First marijuana shop licence expected in the spring

Vancouver Board of Variance to begin hearing appeals from rejected pot shop operators in February

The City of Vancouver is still a few months away from making Canadian history by being the first municipality in this country to issue a business licence to an illegal marijuana dispensary, according to the city’s chief licence inspector.

That’s because city staff continues to sort through applications, collect feedback from neighbours of pot shops and wait for results of appeals by applicants initially rejected under the new regulations. Many dispensary operators are also looking for or found new locations for their businesses, said Andreaa Toma, who is overseeing the regulations brought in by city council in June 2015.

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“We could be looking at issuing the first business licence probably in the spring of this year,” she said.

That first licence will likely go to one of 12 applicants who cleared the city’s first hurdle of being at least 300 metres away from schools, community centres and neighbourhood houses. The 12 applicants will be notified possibly within two weeks whether they can proceed to the next step.

That step involves the city examining an applicant’s past business practices and whether he or she has been in trouble with the law. Signing a “good neighbour” agreement and meeting building codes related to health, fire and signs are also required to get a licence.

The 12 locations under review are spread across the city, with three on Kingsway, two on Main Street and others on East 41st Avenue, East 57th Avenue, West 10th Avenue, West 4th Avenue, East Broadway, Commercial Drive and Renfrew Street.

The Herb Co. Society is one of the applicants and operates a dispensary at 1189 Main St., across the street from Thornton Park. One of the co-owners, who identified himself as Sunny and declined to provide his surname, said feedback from neighbours about the dispensary has been mixed.

“There’s been some positive and some negative,” he said, noting he and his partners recently purchased the dispensary from a previous owner. “We received letters from some businesses that said they haven’t had any interruptions with their business and they’re not against our application.”

Sunny applied to the city for a $30,000 annual licence to operate a retail medical marijuana outlet. The dispensary is only accessible by members who require a doctor’s certificate to obtain Herb Co.’s marijuana products, he said.

“We don’t sell to anybody. I want a business licence, I want to operate in a proper manner,” said Sunny, when asked why he applied for a licence when some others in the city haven’t bothered. “I only took over the dispensary after the city said they were going to do the business licences.”

The Main Street dispensary is among an estimated 100 illegal pot shops in the city. In June 2015, city council voted 8-3 to proceed with a staff proposal that calls for $30,000 annual licence fees ($1,000 for non-profit “compassion clubs”), criminal record checks and zoning regulations that prohibit pot shops from operating within 300 metres of schools, community centres, neighbourhood houses and each other. Though council’s purpose is to regulate the business — not the marijuana — the new regulations also allow for the sale of marijuana oils, tinctures and capsules.

Toma said the city continues to sort out which pot shops located in so-called clusters of dispensaries will be granted the right to proceed with an application for a development permit, which is one of the steps to getting a business licence.

“There has to be one winner within all of these clusters and I believe we have about six or seven clusters,” Toma said.

The “winners” will be determined by the city’s demerit point system. For example, if a pot shop has a history of poor business practices, has had police execute search warrants at the business, then the city would penalize them for four points. If demerit points are equal in a cluster of pot shops, a lottery would take place.

When the city announced in October 2015 that at least 11 applicants had passed the first hurdle to getting a business licence, it noted more than 130 had not met zoning requirements. But Toma said those applicants are still in the system and some indicated they have found new locations, which allows them to begin the process to seek a business licence.

There are also many — Toma didn’t have a count at the time of the interview — that have chosen to go before the Board of Variance to argue their case to remain in their present location. The first hearings are expected to begin in mid-February and could run until November, if the board keeps to five applicants per meeting.

Meanwhile, Toma said the public should know the city has taken enforcement against at least two pot shops that did not apply for a business licence. She said more enforcement will come, saying “it’s not that we’re not enforcing, it’s just that a lot of these folks are in stream in our process.”

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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