Many of those who spoke at North Cowichan’s public hearing on the retail sale of marijuana in the municipality wondered why pot is being treated differently from alcohol and tobacco.
Council chambers were filled to overflowing on July 18 as the municipality invited public comments on its proposed bylaw amendment that would prohibit the retail sale of pot in North Cowichan.
That means that any application to set up a pot shop in the municipality once the recreational use of marijuana becomes legal on Oct. 17 would require a site-specific zoning amendment that would have to come before council to be considered.
The bylaw received third reading at the end of the lengthy public hearing, with Coun. Al Siebring opposed.
A staff report tabled earlier this year indicated that under the municipality’s current zoning, once marijuana becomes legal, retailers would be able to apply to set up pot shops under North Cowichan’s very general “retail store” zoning, which has few constraints, including rules on where they can be established.
But the vast majority of speakers at the public hearing felt that North Cowichan was trying to hamper the legalization of recreational marijuana that has been mandated by the federal government.
Alison Anderson said she sees no reason why pot stores should be treated differently from businesses that sell alcohol and tobacco.
“I think moving forward with this bylaw amendment is a poor marshalling of municipal resources,” she said.
“It’s bad for tourism and makes no economic sense. Having marijuana dispensaries in the community will help keep the drugs out of the hands of youth.”
Neil Owen said the amendment would be bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy and that’s not what is needed in North Cowichan.
Maria, a manager of a dispensary in Chemainus, said the products for sale there are lab tested and of a high standard of quality.
“Many people use our marijuana to help them get off prescription drugs and some say that our products have saved their lives,” she said.
“As representatives of this community, it’s important that you consider this and the fact that you represent people that come to us for help.”
Ted Swabey, North Cowichan’s CAO, pointed out that under the legal framework set out by the province just last week, council would still have a say on what applications for retail marijuana stores would be given a green light, regardless if the bylaw amendment passed or not.
But he said the province provides no guidelines at this time on many aspects of the applications to set up marijuana stores, including where they can be established and how far apart they can be.
“It would appear that we would maintain some control of the shops through having to make a resolution to allow each one, but the province’s liquor licensing process started the same way,” Swabey said.
“We don’t know the future horizon and what criteria will be established, like distances from schools and each other, so we could be facing challenges. If we want to maintain some control over where these businesses are set up, it’s through this zoning amendment.”
As for the existing pot shops that are currently operating without business licences in the municipality, Swabey said the policy at this time is not to carry out any enforcement against them.
“It’s up to council to decide how to deal with them,” he said.
“If council chooses to enforce the bylaws, I would suggest you get legal advice first.”
Coun. Tom Walker said recreational marijuana will become legal on Oct. 17, regardless how anyone feels about it.
But he said he will support the bylaw amendment because it serves as a control mechanism for the municipality to determine how many pot shops will be allowed in any one area, and how close to schools and day cares they will be allowed.
“We can’t have all commercially zoned pieces of property allowed to have cannabis sales,” Walker said.
“People want access to marijuana and the federal government have said they will, no arguments, and they will have it.”
Coun. Al Siebring said that for him, it’s not about the ethics of legalizing pot, but mainly a land-use issue.
“I have no problems opening dispensaries here, but I want the ability to determine where they go,” he said.
“The province’s policy framework on this issue was just revealed last week and we’ve been working in a vacuum until then. We started this process before we had the province’s guidelines and now we’re trying to catch up.”
Coun. Rob Douglas said the discussion is on a specific bylaw amendment and is not about banning marijuana dispensaries in North Cowichan.
“I see retail sales as part of our future,” he said.
Mayor Jon Lefebure agreed that it’s a land-use issue and not about trying to prevent the sale of marijuana in the municipality.
“We’re just trying to control where sales are allowed,” he said.