Nelson’s marijuana dispensary count reaches five

The city is impatiently waiting for the federal government to move ahead with marijuana legalization.

Alison VanNest

Alison VanNest

Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak is impatiently waiting for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to follow through on his promise to legalize marijuana, especially now that a sixth illegal storefront dispensary is rumoured to be moving to town.

“I think it certainly demonstrates that there are plenty of entrepreneurs in the community anticipating legalization and leaping ahead,” she told the Star.

“I’m wondering how many of those would survive over time in such a small community, and I don’t know if all of them are catering to the same customer base.”

Regardless, the city still isn’t granting business licenses to these operations and is viewing them as illegal.

Currently five dispensaries operate in Nelson. The Nelson Compassion Club, Cannaclinic and Kootenays Medicine Tree are all clustered around the intersection of Front and Hall streets; there’s one in Urban Legends on Baker St.; and the Kootenay Compassion Collective opened in the former Front St. campaign office of MP Wayne Stetski last Friday.

“We are certainly monitoring these dispensaries closely and so are the police,” said Kozak. Before the Star met with the owners of Kootenay Compassion Collective, they had already introduced themselves to the police.

“The city will not have them opening near schools or any places like that, and we will act on complaints received,” Kozak said.

Mahalakshmi and the Kootenay Compassion Collective

The Kootenay Compassion Collective (pictured above) is part of a larger vision for the Front St. space where it resides, and the owners have already applied for a business license for the retail and healing part of their operation, Mahalakshmi.

“When we went to the city, we told them we have two separate businesses in the same location is that allowed? They were all aboard for that,” said operator Chander Nath. Their operation includes a communal room, multiple offices and even a space for children to wait for their parents.

It’s easily the largest dispensary operation currently operating in Nelson.

“We put the passion in compassion,” KCC’s CEO Alison VanNest told the Star. Along with Nath and Lita Moth, she hopes to create a communal space where people can meet with doctors, receive massages and counselling, and purchase their medicine all in one place.

VanNest said she became interested in cannabis when she used it to wean herself off oxycontin, among other traditional medications. She has two replaced hips.

“I had this terrible accident and I was on oxycontin for four years, being in a wheelchair, learning how to walk again. I used cannabis to get off it. And another big revelation for me was when I started ingesting it and realized I could sleep through the night.”

She believes many in the community could benefit from the medicines she’s discovered.

And though all three are nervous about this undertaking, and about outing themselves publicly as working in the cannabis industry, they believe it’s time.

There will be a grand opening for the space on Jan. 23.

A proactive approach

The two police officers currently keeping an eye on Nelson’s dispensary situation and liaising with those involved are Sgt. Nate Holt (pictured above) and Det.-Cst. David Laing.

Holt said the situation is “complex.”

“It’s been a polarizing issue around here for generations,” he said. “For the police, taking a prohibitionist attitude is not the way to make any advances. For us the way to go is open dialogue so we can come to a solution together.”

Ultimately, it comes down to public safety for him.

“We want the people consuming the medicine to be kept safe, the people running these businesses to be kept safe, and we’re always ensuring public safety. That’s a pretty basic part of our job.”

In one instance last year a dispensary was potentially going to share an entrance with a children’s clothing store. When concerns were raised, police intervened. Holt said that’s what they’ll continue to do.

The trouble is the legal “grey area” they’re currently operating in, he said. He seconded Kozak’s sentiment that the general populace is getting impatient for legalization to move ahead.

“There’s a few different pieces of legislation pulling us in different directions, and we’re hoping eventually we’re going to get a clear sense of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

He emphasized the police aren’t sitting on their hands, and they’re taking a proactive approach to keeping the dispensary situation in check.

“There’s going to be different opinions even amongst police officers about what being proactive looks like. For us I think it’s about being conversant, not adversarial, with these dispensary operators. We want to make sure they know they can come talk to us too.”

He noted the police’s mandate is to ensure everyone’s safety, including those running these businesses.

“We serve them just as much as we serve anybody else.”

Sensible BC launches petition

Herb Couch, Nelson’s local representative for Sensible BC, a cannabis advocacy organization, said he’s pleased with the current dispensary situation in Nelson.

“I think it’s great we have dispensaries because the federal medical marijuana distribution regulations weren’t working for people. I’m glad the police have seen fit to allow them to operate as long as there are no problems.”

He said there’s a double-sided danger: under-regulating and over-regulating.

“If we don’t do a good job on this, it won’t successfully kill off the black market. But as far as Nelson goes, I think things are working well and I know there are medical users all throughout the West Kootenay accessing our services.”

He doubts the community can support six dispensary storefronts, but figures “the market will decide.”

“The fact that they’re still here means there’s a need,” he said.

Sensible BC is launching an online petition in the next week, urging the government to move forward on the legalization process. They’re also demanding pardons and expunged records for those imprisoned solely for cannabis offences.

But the most important thing is ensuring communities have input into the evolving situation, he said.

“I would hope the federal government would allow the local and provincial governments to come up with their own regulations. There would be lots of input into what would work in our community, and we have a lot of expertise here.”

Community engagement, cannabis education

Kootenays Medicine Tree’s director Jim Leslie (pictured above), who spoke at last week’s Women Grow event at the Hume Hotel and is teaching a course on marijuana through the Learning in Retirement program, said it’s time for dispensaries to come out of the shadows.

“We need to be careful in the message we’re sending. We need to talk about peer-reviewed science and our own experiences. We want to educate society as we move into a system that can regulate cannabis on a wider scale,” he said.

Leslie contacted the city about getting a business license, but was turned down. Cannaclininc applied for a business license, but it was rejected, though a petition urging the city to grant one has now garnered 600 signatures.

According to Pam Mierau, Nelson’s manager of development services, the city is “in the process of amending the business licence bylaw to allow council the ability to better regulate the sale of medical marijuana. Given the uncertainty around what the federal government is going to do, it’s a bit unclear what approach municipalities should take.”

Kozak said her hands are tied, and the city won’t move ahead with granting these licenses. But they’re looking at the example of other communities, such as Kimberley and Vancouver, and are mulling their options.

Sooner rather than later

According to Kozak, the current federal distribution program for medicinal marijuana is woefully inadequate.

“Where the law has fallen short is that currently the only way for medicinal marijuana users to receive their medicine is through the mail, which doesn’t seem to me like the most efficient way. There needs to be places in town where they can access the medicine they need.”

She said if marijuana is legalized for recreational use, that’s a whole extra element to cope with.

“If they’re going to go that far, let’s look at the whole ball of wax who’s producing, the quality controls, everything. This industry has such great potential, and it’s ripe for exploitation.”

Kozak is hopeful legalization could benefit the impoverished, women in particular.

“If this is something people are well educated in and they know what they’re doing and it provides a source of income, I think that’s great. But I also know where there’s money to be made, all sorts of people are attracted.”

Which is why we need regulation, she said. And that’s not the city’s responsibility.

“We’re urging the government to act sooner rather than later,” she said.

The Star contacted all the dispensaries in Nelson, but three of the five declined to comment.