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Chilliwack marijuana dispensary gets frosty reception from city hall

WeeMedical Dispensary manager Shayli Vere outside the new marijuana dispensary that opened on Fifth Avenue in Chilliwack on March 19. The City of Chilliwack has ordered them to close, and has been fining them $2,000 a day since March 20. - Paul J. Henderson
WeeMedical Dispensary manager Shayli Vere outside the new marijuana dispensary that opened on Fifth Avenue in Chilliwack on March 19. The City of Chilliwack has ordered them to close, and has been fining them $2,000 a day since March 20.
— image credit: Paul J. Henderson

Those behind a new marijuana dispensary just open in Chilliwack say they have been overwhelmed with support and encouragement from the general public.

From city hall, however, not so much.

WeeMedical Dispensary held its grand opening on Saturday, the latest of about half a dozen similar shops run by a society based in Vancouver.

“People are so thankful we are here,” manager Shayli Vere told the Times during a visit to the tidy, sparse shop on Fifth Avenue a day before they opened.

“We really think we are going to be a great addition to the community,” said May Joan Liu, a board member of the WeeMedical Dispensary Society, which runs a number of similar shops in places like North Vancouver, Nanaimo and Port Alberni.

But three days before the shop even opened its doors, the owners and the society were made aware of just how unwelcome they are at city hall.

“They are in contravention of the criminal code and the city’s zoning and licensing bylaws,” Mayor Sharon Gaetz said Tuesday.

The city’s lawyers, Vancouver-based Lidstone & Company, issued a warning letter on March 16 to the society and the two owners, David Ronald Andre and Brian Stewart Elderkin of Chilliwack.

In it, lawyer Sara Dubinsky explains that the only zone where distribution of marijuana is permitted in Chilliwack is in the Agricultural Land Reserve, so the dispensary is in violation of the allowed uses of the commercial zone where it’s located.

Further, WeeMedical does not have a business licence and cannot get one for a business in a location without applicable zoning.

“Please be advised that if a marihuana dispensary commences operation at 46000 Fifth Avenue, the City may commence legal proceedings to enforce its bylaws without further notice,” the letter said.

The business opened up March 19, three days after receiving that letter, and Gaetz said fines to the operator and owners totally $2,000 per day were issued March 20, 21 and 22, and would continue to be issued as long as they stay open.

Vere responded with a petition targeting Chilliwack city council to allow WeeMedical to do business as a dispensary society. After six days, as of Tuesday, it had 267 supporters.

Vere said the dispensary is run on the model of a health clinic.

“We are very clinical, very clean and we are here to support patients,” she said.

“We are here to provide accountability for the product out of our shop,” Liu added.

Various strains of cannabis are for sale at the clinic in prices ranging from $10 to $13 per gram. They also sell tinctures, capsules and edibles. Those purchasing products need a membership and have to be over 19 years of age. To get a membership, clients can show a dispensary card from elsewhere or can provide a note from a doctor or otherwise prove they have a condition listed by Health Canada as treatable with medical marijuana.

According to data obtained by the Times in 2013, there were more than 500 personal use production licences in the City of Chilliwack, and 77 designated person production licences.

How that marijuana is distributed by the designated licensed growers is somewhat of a mystery.

“This is better than buying out of a guy’s car in the alley,” Vere said.

When asked about that, Gaetz referred the question to Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl or Health Canada.

“Health Canada is the body that is supposed to be regulating the distribution,” she said, adding and reiterating that WeeMedical is in violation of the criminal code and city bylaws.

“If it is legalized, and we anticipate that it will be, we anticipate there will be some regulation,” she said. “We will wait for those regulations to come down then the city will move in concert with the federal and provincial governments.”

As for the police and whether a crackdown can be expected, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Mike Rail said only this: “Businesses and/or individuals operating in contravention of the Controlled Drug and Substance Act (CDSA) and Health Canada Regulations may be subject to investigation and criminal charges in accordance to Canadian laws.”

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Other communities have dealt with dispensaries differently

By Paul J. Henderson

Chilliwack is just the latest community to face the legal and jurisdictional morass of medical marijuana dispensaries.

Abbotsford has been dealing with the issue for months, and is currently seeking an injunction to shut down a pot shop and ban the owner from the city.

Don Briere owns over a dozen dispensaries in B.C. and Ontario, was denied a business licence by the city of Abbotsford. The city won an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court in January which a judge said Briere’s Weeds Glass and Gifts store violated city bylaws.

Briere is steadfast and says not only will he stay open now, he’ll stay open if a judge rules against him and orders another of his shops, Mary Jane’s Glass and Gifts, to shut down.

Meanwhile, municipalities across B.C. have been forced to address this situation where, in the face of promised federal legalization, they are asked to regulate what is still an illegal product.

WeeMedical Dispensary Society opened up in Chilliwack on March 19, three days after being threatened with fines and legal action by city hall.

WeeMedical also opened up a similar shop in Port Alberni in October, but there the municipality took a very different approach.

While Chilliwack was “very, very aggressive,” according to WeeMedical Dispensary Society board member Mary Joan Liu, Port Alberni took a softer approach.

Liu’s son Justin Liu runs a WeeMedical dispensary in Nanaimo and, as in Chilliwack last week, he opened up in Port Alberni overnight with no city approval.

This led to months of debate, culminating in a 5-2 vote last week to regulate dispensaries in Port Alberni in a way similar to Vancouver.

“We changed our zoning bylaw so that medical marijuana was a permitted use in commercial zones,” Port Alberni Coun. Chris Alemany told the Times.

They also issued a business licence and added stipulations in the zoning to forbid dispensaries within 300 metres of schools nor within 1,000 metres of one another.

“It’s a contentious issue but came together around trying to recognize that we had a potential problem on our hands if more started to open up.”

And open up they did, with a total of nine at one point in the community of approximately 17,000.

But at least with the strict regulation in place, Alemany says now they have a stick to force those within 1,000 metres of WeeMedical, so far the only one to apply and receive a business licence, to shut down.

As for any advice to the City of Chilliwack, Alemany said municipalities are stuck between a rock and a hard place with this one.

“You are in a terrible situation,” he said. “It’s not a situation I think that’s fair for any city council to be in. The only thing I would suggest is listen to your community and make the best decision you think is appropriate.”

At least for now, city hall isn’t listening to community feedback on the subject, but instead relying on legal advice.

- with files from the Abbotsford News and the Alberni Valley News

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