An April 12 story in the Nelson Star begged for a closer read. Law-and-order Conservative MP David Wilks – an ex-RCMP officer – told a recent Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) board meeting about the possibility of regional government getting into the marijuana business. There’s nothing stopping cash-strapped local governments from growing medical pot under new rules set to come into effect in 2014, he said.
I called up Kootenay–Columbai MP Wilks to find out what star alignment had caused him to give that presentation on that day. Did the reporter misconstrue it? Is the 2014 federal budget going to be really bad news for municipal governments?
Neither, Wilks explained. He was invited by the RDCK to present on the subject in light of changes to federal medical marijuana growing rules.
In a year from now, Health Canada hopes to phase out licensed home-based medical marijuana grow-ops. They’re planning to steer production into larger facilities, and will introduce new rules requiring beefed-up security, such as increased criminal checks, surveillance requirements and log books.
Wilks explained there are about 45,000 Canadians licensed to use medical marijuana, but the number is expected to jump to between 100,000 and 200,000 in a few years.
Wilks said the idea is to create a more controlled, safer system for providing medical pot. For example, local governments don’t have access to information on where licensed grow-ops are located. Local fire departments don’t like being unaware of what’s out there. Police complain they’re out of the loop and that the existing system invites abuses by criminals and malingerers.
Local government will be given more control under the new system. They will be required to adjust zoning rules to allow for medical marijuana grow-ops.
The vision, Wilks explained, is for larger, more centralized grow-ops that deliver by mail.
Does he think local government will get involved in the business end? “There’s nothing stopping them,” he said, but qualified that statement: “Nothing stopped them in the last process.”
PHOTO: In April, Kootenay–Columbia MP David Wilks brought the Regional District of Central Kootenay up to speed on changes to medical marijuana regulations. Photo by Greg Nesteroff/Nelson Star
The reality, Wilks said, is that town councils won’t likely get directly involved in the same way they don’t operate breweries or other kinds of non-core businesses. But they will have to adjust bylaws to deal with potential applicants.
Wilks said he expected all municipalities would be compliant by a March, 2014 deadline. A City of Revelstoke planning department spokesperson said he was aware of the new federal rule changes and that the department would be dealing with the changes in the near future. Mayor David Raven, who is also the chairperson of the Columbia-Shuswap Regional District, said he didn’t have much information yet on what the changes meant for local government.
But enhanced local government involvement is not far-fetched. A May 2, Toronto Star article highlighted plans by the council of MacTier, Ontario, to rent out their hockey rink to a company that plans to grow medical marijuana. Larry Braid, mayor of the hamlet of MacTier, said the project would create 12 to 30 jobs and help the local economy. It has another benefit; the arena costs $250,000 to run annually, but only brings in about $40,000.
The idea is facing stiff opposition from some “flabbergasted” residents, who aren’t keen on losing a community centre – especially to a grow-op located not far from an elementary school.
In the spirit of blue-sky thinking, I asked Wilks about the likelihood of getting some federal grants for a city-owned medical marijuana grow-op. How about combining it with the idea of a technology-park that was floating around about five years ago? You could heat the greenhouse with the waste heat. Could Revelstoke get some federal money for that?
He’d wish city council the best of luck, but the answer would be no, Wilks said. It’s not news, but Wilks restated that the Conservative government had no plans to move towards legalization, and it wasn’t something he supported personally. Like many police officers who’ve experienced the results of serious motor vehicle accidents, his first reason was lack of reliable, on-the-spot impairment testing. He also gave several other reasons.
The obvious political challenges aside, there are lots of other reasons for local governments to be wary about which direction they take on the medical pot issue.
Decriminalization advocates mount provincial referendum
Dana Larsen is a high-profile, Vancouver-based marijuana decriminalization and legalization advocate who’s spearheading SensibleBC’s campaign to decriminalize marijuana in B.C. using the provincial referendum process.
In an interview with the Times Review, Larsen said he felt popular opinion would support their efforts in a referendum, if they make it there. “The hard part is getting the signatures,” Larsen said.
B.C.’s referendum rules are tough – you need 10 per cent of registered voters in every electoral district to sign the referendum petition within a 90-day period. (Theirs is from September through November 2013).
Larsen panned the federal medical marijuana rule changes, calling them “a step sideways” and “Ill-advised and poorly thought out.”
The new rules will drive prices up for patients – he predicted up to ten-fold – and put the cost on par with black market marijuana.
Larsen feels the system is designed to centralize production and will rely on shipping through Canada Post, leading to degraded quality control as patients aren’t able to see the products first-hand.
Tinctures, extracts, oils and ointments aren’t allowed – products some patients need.
Although the rule changes point to large warehouse operations that may bring in new property and business tax revenue for local governments, Larsen believes it’ll be short-term. The momentum towards decriminalization and legalization is building, and that will ultimately disrupt the market, causing prices to drop dramatically, in turn disrupting the business model of Health Canada-licensed warehouse operations.
Larsen points to the current B.C. election, where some campaigning leaders have left the door open for decriminalization.
“They can’t get away with saying it’s a federal issue anymore,” Larsen said. One of SensibleBC’s core arguments is that while drug laws are federal jurisdiction, the provincial government has practical say in how police resources are utilized. SensibleBC proposes their “Sensible Policing Act” that would actively discourage and block police from pursuing marijuana possession charges, amongst other steps.
Many Southern Interior towns have medical dispensaries – such as in Nelson, where MP Wilks made his recent RDCK presentation. What about Revelstoke? The new Health Canada rules will force the unknown number of local patients who grow their own (or buy from licenced growers) to find alternate sources. Is it time for one in Revelstoke?
“Dispensaries are already illegal and they get raided fairly often and it just depends on where you are. In Vancouver the [Vancouver Police Department] and city council have made a policy decision to leave legitimate dispensaries alone, but other parts of the province, other parts of the country it varies wildly,” Larsen said. “It really comes down to a local decision.”
Local authorities set the tone in the de facto grey area. “If you don’t have support from city hall, and your neighbours and your landlord, then you definitely have problems,” Larsen explained. Even when they’ve ticked all the boxes, there’s still an arbitrariness to enforcement.
Malakwa resident hopes to open dispensary in Revelstoke
Malakwa resident Leslie Johnson is aiming to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Revelstoke. He’s put the feelers out to city hall and is exploring retail options here.
The 39-year-old splits his time between the Eagle Valley and Revelstoke, where his daughter lives.
Johnson sports a long beard and wore a burgundy ‘Eagle Valley Medical Marijuana Society’ T-shirt when I met him last week. He walks with a limp, the result of a car crash that left him with serious back injuries. The injuries were exacerbated when he tried to go back to work at a sawmill, doing repetitive lifting. He turned to medical marijuana to help with the pain.
PHOTO: Medical marijuana. Creative Commons licensed image by Eggrole
“Things have been changing in Revelstoke,” Johnson said. “A lot of people who don’t smoke it don’t like the money being wasted by the cops and the politicians and the prisons trying to enforce the rules. They just see it as another alcohol prohibition gone wrong.”
Johnson said he’s been a licensed medical grower for about three years, and has been planning his Revelstoke medical dispensary for about the same amount of time.
The former full-time Revelstoke resident said the demand is already there; many patients never bothered with Health Canada licenses and just bought from the black market. Those who are licensed to grow will be forced out by the federal rule changes.
He hopes to open in a quiet retail location downtown where he can offer a medical marijuana directly. He isn’t planning to have a smoking area on the premises.
Johnson hopes to get his paperwork into the city soon. He has a license to grow medical marijuana, but requires other approvals from Health Canada before he moves forward.
Although he wants to make it as official as possible, the proposed dispensary operates in a grey area – a medical dispensary isn’t legal, but they’re sometimes tolerated, sometimes not. “I don’t want to do any time over it,” Johnson said; he’s trying to cover his bases as best he can.
The Times Review spoke with the Revelstoke RCMP, who referred us to their legal representative. He wasn’t available to speak by press time.
Johnson said locating just outside of city limits isn’t his preference, but is a possibility –including Malakwa – although it wouldn’t necessarily keep him in step with authorities.