Nelson votes to restrict pot dispensaries

Nearly a hundred people crowded Nelson city council chambers to speak out against bylaw amendment.

Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club founder Philip McMillan

Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club founder Philip McMillan

Over a hundred Nelson residents crowded into city council chambers on Monday evening to decry a zoning bylaw amendment that aims to regulate pot dispensaries in the city, calling it unconstitutional and threatening to take the fight to the Supreme Court.

And though council went ahead with it, voting 4-3 in favour, councillors repeatedly expressed confusion over what exactly the bylaw would accomplish. Mayor Deb Kozak said it’s simply the next step in public planning and doesn’t necessarily mean current operations will be forced to move or shut down.

“We need common sense planning in our community,” she said.

But Nelson’s Sensible BC representative Herb Couch says there are two potential end results for this bylaw being implemented: it could be ignored or enforced.

“Both of these outcomes are terrible,” he said. “This is the wrong way to go and it should not be adopted. I realize Nelson city council finds itself in an uncomfortable situation, but they should set up sensible regulations.”

He fears “this would harm local economy and help the black market to stay alive. It would also send the wrong message to Ottawa. To be clear: you should not ban the local craft cannabis industry.”

Local advocates speak out

Dispensary owners, their patients and local physicians were among those who criticized the bylaw before the vote.

“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.”

He noted that his thousand members have a thousand spouses, and since he’s only one of the six dispensaries currently operating in the downtown core “this is going to affect a lot of people.”

His feelings were echoed by Kaleigh Herald of the Nelson Potorium.

“We currently serve over a thousand patients and we’ve only been open since May this year. We’re creating access and a form of harm reduction. If it weren’t for us being here, where would these people go?” she asked.

Speakers urged council to embrace the local industry, and praised the quality of the products being distributed. Herald put it this way: “B.C. bud is world renowned and a lot of it is created right here in our backyard.”

McMillan invited council to visit his dispensary, which is a non-profit and has a business license that was issued from the province in 2000. He also noted that though there has been some confusion around the number of dispensaries currently operating, it’s now down to six.

‘We voted in this council for progressive change

One cannabis patient present during the meeting was teenager Jemma Rezansoff. Her mother Lisa spoke on her behalf, and told council her daughter requires CBD oil derived from cannabis to manage her seizures.

“The world of medicinal cannabis is so vast and confusing to the layperson, and we rely on our community professionals to lead the way,” she said, praising the team that has helped her navigate the process.

“We haven’t found our magic bullet, but we’ll always keep trying as new products and treatments become available.”

And these are treatments that have existed for 4800 years according to local doctor Mike Smith, who both uses and encourages the use of medical cannabis. He said his condition would be “untenable” if he solely relied on pharmaceuticals, and urged the council not to pass the bylaw amendment.

Fairview resident Howie Ross, who is involved with Leaf Cross Health, urged the council not to claim the silent majority disagrees with those who took the time to show up Monday evening.

“These are the people who care,” he said. “Don’t let Nelson be left behind”.

He told council residents will remember their actions when they vote.

“(Former Mayor) John Dooley, who you’ll notice is not in this room right now, was opposed to all this. We voted in this council for progressive change, not for the same-old, same-old.”

‘This could cost the city money’

Once the bylaw came before council, councillor Robin Cherbo expressed his opposition, saying he’d like to see business licenses issued to the dispensaries in the same way Vancouver, Victoria, Rossland and other communities have. He said he doesn’t understand why Nelson didn’t take this step.

“Somebody could challenge this bylaw and that could cost the city money,” he said. “And I think we need more consultation with the community. There’s no rush to get this done that I can see.”

Councillor Bob Adams admitted he was confused about what effect this would have on the community, and whether or not it would lead to dispensaries being shut down. He asked staff to clarify.

“This is an interim measure,” city manager Kevin Cormack told him, explaining they’re waiting for federal laws to change before moving forward.

Councillor Anna Purcell expressed concern that the bylaw wording was too broad, and said “we might want to be careful around that”. Her discomfort was shared by Councillor Val Warmington.

“This gives the impression we’re opposed to something that’s important to our community,” Warmington said. “I would prefer an approach that really does work with the people who are in the industry already.”

Councillor Michael Dailly spoke on behalf of the dispensaries.

“I would usually want to be proactive, and I get we want to put in zoning so we don’t have dispensaries where we don’t want them, but I’ve also heard from dispensary owners and people who’ve used these products, and there’s a willingness to be involved in that process.”

He said “I would like to take the time to consult with them and hear what they’re saying in the industry about how they would zone dispensaries.”

Purcell was impressed by the idea of putting together a working group of stakeholders to study the issue, an idea also supported by Councillor Janice Morrison.

“This is a nascent industry and we have an opportunity to do something really special here,” said Purcell.

And though Kozak called the bylaw “clumsy”, she said she would vote in favour of it. She called for “people from all sectors to come together for this conversation.”

Ultimately Cherbo, Dailly and Warmington voted against the bylaw while Purcell, Adams, Morrison and Kozak voted in favour. And though people were audibly upset, Kozak urged them not to fear that council will go ahead with attempting to close dispensaries.

“I don’t want people to be distressed. Nothing dramatic is going to happen on the street tomorrow,” said Kozak.