According to Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak, if there’s one local issue that’s more polarizing than the recently overturned downtown dog ban, it’s the growing concern around the implications of marijuana legalization.
“This is an extremely complicated issue and people are either passionately for or against it. That’s why it becomes tricky to talk about,” Kozak told the Star this week, after locally evicted marijuana dispensary Qunnabu Healing Society made our front page.
“Obviously we’ve been paying close attention to what’s happening south of the border with legalization. I know Vancouver is trying to regulate their dispensaries, and the federal government seems to be coming down pretty hard on them. Knowing what our community is like I think it’s time we have this discussion.”
Kozak was making reference to a letter from Health Minister Rona Ambrose, addressed to Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson, in which she warned that normalizing marijuana use “could mean more than tripling its use by youth”. She also refuted claims that dispensaries operate in a “grey zone”.
“The law is clear,” Ambrose wrote. “They are illegal.”
I first read the letter when it was forwarded to me by Nelson’s Deputy Chief Paul Burkart, who spear-headed the campaign to oust Qunnabu. But already there are two new dispensaries in the works, and it’s falling to his police department to find creative ways to discourage their proliferation.
Burkart told me 24-year-old director Kyle Lindroos was breaking the law when he began dispensing his variety of cannabis-themed products within a few blocks of city hall, but they opted to take an “educational approach” rather than arresting him.
I was curious as to why Lindroos was being targeted while other long-term establishments continue to distribute marijuana to hundreds of members in the community. As my editor Greg Nesteroff said, it seems like these places are “sprouting up like Starbucks”.
So what can we do about it?
Burkart said the Nelson Police Department’s stance on the issue is straightforward: “storefronts are illegal and we will treat them as illegal.”
That being said, given current manpower constraints, they’re not proactively pursuing marijuana-related investigations unless they receive “complaints based on fact” from the community. In the case of Lindroos’ Front Street Emporium location, a number of people approached them with concerns.
Burkart said they don’t have an official count of the dispensaries operating in Nelson, but noted they’ve been approached by groups enquiring about the legality. In every instance, they’ve attempted to dissuade people from bringing their business to town.
“We can’t know a number for sure. There may be three or four in different locations, and of course there’s many that are working underground.”
Burkart said the police have been instructed to hold off on marijuana-related investigations until pending court cases conclude.
“The Crown has been saying ‘wait to see what the courts have to say’.”
Kozak said she’s never met Lindroos, nor has she been involved in any conversations about how to regulate the local dispensary market.
“From what I understand Mr. Lindroos was shut down because there was smoking of the product on the premises, which isn’t allowed. I’m not sure what all the rules are, who can sell and when. But as a council we have not had that discussion.”
Kozak said she was unaware of the other pot-selling establishments in town, and suggested they’ve successfully “flown under the radar until this point.”
“When they come in to buy a business license, they pay for it and that’s that.”
Kozak expressed ambivalence about the marijuana issue, saying it’s “not a top priority”, but she acknowledged that it’s becoming more pressing as dispensaries start to flood into town to take advantage of what some are calling the “Green Rush”.
While on city council Kozak supported an anti-violence initiative put forward by marijuana law reform group Stop the Violence BC, and during last year’s election she earned the endorsement of Sensible BC.
“These are retired police chiefs, politicians and judges. These are people who have been dealing with this issue for a long time. They’re saying very clearly our current laws aren’t working.”
But that doesn’t mean she wants to be associated with the controversial plant, nor does she support storefront locations for dispensaries.
“I don’t want to be remembered as the pot mayor,” she told me. “That’s not who I am.”
Kozak said the community needs to find a better way to grapple with the complicated issues surrounding addiction and mental health distress.
“What is the core issue here? It’s about addiction and giving people the freedom of choice and support they need. And if you want to talk about it in dollars and cents, with the cost of policing and health care, we’re talking about a lot of people’s lives being destroyed. There has got to be a better way.”
During the election, Sensible BC asked whether Kozak would encourage the Nelson Police Board to take a more lenient stance on marijuana. She said though she’s now taken on the role, she isn’t aware what the current stance is.
“I’m only one member of a six-person board, and I’ve only been to four meetings. This has not come up at all. I haven’t heard anything about a crackdown or anything like that. I need to start asking those questions.”
He said the city needs to create a comprehensive plan on how to regulate this fledgling market, otherwise the task of keeping the lid on the industry will continue to fall to them.
“Somebody, it won’t be us, will have to come up with regulations. They’ll have to explore the fees, the rules. That’s exactly what Vancouver is looking to do now.”
Burkart said anticipating legalization is no big deal.
“If at some point they legalize, we’ll live with that the same way we’ve lived with the home grows all this time. Now with dispensaries it’s the same thing. ”
Nelson Sensible BC spokesperson Herb Couch praised Vancouver’s move to regulate the dispensary market, and said the same thing is needed locally.
“We’ve had our local compassion club since 1999. Do we need another dispensary? The market will decide, I guess. If someone wanted to set one up, it would be wise to lobby council to set up guidelines.”
Couch said a public hearing is needed.
“We need to ensure medical marijuana patients have reliable access to the medicine,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lindroos said he’s moving ahead with his third location.
Burkart said they’re aware of his intentions, and will be keeping an eye on the situation. I plan to do the same thing.