British Columbia

Vancouver boosts fines for pot shops but defiant retailers still selling

In Toronto and Ottawa, police tried co-ordinated raids to crack down on illegal pot shops. In Montreal, police recently swept through six marijuana storefronts — the day after they opened. City officials in Vancouver are trying something different, hoping licensing rules, hefty fees and fines can control the marijuana boom.

Toronto uses raids and charges, Vancouver tries fines as cities struggle with pot shops ahead of legalization

Dana Larsen runs two Vancouver marijuana dispensaries without a licence and vows to fight the city's bylaw fines (Meera Bains)

A steady surge in illegal pot shops has prompted many cities to turn to law enforcement to try and clamp down.

In Toronto and Ottawa, police tried co-ordinated raids to crack down on illegal pot shops. In Montreal, police recently raided six marijuana storefronts — the day after they opened.

But Vancouver's latest approach is different from many other cities, with local officials turning to zoning rules, licence fees and hefty fines to try and control the marijuana boom.

Earlier this year, Vancouver became the first city in Canada to draft a set of bylaws that would regulate pot shops in the absence of federal laws, which are expected to be tabled next year.

But the rules seeking to limit the city's growth of medical marijuana businesses, brought in on June 24, have so far had limited success. The city recently voted to quadruple fines, hoping the boost would give its regulations more teeth.

Long-time marijuana advocate Dana Larsen, who runs two unlicensed marijuana businesses in Vancouver, says "we haven't paid any of our fines yet." 

"We will if we have to, but we're going to use every legal means possible to fight those fines, including going to court."

He's not the only one — the vast majority of fines issued by the city haven't been paid.

Zoning rules, hefty fines

The number of medical marijuana retailers in Vancouver had mushroomed before the city brought in a bylaw to restrict their distance to 300 metres from each other, schools, youth facilities and community centres. 

According to officials, the number of marijuana-related businesses grew by 100 per cent per year from mid-2013 to mid-2015. In the first six months of 2015 alone, the city said, the number of pot-related businesses increased from 60 to 100.

After Vancouver set out its business licence and zoning rules, the city said it received a total of 176 applications before the August 2015 deadline. By October, the city had refused 140 applications, saying they "did not meet zoning requirements for medical marijuana-related retail uses."

Vancouver then gave those businesses a timeline: they had six months to shut down from the date their application was refused. 

The Medical Cannabis Dispensary on East Hastings is unlicensed. (Meera Bains)

Larsen has applied for business licences for his stores. But in the meantime, he's not willing to shut down the stores during the application process, which he says is taking months.

The city sends inspectors to ticket him — $250 dollars each visit — while the businesses remain open.

"I'd be happy to spend more money fighting those fines than just paying them, just kind of on principle," he said. "Because this city is full of schools and community centres. It really limits how many dispensaries can be in the city."

City council in Vancouver has been relying on a system of fines, while Toronto has relied more on law enforcement to deal with a surge of marijuana retailers. (Meera Bains)

Most fines unpaid 

The City of Vancouver recently approved a new rule that would quadruple fines for businesses without a licence. For example, a fine for businesses operating without a licence has risen to $1,000 per violation, up from $250 — an effort to change the behaviour of businesses by hitting them in the pocketbook.

As of Dec. 6, more than 1,000 tickets have been issued. Roughly a quarter of them, 255, have been paid.

The city expects to head to court next year after filing more than two dozen injunctions aimed at shutting down the pot shops it says are violating the rules.

Coun. Kerry Jang claims Vancouver's bylaw is more effective than police raids. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
We've actually stopped the growth of new dispensaries across the city.- Kerry Jang , Vancouver city c ouncillor

"Because of our licence system, we've actually stopped the growth of new dispensaries across the city, whereas places like Toronto, that spent millions of dollars trying to enforce with police and whatnot, are seeing an increase in the numbers," Vancouver Coun. Kerry Jang told CBC News.

Precise numbers on marijuana shops are hard to come by, as stores spring up without license or warning. 

In Toronto, there was a "proliferation" of pot sellers in storefronts across the city in spring 2016, a spokesperson said. In late May, city licensing staff and police raided a number of marijuana retailers, laying a total of 101 charges for zoning and licensing infractions.

"Since that time, enforcement has continued and there have been 156 dispensaries investigated to date," a licensing department spokesperson said in an email. Of those, 112 are closed and 44 are still operating, the city said.

New worries with legalization

A recent report by the federal marijuana task force highlighted the role of municipalities and provincial governments in future legislation — and there is the potential for new concern.

Jang reviewed the report and said the task force upholds the right of municipalities to manage their land. But he says he's worried about a recommendation that would allow people to grow recreational pot at home, with a limit of four plants per residence.

"It says it will be under the jurisdiction or under the control of local governments, but they don't tell us how a local government is supposed to enforce that," Jang said. "[They] didn't tell us how we're going to pay for that."