Nelson city council has begun the process of amending its zoning bylaw to make marijuana dispensaries a prohibited activity in all zones in the city.
But even if it passes, it does not necessarily mean that the city would shut down any existing dispensaries or refuse any future ones.
Instead, the city’s approach is that the bylaw will allow the city to be more prepared for the federal legalization of marijuana expected in the spring. And, before legalization, it will give council more means to shut down a dispensary if it is operating unsafely: selling to underage people or operating near a school, for example.
“What this does is give council the opportunity to regulate when things become legal. It gives us the opportunity to regulate where businesses can be located,” said Mayor Deb Kozak at Monday’s council meeting. “It is a stop gap until legalization.”
The new bylaw passed first and second reading and must now go to a public hearing, not yet scheduled, before it proceeds to a final council vote.
Zoning governs which parts of the city specific kinds of businesses may operate in. Nelson’s current zoning bylaw does not mention marijuana dispensaries. The bylaw amendment before council now defines marijuana dispensaries and prohibits them in all zones of the city.
Councillor Bob Adams asked if the city will enforce the bylaw.
“We would not actively enforce unless we get direction from council on public health or safety concerns, or if we get complaints,” said city manager Kevin Cormack. “Or if a new one tries to establish itself, this gives council the opportunity.”
Councillor Janice Morrison said she is in favour of the bylaw because it is proactive.
“We need as many tools available as possible and this zoning adds to that. We don’t know what is going to come down. Will it be sold in liquor stores or pharmacies? We have to be prepared for anything.”
Councillor Valerie Warmington voted against the bylaw because she said it is not specific enough.
“I would have preferred that if we don’t want marijuana dispensaries on our main street or any other specific locations, that should be stated in the zoning bylaw from the outset rather than opting for complete prohibition that may require variances to be considered on a case-by-case basis.”
She said she thinks council should have had a discussion with the public about this.
Councillor Robin Cherbo also voted against it.
“I think it is premature,” he told the Star.
“If a federal law comes down we might have to go back and change the bylaw again. We need to know more about the federal regulations first.”
Cherbo added: “If we do try to close dispensaries some of them would have enough money to fight it in court and this could cost the city money.”
The city has two other avenues into dispensary regulation other than zoning: business licencing and policing.
The city has granted none of the seven dispensaries in town a business licence because it does not licence illegal activities.
The city could fine them hundreds of dollars per day for operating without a licence but has chosen not to do so.
As for policing, Nelson’s police chief Paul Burkart told the Star, “If we were to find that they are selling to clients for non-medical use or to those that claim medical use but have not gone through the proper federal process, we could certainly enforce, which could include a search through the search warrant process.”