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Council zones out pot dispensaries

John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
By John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
November 8th, 2016

Nelson City council says it doesn’t plan to close down any of the city’s marijuana dispensaries… even though it’s just given itself the power to do so.

Council voted Monday night 4-3 to amend the zoning bylaws to define what a cannabis dispensary is, and to prohibit their operation in all land zone uses in the city.

Violators can be fined or shut down through zoning regulations.

“I think council has demonstrated a very measured approached, a common-sense approach” to the issue, said Mayor Deb Kozak before casting the deciding vote to approve the bylaw change.

About six dispensaries operate in the city, unlicenced and selling an illegal product. But court rulings and the federal Liberal’s pledge to reform marijuana laws by next spring have put their operations in a grey zone.

Council says the legal vacuum has left them uncertain on how to regulate the businesses now, and concerned that the dispensaries will have grandfathered rights to operate as an existing non-conforming use when the pot laws change.

The new bylaw effectively wipes the slate clean, giving no dispensary legal rights to operate within City limits. Once the details of the new federal laws are known, the City will have a freer hand to enforce the rules. In the meantime, nothing will change with the City’s handling of dispensaries, councillors said.

“We are holding our breaths, waiting for the federal government,” said Councillor Anna Purcell, who voted for the bylaw. “To me this bylaw gives the City the most flexibility possible when regulations are revealed.”

“It’s not as sinister as it sounds.”

But the more than 50 people who showed up to support the dispensaries weren’t seeing it that way. Medical marijuana users, dispensary employees, compassion club organizers and supporters criticized the council’s actions.

“The outcome of this amendment is not beneficial for anyone,” said Kaleigh Herald, the manager of the Nelson Potorium.

She said her dispensary offers advice and service and has grown to more than 1,000 patients since it began in May. “Where will people go if they can’t come to the dispensary?”

“(The bylaw) is too broad, and takes away the needs of medical users,” said Tara Gray, who uses cannabis products to treat her fibromyalgia.

“This is so unnecessary, it’s a backwards step,” said Bonnie Baker.

Other speakers emphasized the cannabis industry’s economic benefit to Nelson, and questioned the need for council to act when federal legislation is still unknown.

“It’s so counterintuitive when you have a federal law knocking on the door, right around the corner, it just seems ridiculous, why would we do that now?” asked Howie Ross, who co-founded the Leaf Cross Health dispensary.

“Let the feds come out and do what they do, and then we go from there. There’s no point in doing this now.”

Councillors echoed Ross’ pleas to hold back legislation.

“I’m uncomfortable passing legislation we don’t intend to enforce,” said Councillor Valerie Warmington. “I don’t like this blanket (prohibition)… it gives the impression we oppose something important in our community.”

“No one here tonight spoke in favour of this, but council is going to pass this,” said Councillor Michael Dailly. “I think we have a communication gap here.”

Dailly tried to have the bylaw referred back to staff for further community consultation, but that motion was defeated. The bylaw then passed 4-3, with the mayor, and councillors Purcell, Adams and Morrison voting in favour.

Kozak told the public not to be “distressed” by council’s move.

 “This does not mean that tomorrow everything in town is going to be turned on its head and places will be closed down,” said Mayor Deb Kozak. “What it does do is help prepare us. It also levels the playing field when the product is legalized.”

“I don’t want us to be unprepared in February.”

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