Baker St. head shop Urban Legends recently opened a marijuana dispensary inside their store

Nelson pot dispensaries still in gray area

In the wake of the federal election, Nelson city council hopes to move towards regulating local marijuana industry.

The owners, staff and customers of Nelson’s pot dispensaries can “breathe easier” now that the federal election has concluded, according to Mayor Deb Kozak, though council plans to move ahead with measures to regulate and contain the fledgling industry.

“We were waiting to see what was going to happen with the federal election, and this is likely one of the issues the new prime minister will tackle in the first month,” Kozak told the Star. “We’re going to welcome legalization here in Nelson. It will provide clarity for local government.”

City manager Kevin Cormack agrees.

“The current system isn’t adequate,” he said. “We’re in a vacuum around both the original issue, which was medical marijuana, and now that will change if the feds legalize marijuana for recreational use.”

That will be a lengthy process, he figures.

“We’re in a difficult position because we do want to understand how long that might be, so right now we’re seeing what kind of concern there is in the community.”

Cormack told the Star the primary issue for council, the city and police remains public safety, and thus far they have received few, if any, complaints about how local dispensaries are functioning.

An unenviable position

Currently at least four dispensaries operate in Nelson’s downtown core. Most recently long-time Baker St. head shop Urban Legends began selling from its storefront location.

This has led to a conundrum for local government: owner Howie Ross has a business license, while the three other establishments don’t. Additionally, the new dispensary is located in a storefront accessible to minors, whereas the other three establishments do not allow minors to even enter the building.

Urban Legends has constructed a separate room inside the store which refuses access to minors.

Cormack previously told the Star the city has never knowingly granted a business license to a dispensary, and they were unwilling and unable to grant one to Cannaclinic on Front St.

But the current situation puts them in an unenviable position.

“It’s hard to build a regulatory framework when you know the federal legislation is likely changing,” said Cormack. “We could spend time establishing regulations and then find we’re not in compliance.”

And if he were to try to distinguish between Urban Legends and other existing locations, including the Nelson Compassion Club established in 1999, he wouldn’t know where to start.

“Does the provincial government set the age limits, like with alcohol? I hear advocates saying you should be 25 before you can legally consume it. And where is all this marijuana coming from? Likely not a licensed facility.”

Ultimately, it may be that the distinction between medical and recreational marijuana will no longer matter. However, Cormack believes police are effectively shutting down dispensaries that pose a risk to public safety, such as the twice-evicted one.

“I think we as a community expect our police to continue ensuring public safety, and I think they’re doing a good job.”

‘A lot more thought needs to go into this’

At the Union of BC Municipalities conference in Vancouver recently, city councillor Valerie Warmington (pictured) attended a session with provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall.

“He and a number of his colleagues did in-depth work looking into the health impacts and costs of marijuana in comparison to alcohol and tobacco, and what they found is that corrected for an equal number of users, the adverse health impacts [of marijuana] are significantly less,” she said.

Their findings suggest regulating marijuana leads to better health outcomes, while prohibition and decriminalization lead to crime.

“They felt, in looking at the legalization experience in the States, that the regulatory approach and implementing rigorous safeguards is the best way.”

She believes it’s time for Nelson to act.

“A lot more thought has to go into this. Council will have to carefully consider these issues. I think Washington and Colorado can offer us a fair bit of advice now that we can see how their example has played out, what we like and don’t like about their approach.”

One issue that may come up is edibles: currently the City of Vancouver doesn’t include them in their regulatory framework, while Washington state does.

“The quality and the strength and the purity need to be well-regulated,” said Warmington.

And though some may see legalization as an opportunity for economic growth, she believes it may not play out that way.

“The experience is that it’s quite revenue-neutral once you put the regulatory framework in place, and then they spend a lot of money on education, around encouraging kids in schools not to use it, and approaching it as a public health issue.”

Warmington said the need for council to act is “urgent.”

“Until now we’ve been in data collection mode, now we’re moving into action mode.”

‘I think it should be like any other business’

Ultimately, Kozak believes pot dispensaries will become as commonplace as liquor stores, and as innocuous.

“I think it should be like any other business,” she said.

She said city staff are currently researching how to get help from the federal government so they can begin working on bylaw reform, regulation and taxation “so we can have our fair share.”

Kozak said the current locations of the dispensaries aren’t problematic.

“It’s important to have visibility in the community. It’s great they’re not near schools or places where vulnerable folks would be hanging out. I’m comfortable with that. I would have concerns if we were having them set up in neighbourhoods.”

The time to address this is now, according to Kozak.

“This is an issue that isn’t going away. This is a conversation we have to have, and we have to have it now.”

Urban Legends owner Howie Ross said the board that runs his dispensary is preparing a public statement, but he declined to be interviewed for this story.

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