Today I had the opportunity to interview Vancouver City Councillor Kerry Jang, council's lead spokesperson on Vancouver’s medical marijuana related use application process for marijuana-related business in the city. The city began enforcement of their new regulations this past weekend.
Jang discussed with me some of the details regarding the beginning of enforcement against dispensaries within the 300 m zoning requirements, (in proximity to schools and community centres), his views on the Federal government’s plans for legalization, and the protests from what he calls a fringe of cannabis entrepreneurs unable to transition to a regulated market.
Kerry Jang was first elect to a Vancouver City Council seat in 2008. He has a PhD in psychology and is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. He supports the legalization and regulation of marijuana for public health purposes.
No "medical marijuana related use" (MMRU) business licenses have been issued to any dispensaries yet. Is there a holdup? When can we expect them?
"There’s no hold up. They finished their development permits, and now they’re going through the last stage, which is things like police record checks, and it’s just going through the normal process. What took a lot of time was the development permit process, and that’s because we had to inspect the building and make sure fire regulations are met, escape doors, all the kinds of things you need for a regular business. And if they didn’t, they had to renovate their place, or get plans in place to show the city that they are going to come into compliance with normal building codes.
"I don’t know when. It depends on when our inspectors are satisfied that the work being done meets code. We don’t want a shop that burns down because they didn’t have any sprinklers."
How is the city prioritizing enforcement at this point?
"It’s anybody who’s within the 300 m. That’s our priority. The whole intent of the bylaw was to ensure that there was de-clustering and that they weren’t too close to schools and community centres. That’s always been the centrepiece of the bylaw. So that’s where they’re starting it off, and they’ll just take it from there and work down the list, I guess."
"Compassion clubs actually provide more than just marijuana. They actually provide wraparound services. Everything from massage therapy, counselling, psychotherapy, in order to help people deal with issues like pain. What’s interesting about most compassion clubs is they’re trying to get people off marijuana, at the end of the day." - Councillor Kerry Jang
Even those still awaiting a Board of Variance hearing?
"That is correct, they will have to close in the meantime. If they are given an opportunity to re-open by the Board of Variance, then they can apply for a development permit and go through that process. In the meantime, they will have to close, and that is normal practice. It’s not unusual, were not singling anyone out."
Has that changed? Some dispensary owners say they were told that if they were awaiting a hearing they could remain open.
"No. I’ve been very clear on this."
Will the city be revisiting the 300 m rule any time soon? The City of Victoria recently announced they are proposing a 200 m rule.
"We said at the hearing a year ago that we would revisit two years from now. With the Federal government coming in with (legalization), we’ll wait until then, and that’s a couple years off. Every city has their own process, and Victoria chose 200, and that’s their business. For Vancouver, our 300 m (rule) was based on a public health approach.
"It’s what is already being used in Colorado and Washington. We also know that some research had demonstrated that that’s the optimum number. Kids won’t walk 300 m but they’ll likely walk 200. And if they’ve already walked 300, they have no problem walking 500. So that’s why we said no to 500 m, because we had a lot of people ask for that. So we took the 300 because that was the precedent in the States and it was backed up by good research."
You’ve made a distinction in the past between compassion clubs and dispensaries, and the city’s licensing makes this distinction. Can you elaborate?
"Compassion clubs actually provide more than just marijuana. They actually provide wraparound services. Everything from massage therapy, counselling, psychotherapy, in order to help people deal with issues like pain. What’s interesting about most compassion clubs is they’re trying to get people off marijuana, at the end of the day.
"You know, if conventional medications don’t work, painkillers don’t work, marijuana works, that’s great, but then again, it’s all about helping you deal with pain, or whatever your issues are, without having to use marijuana at the end of the day, but instead using other alternative therapies or whatever the case may be.
"So it’s a whole wraparound service and our bylaws make that very clear, that if you are a compassion club and you’re providing things like massage therapy, for example...whereas other shops just want to sell marijuana."
What is the next step in the enforcement timeline?
"Every case is individual, like any other business. We treat every business individually. We’re starting off with fines at $250 a day, and our property use inspectors are out right now visiting shops I’m sure, and at the same time, collecting evidence for a court injunction. That involves seeing how many days they stay open, defiance of tickets, all of that is part of the evidence-gathering process. Then we will apply to a court for an injunction to shut them. And if the owner fails to shut, he’s defying the court and they’re up for a very serious contempt of court charge."
"The industry has taken a real shift now from being sort of this cowboy, wild west of marijuana, ‘I can do what I want’, to ‘oh, wow, I’m facing for the first time competition, I’m facing for the first time rules and regulations, I’m facing for the first time all these things that legitimize me, but now I have to be a businessman, not just an activist or protester.’" - councillor Kerry Jang
What accounts for the proliferation of dispensaries in Vancouver over the last few years?
"It really came when the Conservative federal government changed the rules (MMAR to MMPR). That’s when they said people can no longer grow in their own home, people must smoke it only, and you must buy all your pot from a registered grower. That’s what drove the growth, and I think part of it was a protest growth, some of it was seen as cashing in on problems with the Federal legislation, and some people decided their time had come. The Conservatives caused a huge mess in the industry where actually it was pretty quiet.
"At the end of the day, I want to see marijuana treated like any other controlled substance, like alcohol or tobacco. We regulate eggs! We regulate the production, distribution and sale of eggs, the testing of eggs, more than we do marijuana." -Councillor Kerry Jang
"I think what was really key is the federal government decided not to provide cities with any resources to shut it down. So that’s why we deliberately chose a public health approach, to create legislation, to create a regulatory scheme that would manage this in a responsible way. Whereas the Conservative way was just to shut them all down and the hell with patients. We said ‘no no no, there are legitimate needs for the active ingredients in marijuana, but at the same time, we can’t have so many shops close to schools and community centres. We have to find some balance.’ This has been purely an ideological war waged by the federal Conservatives and really didn’t take the needs of patients into account.
"Some people are calling what we’re doing right now a ‘crackdown’, but by and large the industry has worked really well with us. They’ve been very responsive to staff and their ideas. 22 have complied with our requests to close so far.
"Who is making a lot of noise right now is really a fringe group who I think are more interested in the commercialization. They’re seeing their revenue stream shrink because of all of this. So all of a sudden the free and easy money that came in to some of these shops, it won’t be there. It will be like any other business. You have got to account for everything, you have to follow the rules, you have to pay your taxes, you have to declare properly… all the regular stuff any other business has to do.
"And that’s what they wanted! This is what kills me. They wanted this. They asked for it it, they practically begged us for it. And I said to them very clearly, be careful what you wish for because a lot of you won’t make it. And now some of them who didn’t make it are upset.
"They try to say it’s all about cannabis culture, but really it’s about Cannabis Commercial. All of a sudden (they) see a threat to their income stream. The industry has taken a real shift now from being sort of this cowboy, wild west of marijuana, ‘I can do what I want’, to ‘oh, wow, I’m facing for the first time competition, I’m facing for the first time rules and regulations, I’m facing for the first time all these things that legitimize me, but now I have to be a businessman, not just an activist or protester.’
"So it’s a real shift in thinking for the industry and a number of people in the industry have got it. They’re not fighting us. They’re saying they will find an alternate location. This makes a nice, level playing field for everybody. And that’s what we were trying to do, so that patients get what they need and neighbourhoods get what they need.
"It will be interesting to see what the Federal (recreational) legalization does. We’re all in favour of it, because it will create a regulatory scheme on the production, distribution and sale. It will create health awareness programs, it will fund research, etc. That’s exciting.
"At the end of the day, I want to see marijuana treated like any other controlled substance, like alcohol or tobacco. We regulate eggs! We regulate the production, distribution and sale of eggs, the testing of eggs, more than we do marijuana."
Are you seeing any blowback, personally? Someone edited your wikipedia page this week and I’ve heard rumours you’ve received threats.
"I hadn’t seen that yet (Wikipedia-very hearty laughs). This week I got personal threats. We had to up some security around me. I don’t know where it’s coming from. I received a couple phone calls, one of which I picked up and the individual threatened me. I’m not surprised. It’s not the first time. I get the tough files (more laughs)."
Does independent, storefront distribution of cannabis for medical purposes have a long term place in Vancouver, or do you see cannabis shifting into a more clinical role like pharmacies in the long term?
"I think they do, because they provide a broader range of services. They’re not just there to sell marijuana. Even if it went through a pharmacy model... compassion clubs provide a more holistic, broader range of services. And that’s the way medicine should be anyway. It’s not just about going and seeing the specialist, but about changing your lifestyle, changing how you deal with stress, how you deal with pain."
How much has the new Liberal government been communicating with Vancouver on this process and their plans for legalization?
"We haven’t had much discussion at all. The federal government is currently trying to create a task force. We think they’re still trying to decide who to invite to that.
I have a meeting with (Bill) Blair next week to ask where we are on this file and if they want our help. Not only does Vancouver have on-the-ground experience that we can relay and put into that process that no other city has in Canada, but also myself, as a professor at UBC who does addictions research with a team of other folks, I could bring that expertise to it, that public health approach as well.
"I think they’re forming what they want to do. I think they want to take a very broad approach. It’s not just about the sale of marijuana, but everything from production to distribution straight through to looking at things like ‘Don’t Smoke and Drive’ campaigns, awareness campaigns for youth about responsible use, and engaging with pharmacists about what they need. So it’s quite broad, it’s going to be very large.
"I hope they can have something introduced next spring, they said they would. I don’t know if that’s possible given what they want to cover, but we’re certainly here and offer up our help if they so wish it."
The Board of Variance seems to have changed their tone in terms of granting variances recently. Have city staff and/or council given clarification or guidance to the BOV at some point during the process?
"No. I know people have accused staff of doing that. But that’s a legal challenge they’ve had. The Board of Variance will do what the Board of Variance does. They assess each case independently and we have no say, no influence, we don’t get involved. They are an independent body.
"Looking at some of their decisions, the BCCCS for example, they got passed because (the community) agreed, they had been there the longest, and they felt that would be a hardship to the community."
Is there any timeline in terms of the next step beyond daily $250 fines?
"They are not saying. I think they are collecting evidence, and I know it can be fairly quick."
Featured image via theprovince.com