Pop-up pot stalls causing concern in Vancouver

Vendors openly selling cannabis and edibles from tents and tables at Robson Square are causing concern among Vancouver residents and at city hall.

SFU criminologist says Vancouver police likely don't have the resources or the public mandate to prosecute

A vendor sells marijuana at a stall in Robson Square in Vancouver. The stalls are operating without a licence and are illegal. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Move over, cannabis dispensaries: pop-up pot stalls are the latest trend turning heads in Vancouver.

At city hall this week, NPA Coun. Melissa DeGenova called on staff to update councillors on the situation at Robson Square, where vendors openly selling cannabis have been setting up tents and tables with their products.

On any given day, there are a handful to a few dozen cannabis vendors set up on the plaza in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. 

DeGeneva says families who find the stalls distasteful in a public space have contacted her to complain.

"It's disheartening to them to see these tables set up, bombarding them," she said.

Marijuana legalization isn't set to arrive in Canada until July 1, but in 2015 Vancouver became the first city in Canada to regulate and license dispensaries.

The stores pay the city up to $30,000 for the privilege to sell pot. And DeGenova says the stalls at Robson Square aren't fair to those who have paid for the licence. 

"If a small retailer of a small liquor store opened up a stand in the middle of Robson Square and was profiting but not paying for a business licence, I think people would have just as large a problem with it," DeGenova said. 

'More of a protest than it is a business'

Even licensed businesses aren't allowed to sell edible products. That's what irks cannabis vendor Neil Magnuson the most. 

Magnuson has been selling edibles and other products at his stall at Robson Square for about two weeks. He said he sells about $600 per day worth of product, and personally makes about $150.

"It's way more of a protest than it is a business," he said. "I think that the regulations for dispensaries in Vancouver are completely unjustified, unfair, over-broad and very discriminatory and they're hurting people."

Unlicensed vendors sell marijuana daily along the 800 block of Robson St. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Among his many grievances are the city's licensing fees, the 300-metre distance requirement between dispensaries, and not allowing consumption on site. 

But the biggest issue is with the no-edibles rule, Magnuson says, because those products are more potent and last longer and thus are the most useful for opioid users looking to kick their addiction.

"A couple of good strong edibles will get an addict through the night," he said.

Magnuson feels so passionate about the issue that he hands out about 800 free edibles each week to the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. 

'Stay tuned'

No one from the Vancouver Police Department was available for comment.

At a media conference last week, Mayor Gregor Robertson told reporters to "stay tuned" on how the city will tackle the issue. 

In a written statement, the city said it "has no jurisdiction to regulate the sale of marijuana, but it does have clear jurisdiction to regulate how and where businesses operate in the city."

So far, the city has issued 12 tickets and impounded three tents. 

On a sunny weekend, there can be dozens of cannabis vendors set up at Robson Square. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

'Pushing the envelope'

SFU criminology professor Neil Boyd said police resources are most likely tied up in other matters. 

But Boyd also says police are perhaps reticent to use resources to crack down on the vendors because Vancouverites are generally tolerant of marijuana and its sale.

"The issue has simply become one that doesn't merit the attention of the criminal law," he said.

"We've come to a point in our culture where we don't think cannabis ought to be treated as a criminal law problem."

A new federal law legalizing marijuana takes effect in Canada on July 1, 2018. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Boyd says he's for decriminalization of cannabis, but admits the vendors are "pushing the envelope."

He points out that no type of business is unregulated in the city, and there are good reasons for that. He says there may be better ways to protest the no-edibles rules in Vancouver.

"We're in an uncertain period at the moment. We don't know what retail sales will look like in the City of Vancouver," Boyd said.

"I would doubt that we're going to have a totally unregulated pop-up street vendor approach."

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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