Looking for clues on coming marijuana regulations in an interview with B.C.’s new minister of public safety

When Ontario became the first province in Canada to reveal its plans to regulate the distribution and sales of recreational marijuana, it sent a shiver through Vancouver’s storefront dispensary industry.

B.C. NDP / bcndp.ca

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When Ontario became the first province in Canada to reveal its plans to regulate the distribution and sales of recreational marijuana, it sent a shiver through Vancouver’s storefront dispensary industry.

The Ontario plan, unveiled on September 8, will not allow independent dispensaries. Instead, it states the provincial government will oversee a monopoly with, initially, just 40 stores serving a population of 13.6 million.

If the B.C. government decides to implement a system even remotely similar, Vancouver’s dispensary industry could find itself extinguished.

In a telephone interview, B.C.’s minister of public safety and solicitor general, Mike Farnworth, repeatedly emphasized the new NDP government has not yet made any major decision on what regulations for recreational marijuana are going to look like in B.C. But Farnworth did begin the conversation with an acknowledgement that might give dispensary operators just a glimmer of a reason for optimism.

“Has the sky fallen? No, the sky hasn’t fallen,” he said about the situation in Vancouver since bylaws for marijuana businesses were implemented in 2015. “I think there are people who say the Vancouver model is fine, and then there are others who don’t like the Vancouver model.”

Farnworth was however quick to add that even if existing dispensaries are allowed to continue operating in Vancouver, major aspects of their businesses are going to have to change.

He noted that today, nobody knows much about where dispensaries are getting the marijuana they’re selling. And, while the Liberal government is leaving a lot up to the provinces, it has said suppliers will have to receive a federal license to grow cannabis legally.

“You’ll still have questions of supply,” Farnworth said. “They’ve [dispensaries] got a model that works right now but there is now a law of the land, a federal model with which the province has to operate under.”

For the same reasons, Farnworth said he sees problems with a system that the NDP’s allies, the B.C. Greens, appear to favour. Their leader, Andrew Weaver, has said he’d like to see a “craft” industry of family-owned grow operations proliferate similar to how small businesses have enjoyed success with beer in recent years.

“If the federal government only has a handful of licenses or a few licenses, they will be the only ones able to produce,” Farnworth explained. “That will have an impact on the kind of craft industry you can have.”

As Canada moves toward fully legalizing and regulating recreational marijuana, there’s more at stake in B.C. than other provinces.

While always illegal under federal law, Vancouver dispensaries have operated relatively freely since 2015. That year, the city implemented new bylaws for marijuana businesses that aimed to bring pragmatic restrictions to the booming industry. The city’s tacit approval of over-the-counter sales led many small-business owners to make major investments. In the past, the Straight has interviewed Vancouver residents who said they’ve put their life savings into a marijuana storefront.

Farnworth didn’t express a lot of sympathy for those who have taken such risks.

“They don’t get to say, ‘This is how we are doing it so you now have to do it the way that we’ve decided that we want it done’,” he said. “It doesn’t’ work that way.”

Farnworth noted he’s tasked with writing rules for the entire province.

“Vancouver has said, ‘Here’s how we see it, in terms of the City of Vancouver’,” he said. “But just because the City of Vancouver sees it that way doesn’t necessarily mean, for example, that Port Coquitlam sees it that way or that Victoria or Hope, for example, sees it that way.”

The Straight asked Farnworth if B.C. is considering creating a government monopoly like the one Ontario has proposed.

“We’re looking at all the different options there are for retail models and we haven’t landed on any particular one,” he replied.

On a timeline, Farnworth said that the May provincial election means B.C. is going to be a bit behind Ontario and the other provinces.

“We’re playing catch up,” he conceded. “But that’s fine.”

Farnworth said he still expects B.C. to meet the deadline that Ottawa set for the provinces to draft rules for the areas of the industry for which they’ve been told they are responsible.

“There is change coming in July 2018,” he said. “And the province is working to put in place a framework around distribution and retail to meet that timeline.”

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