Vancouver's oldest marijuana shop wins appeal

The B.C. Compassion Club on Commercial Drive remains open, will apply for business licence

The oldest medicinal marijuana dispensary in Vancouver cleared a big hurdle Wednesday in its battle to keep its doors open for its 6,000 members and continue operating on Commercial Drive.

The B.C. Compassion Club, which was founded in 1997 and moved to Commercial Drive in 1998, won its appeal Wednesday from the Board of Variance, overturning an earlier decision by the city that ruled the dispensary was too close to two schools to operate under the city’s new regulations for pot shops.

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The dispensary can now apply to the city for a development permit. If granted, the next step would be to seek a business licence. For now, the dispensary is not in danger of closing.

“I feel a tremendous sense of relief because I’ve been terrified about this process,” said founder Hilary Black, after leaving the hearing at city hall, where she spoke before a packed room of supporters, including members, dispensary staff, neighbours and the club’s landlord. “I presented on behalf of the Compassion Club many, many times over the last 20 years and never once has the fate of the entire organization been threatened like this.”

The club, which Black said has had “tacit approval” by the city and police to operate since its inception, was forced to appeal because its location at Commercial Drive and East 14th Avenue was within 300 metres of Stratford Hall (across the street) and St. Joseph’s School (almost 200 metres on the other side of Clark Park).

The dispensary was among dozens the city rejected last October as it began its process to grant business licences to pot shops that met new regulations, including being more than 300 metres from a school.

In the compassion club’s case, both schools wrote letters of support to the board, as did neighbours, businesses, residents and members. The board heard only one resident was opposed to the dispensary continuing to operate.

Board member George Chow noted the 300-metre rule but based his decision on the effect a closure would have on the dispensary’s 40 staff and 6,000 members, many of whom are seriously ill and rely on cannabis for treatment. The members also have access to a wellness centre staffed with herbalists, counsellors, nutritionists and acupuncturists.

“This would be quite a hardship for the membership if this club were to close,” said Chow, after hearing from Black, who said the club couldn’t afford the rent at a similar-sized facility in Vancouver.

The five-member board’s main principle on which it bases its decisions is related to a so-called “hardship” clause. The board must be satisfied the application of the city’s bylaw would impose “an unreasonable restraint or unnecessary hardship on the use or development of the property,” according to information on the city’s website. Or, the board must be satisfied “the special circumstances giving rise to hardship upon which an appeal is based are unique to the property in question.”

The board, which was unanimous in its decision, heard from members of the club, including Jin Un, who was driven to tears in explaining how cannabis therapy has given her hope in treating a rare disease that confines her to a wheelchair.

Rodney Torrence, a quadriplegic, said receiving acupuncture, coupled with treatment from a herbalist and nutritionist, has helped him feel better and improved his diet.

“I don’t know where I could find a replacement for what the club provides,” he said.

John Kaurinovic, the club’s landlord, said his father first rented the one-level storefront to dispensary. When his father died, the club planted a memorial outside the building. He wouldn’t reveal what he charges for rent but told the board he could probably get double from a new tenant.

“It’s an honour to have them there,” said Kaurinovic, noting his 87-year-old mother uses the wellness centre. “I would basically give them a lifetime lease, if I could.”

Lawyer John Conroy, who has acted on behalf of the club since its inception, told the board the dispensary meets the criteria city council approved last year in its bylaw for a compassion club.

The club is a nonprofit, has membership in the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, offers at least two health services such as traditional Chinese medicine and psychological counselling for 200 hours or more per month and can produce records regarding number of health care hours provided to members (3,300 health care appointments last year).

“We really are a frontline harm reduction centre that catches people falling through the cracks,” said Black, noting the club gets its marijuana from a small group of growers who work under contract and provide organic, high quality cannabis with specific strains. “We are an actual treasure in your city. We are literally saving people’s lives.”

Andreea Toma, the city’s chief licensing inspector, said the club and other existing dispensaries could not be initially “grandfathered” under the new regulations because they never did receive a licence from the city to operate.

Now that city council approved a business licence scheme in June 2015, the club and others have to meet a series of requirements to get a business licence. The city’s goal is to regulate the business, not the marijuana.

A compassion club’s annual licence fee is set at $1,000 and a retail outlet at $30,000. So far, Toma said, the city has received four applications for a business licence.

“They’re still not fulsome, but there’s back-and-forth with the applicants,” she said. “We do have two that are further along, in terms of getting information back — one being a for-profit and one being a non-profit compassion club.”

Of the 176 applications the city received for dispensary licences, 69 were for compassion clubs. The rest were for retail businesses. The Board of Variance will continue to hear appeals from those rejected by the city until November. So far, three other dispensary operators have been granted an appeal.

Black's club received its appeal on the same day that Health Minister Jane Philpott announced the Trudeau government will introduce marijuana legislation next spring. It's not clear how legalizing and regulating marijuana will affect dispensaries, although some analysts believe they could become irrelevant if cannabis is sold in pharmacies and liquor stores.

Note: Since this story was first posted, Black said she was contacted by Stratford Hall school which informed her the initial letter of support for the club was signed by the former principal and not approved by the school's board of directors. The school, which opened eight years ago with full knowledge the club was across the street, now says its position on the club's location is neutral. Black said the letter from St. Joseph's School, which was given to the Board of Variance, said it did not oppose the club's existence in its location. The school never said it condoned the use of marijuana, Black said.

mhowell@vancourier.com

@Howellings

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