2016’s Top Stories #2: Pot dispensaries proliferate in Nelson

The number of illegal storefronts skyrocketed in 2016.

Leaf Cross Health manager Vic Olak is seen in his Baker St. storefront with supporters and patients.

They’re still illegal, but now they’re everywhere.

Pot dispensaries have proliferated in Nelson in previous years the count currently sits at six and this year the municipality grappled with how to rein in the rapidly growing local industry. Should they grant them business licenses? Ban them? Regulate them somehow?

“I think it certainly demonstrates that there are plenty of entrepreneurs in the community anticipating legalization and leaping ahead,” Kozak told the Star in January, after the now defunct Kootenay Compassion Collective opened in the former Front St. campaign office of MP Wayne Stetski.

“We are certainly monitoring closely and so are the police,” she said. “The city will not have them opening near schools or any places like that, and we will act on complaints received.”

Initially the city had communicated that they didn’t want dispensaries on Baker St., but two have since opened Leaf Cross Health and the Nelson Potorium.

And with their highly visible locations and public donations to local funds such as the Room to Live campaign, they’re becoming progressively difficult to ignore.

That’s why council proposed a new bylaw in November, holding a public hearing that attracted over a hundred passionate Nelson residents to decry the decision.

“I’m here to speak for my membership, which is about 1,000 people: we do not want this bylaw,” Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club founder Philip McMillan, who opened in 1999, told council.

“We started this compassion club not to jump the gun but to change the laws and to help people. Why did our compassion club start? Because we did not want to send our elders to the bus stop.”

The council ultimately voted in favour of the bylaw, but in a surprise reversal overturned it two days later when Councillor Anna Purcell changed her mind.

“What I heard loud and clear, not just at the meeting but also afterwards from the community, was that they didn’t feel brought along with that decision and that didn’t sit well with me,” said Purcell.

Purcell praised the process the city went through in attempting to regulate Airbnbs and short-term rentals in the city, and said the process followed for dispensaries was not as thorough.

“I think cannabis is at least as important as short-term rentals as an issue of broad public concern, and we really need to bring the community along for that conversation and that didn’t happen.”

But this didn’t sit well with fellow councillor Janice Morrison, who was in favour of the bylaw.

“I think there’s some confusion about what we’re doing here,” said Morrison.

“We’re not trying to run these dispensaries out of town, we’re trying to put in place a zoning bylaw, which is one of the few tools we have as a city council.”

She said many Nelson residents don’t realize these dispensaries are currently illegal.

“Sometimes I think that gets lost with all the other talk going on. Marijuana is a multi-million dollar business and it was clearly brought to the forefront at the public meeting I have to say as a five-generation Nelsonite I am very disappointed to be told the primary industry in Nelson is the distribution of an illegal substance. I have a very difficult time with that.”

She said “when it’s legalized I can choose not to go into those stores. It’s not that I don’t want people to use it. I’m in health care: use what you’re going to use, but let’s not pretend it’s something it isn’t and right now it’s illegal.”

But Purcell thinks it’s time for the community to embrace legalization.

“Like it or lump it, it looks like we’re moving to legalization and that will bring up a lot of responses for people whether you like cannabis or don’t, use it or don’t, and that’s the first layer we need to get through.

“But it doesn’t change the fact legalization is coming, and we need to understand what we want as a community and move beyond a moralistic way of looking at it. It’s going to be legal.”

In the meantime, council doesn’t plan to sit on its hands. Kozak has promised that a new interim solution to the dispensary situation will be introduced in the new year.

 

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