Confusion: Marijuana legal limbo frustrating for everyone

Green Aura, a marijuana dispensary in Chemainus, received another $200 ticket from the Municipality of North Cowichan last week.

The owners of Green Aura, a marijuana dispensary in Chemainus, received another $200 ticket from the Municipality of North Cowichan last week.

It’s the second ticket from bylaw officers in a matter of weeks for the dispensary, given for not having a business licence, and co-owner Trevor Pewarchuk said he’s “frustrated” with the municipality and the failure, so far, by the federal government to legalize marijuana.

It’s a sentiment shared not only by other pot dispensaries in the Cowichan Valley, but by many local officials as well.

Alistair MacGregor, the NDP MP for Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, is also raising concerns around the proliferation of pot dispensaries in his riding, and blames the Trudeau government for the confusion surrounding pot laws across the country.

“The municipality has made it clear where it stands on this issue, but so have we, and we made it clear to the bylaw officer who delivered the ticket that we have no intention of closing down operations here,” Pewarchuk said.

“We were excited with the recommendations from the [federal] task force [in November], and we believe that the legalization of marijuana is on the horizon. But the federal government is dragging its feet on the issue and is encouraging raids on dispensaries and law enforcement against them.”

The Liberal government has promised to table legislation to legalize marijuana for recreational use by this spring, although it still remains unclear when pot will be taken off the prohibited list for the first time since 1923.

The federal task force recommended in its 106-page report that storefront and mail-order marijuana sales should be available to Canadians 18 years of age and up.

There are at least six marijuana dispensaries currently operating in the Cowichan Valley.

Chris Clay opened Mill Bay’s Warmland Medicinal Cannabis Centre 18 months ago.

Unlike Green Aura, Warmland is in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, where business licences are not required for stores to operate, so the dispensary is not having the same problems with bylaw officers over licensing.

Clay said he had one visit from the RCMP since the dispensary opened, but no legal action was taken and no arrests were made.

“We’re very careful at the dispensary, where membership is required, and have become quite imbedded in the community since we opened,” he said.

“But it is frustrating that the federal government is taking so long to complete this process, and that people still continue to get criminal records for marijuana offences. It should have been at least decriminalized by now.”

Clay said that even if Ottawa legalizes marijuana by this spring, as planned, it will then be passed on to the provinces to legislate, which could take considerably longer.

“But we do have a provincial election coming up in B.C. and if the NDP win, I expect we’ll see a lot more leniency in regards to marijuana then we would from another Liberal government in Victoria,” he said.

While local RCMP detachments have been monitoring the dispensaries in the Valley, they have yet to conduct any raids, unlike what’s happened in other communities on Vancouver Island.

But Cpl. Tammy Douglas, a spokeswoman for the Island’s RCMP, said in a statement there is no “legal mechanism” in Canada that allows for dispensaries or compassion clubs to sell marijuana to the public.

“That’s regardless of whether or not the purchasing individuals have licences to possess marijuana, or whether or not the vendor has a licence to produce marijuana,” Douglas said.

“Businesses and individuals operating in contravention of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act and Health Canada regulations may be subject to investigation and criminal charges in accordance with Canadian laws.”

Jon Lefebure, who is both the mayor of North Cowichan and chairman of the CVRD, agreed that while the federal government is working towards the legalization of marijuana, the sale of pot is still illegal in Canada at this time.

“My personal opinion is that the sooner the federal government comes to some resolution to this issue, the better,” he said.

“I’m hopeful that structures for the regulation of this industry will be put in place, like it is for alcohol, if it finally becomes legal. That would certainly help clarify things for businesses and the public in the region.”

MacGregor is also criticizing Ottawa over the long process and delays in the promise to legalize marijuana in Canada.

He said his constituency office has been inundated over the last few months with complaints from people in the riding who are concerned about the growing number of dispensaries that are opening up in the region without receiving the proper approvals and licences from local governments.

He said the Trudeau government has contributed to the “significant amount of confusion” that exists around the issue.

“I’ve spoken to constituents who thought marijuana became legal the day Prime Minister Trudeau was elected because of his promises, and I’ve spoken to law enforcement officials who have at times been unsure as to whether to enforce against marijuana infractions,” MacGregor said.

“I’ve spoken to local government officials who have varied opinions on whether business licences should be issued to dispensaries, and I’ve spoken to licensed medical-marijuana producers who have made significant capital investments to comply with federal laws, and are threatened by those who don’t.”

MacGregor said the previous law-and-order approach to marijuana did not work and contributed to a significant black market controlled by criminal enterprises.

“I support the government’s plans to legalize and regulate marijuana, and I will be looking forward to the introduction of this legislation, hopefully in the near future,” he said.