British Columbia·Analysis

Marijuana dispensaries: citizens caught between Ottawa, pot activists

An explosion of marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver is the latest front in a decades-long battle between cannabis activists and Ottawa.

Vancouver set to debate regulations as expanding pot shops test public's tolerance for legalization

Cannabis crusaders Donald Briere (left) and David Malmo-Levine display some marijuana products. Briere owns a string of pot dispensaries, while Malmo-Levine just opened one of his own. (Jason Proctor)

It's not easy living above a clash of ideologies.

But that's where residents of Maxine Clough's Vancouver condo building find themselves: stuck between Ottawa's opposition to marijuana and cannabis activists bent on legalization.

Meanwhile, the very real pot dispensary on their ground floor is open for business.

"We're in the middle," says Clough, who supports calls to regulate Vancouver's rapidly multiplying dispensaries.

"We're stuck here, and the city seems to be trying to do something. And we've got the feds saying: 'Don't you dare!'"

'Marijuana is not a medicine'

Later this month, Vancouver will hold public hearings on proposed new rules, which would move the more than 90-and-counting dispensaries away from schools, community centres and each other.

The city argues $35,000 in combined annual licensing fees, together with criminal record checks and strict regulation, would keep medical marijuana out of the hands of the young and vulnerable.

Federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose disagrees.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose is calling on Vancouver's mayor to shut down the city's many marijuana dispensaries. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"Marijuana is not a medicine," she told CBC in a recent radio interview.

"It has not been approved by Health Canada as a medicine. It is very harmful for young people, and I appeal to the mayor of Vancouver to shut these store fronts."

No end of contradiction

There's hypocrisy on both sides of the debate.

Health Canada denies any medical benefits of cannabis, but the courts have clearly sided with Canadians who believe the drug helps them battle ailments ranging from epilepsy to cancer.

As a result, Ottawa has set up regulations allowing Canadians to access medicinal marijuana via mail from licensed producers with support of a health-care practitioner.

But that puts doctors in the uncomfortable position of having to prescribe an unapproved drug.

As for the dispensaries, claims they're only getting medicine to the sick and needy also ring a little hollow. 

Some offer a consultation with a naturopath via Skype. And no matter what ails you, guess what makes it better?

Police have also responded to complaints dispensary marijuana is making its way into the hands of teenagers

Maxine Clough says the ground floor of her residential condo building is not the place for a marijuana dispensary. (CBC)

Clough says groups of school children have posed for pictures in front of the dispensary on her building's ground floor.

"I don't know what their parents will think when they go back to wherever they were from," she says.

"Not a very good advertisement for the city, I would think."

'We never went away'

While the explosion of dispensaries in Vancouver is new, British Columbia is well-acquainted with the marijuana wars.

Cannabis activists have fought with Ottawa for years over legalization; they've gone to jail, they've gone to court, they've established a culture in the interim, and many now see dispensaries as a means to achieve their goals.

Take Donald Briere. Busted in 1999 for a pot trafficking ring and later jailed for running a Vancouver cafe where people openly consumed pot, the 63-year-old's franchise has emerged as the Tim Hortons of the dispensary industry.

He owns 11 Weeds Glass and Gifts stores in Vancouver alone.

Or David Malmo-Levine. The colourful crusader, who took the battle against prohibition all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, has opened one of Vancouver's newest dispensaries: The Stressed and Depressed Association.

"We never went away," says Dana Larsen, founder of Canada's Marijuana Party and vice-president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.

"There's a core of people who really started things off. I feel like this dispensary movement is kind of the second part of this retail revolution that was launched in the 90s: selling marijuana seeds, selling implements of our culture, our posters, our books, our movies, and now it's finally the actual substance itself."

Who speaks for cities?

If anything, marijuana advocates have proven themselves patient; they obviously see something in the wind right now.

The conversation is not just about marijuana, which polls show a majority of Canadians want to see legalized or decriminalized.

The dispensaries may be new, but Canada's cannabis crusaders have built a culture out of their fight for legalization. (CBC)

It's also about autonomy. And who gets to speak for cities in an increasingly urbanized nation.

In Vancouver, municipal politicians have battled Ottawa over a safe injection site, pipelines and a decision to remove a popular Coast Guard station. 

Whether it's drugs, oil spills, or the dispensary downstairs, Clough says ordinary people have to deal with the consequences of political inaction.

"I think the feds should just butt out," she says. "I don't want the feds speaking for the city. They aren't out here with this situation. It's just like we are so removed from Ottawa that they don't even know we exist."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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