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Second thoughts spur councillor to change pot vote

John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
By John Boivin Local Journalism Initiative
November 10th, 2016

Nelson City Council has taken a step back in its plan to pass a bylaw that would effectively ban all cannabis dispensaries from the city.

Council withdrew its adoption of an amendment to the zoning bylaw prohibiting dispensaries on Wednesday morning, when it resumed its regularly monthly meeting.

Council had given third reading to the bylaw and adopted it Monday night, after a public hearing drew dozens of people to the meeting to voice their opposition to it.

The bylaw would amend the City’s zoning regulations to add cannabis dispensaries as a prohibited use in all the City’s zoning areas- effectively allowing the city to shut down any dispensaries at will.

City officials said it was a necessary legal move to allow the city to regulate dispensaries when federal marijuana laws are changed. That’s expected early next year. They said the City had no plans to use the bylaw to close any existing shops.

Councillor Anna Purcell voted in favour of the bylaw, but says the emotion of the public hearing and the anxiety felt by the dispensary users weighed on her mind after the meeting.

“I had a hard time sleeping, and I felt ill the net day,” she says. “I am grateful we could pull it back a notch and have a community conversation about it.”

Council adjourned Monday without completing its agenda. When it resumed Wednesday, Purcell asked council to reconsider the bylaw. Because she had voted in favour of its adoption Monday, she could bring it back to the table. After some debate, council voted to withhold final adoption of the bylaw amendment.

The bylaw now sits in limbo at third reading, waiting for final approval. Despite her reservations,  Purcell says she still supports it.

“I really still believe in that bylaw as a tool, everything I said in favour of it I believe. What I was uncomfortable with was… we hadn’t brought the public along with the process” she says.

But Council’s backpedalling disappoints Councillor Janice Morrison. She voted in favour of the bylaw, and against today’s reversal. She says council is giving up an important planning power.

“Putting this zoning in place puts some tools in our toolbox going forward,” she says. “Especially when it comes to non-conforming businesses, once the federal government legalizes the industry.”

“If four more opened up next week we could say no (with this bylaw),” she says. “But now we can’t.”

Morrison says she’s frustrated how Council has turned a blind eye to the thriving, but illegal businesses popping up around town.

“What disturbs me is we couldn’t do something as simple as putting a zoning bylaw into place,” she says. “We have been very generous, very tolerant of these businesses in our downtown core.”

Purcell says she now feels better about how council is dealing with the issue. She wants to see public hearings, discussion groups, debates and consultations on the issue- if not right away, after Ottawa releases details about how the new regulations will work.

She says that’s how council dealt with another contentious issue recently- short term rentals in the city- and the healthy public debate worked well.

“I think marijuana deserves at least that amount of public consultation,” she says. “No matter what we feel about the legality of it, it is happening- we need to decide as a community what it is we want.”

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