and cons that we think might be part of the model. We’ve not been invited.

“Right now, all I know is this: we have a situation in which we managed to stop the growth of dispensaries in our city. We’ve managed, as best we can, to keep access from kids, which was a public health goal. There are still thousands of people smoking marijuana from whatever type of dispensary. I’m not even making a distinction any more.

“And it may be contaminated. And the data breaches in these various shops, and the federal government says ‘Oh, it’s just illegal and I’m not doing anything about it’! I need some leadership here. We at least need the Health Minister to come out and say: “Beware, don’t share your private information. Don’t treat dispensaries like they are a doctor’s office,” for example. Or “If you buy pot, you may be buying contaminated stuff.” They didn’t do any of that!

“So what guidance do we want? We want guidance! We want leadership! We want to know what their intentions are so we can work with them. But we’ve been cut out of the consultations so far, so your guess is as good as mine.

“You can mince words, you know, medical, non medical. If that distinction really meaningful any more? That’s the question we’re asking. What is medical marijuana?

“You asked me what guidance do I want? When there’s no indication, when they can’t even seem to make a meaningful distinction between medical and non medical at this time, I have no idea."

When you say they can’t seem to make a distinction between medical and non medical, what do you mean?

“The Federal government.”

How are they not distinguishing between the two?

“They keep saying one is medical, one is not, but what makes one medical and what makes one recreational?”

Perhaps it being authorized by your physician?

(Laughs).  “Is medical marijuana stronger or weaker? I mean, dosing and all that kind of stuff. This is why pharmacy is important, because, you know, they can look at dosing and whatnot. Whereas recreational, it’s sort of like alcohol I guess, where certain types of alcohol are recreational, some of them are medical. I don’t know!”

There are several dispensaries in Vancouver now selling ‘non-medical’ to anyone 19 and over. Is Vancouver taking a different approach to those, than any other unlicensed dispensaries?

“Not that I’m aware of.”

What about the supply chain? The products you refer to earlier which are potentially contaminated."

“That’s the federal government. They’ve gotta get their shit together and start doing something about it. We’ve said that from the get go, that we’re only managing storefronts, because we cannot manage the product itself, that’s not in our mandate. We’re not allowed to. So that’s why we’re supportive of the Federal government looking at a legalization structure. But in the meantime, we need them to at least start warning people about what they know. It’s what they know and don’t tell us, makes me angry. And that’s why I got mad at Minister Philpott. She knew for a year and did nothing. That’s negligence in my books.”

And you don’t see the city of Vancouver as having any responsibility in that supply chain  issue, either?

“How can we? We’re land use. We already went out on a limb to do this. We already pushed the envelope of our land use powers to manage this stuff. Now they want us to look at the product itself? Enough is enough. This is where the federal government were very clear they were going to do something about, so we wait for their wisdom on the matter.

“In the meantime, I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again: Buyer beware. And the Health Minister, who’s a physician, as I understand it, should have done something a lot quicker, certainly warned people.

“You know, they’re the ones who are going on about how ‘Oh, they’re illegal, you shouldn’t be buying from there'. Well, then say so! And say why! Just don’t say it’s illegal. You should say it’s illegal and it could be contaminated. That’s a far more powerful message than just ‘it’s illegal’.

“It’s just dumb. The approach they’ve taken, they claim to take a public health approach, they certainly have not as far as I can see.”

What would legal access from the Federal government have to look like to get to a point where you feel the MMRU would not be necessary?

“As long as a patient who legitimately needs medical marijuana to relieve pain or whatever ails them, and they access to that medication, then I’m happy. That’s number one for me. That’s why I stuck my neck out on this one. To ensure those patients who were denied access to their medical marijuana could actually get it.

“Everyone else is breaking the rules around this, you know. Oh it’s medical, it’s non medical, oh, well I’m not going to make the distinction any more. But as far as the City of Vancouver is concerned, limiting access to kids, and making sure people who actually need it, however the government wants to define that in the future, have adequate access.”

If there were adequate access through a regulated storefront system that didn’t include the current dispensaries, would Vancouver still move forward with their own licensing program, or would Vancouver choose to close those stores and adhere to the legal, federal regulations.

“I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals because I don’t know where the federal government is going to go. We can play the ‘what-if’ game for the next six hours and we’re not going to get anywhere.

“I think what I would say to the federal government, and we said this at the Union of BC Municipalities at our recent meeting, is that whatever money is collected, tax money, on medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, whatever you want to call it, or both, we as cities get a portion of that tax money. And that’s important because, if you want us to enforce, you have to resource us so we can enforce for you.

“That’s where the Conservative government made a huge mistake. They said to the cities, ‘we want you to close everything and do it out of your own budget.’ We just didn’t have the money.

“We said to the federal government, ‘you know, we have to do pretty much whatever you want, but you’ve got to pay for it’, and they refused. At the same time, certainly for the city of Vancouver, we saw access to medical marijuana dry up for legitimate patients, and that’s why we stuck our necks out to make it possible for patients to get their medication.

“But if the federal government wants us to do something, two things have to be met; One, adequate access to those who legitimately need it and, number two, resource what actions you want us to take."

So would it be fair to say those would be the two stipulations that Vancouver would require to begin adhering to existing federal law?

“Yeah. From my perspective, that’s what I would be looking for. And of course our basic public health goal of limited access for children and things like that.”

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