On Cannabis Dispensaries

Shifting Landscapes for Canadian Dispensaries


In August 2017, the City of Vancouver filed injunctions against 53 cannabis dispensaries, non-compliant with its rule that they be 300 metres or more away from schools, and day care centres. Adherence to this rule would have resulted in a shut down of 90% of Vancouver’s dispensaries; and City approval is indispensible to any future for them. In response, over three weeks in September 2018, lawyers Robert Laurie and John Conroy mounted a charter challenge in the BC Supreme Court (BCSC).[1] They argued that the 300-metre distance was arbitrary; and that, in attempting to shut down dispensaries, the City went beyond its jurisdiction. Such an attempt bars patient access to cannabis medicines, an established charter right. Chief Justice, Christopher Hinkson, has reserved judgment.


Then in November 2018, lawyers Robert E. Laurie and Jack Lloyd began preparing to petition the BCSC for a further hearing.[2] They plan to show that the situation for patients has been made direr by Canada’s postal strike, and shortages of legal cannabis. As of December 2018, judgment remains reserved, and the date of the new hearing is yet to be determined. A possible outcome would be an interim injunction against further City action.


What Is Going On here?


For the City of Vancouver, this is a battle to limit storefronts. But it is better understood as a collision of flawed systems, an inadequate medical one, and a scrambling recreational one.


The system for medical access to cannabis in Canada was never anyone’s master plan. Rather, it was built from government reactions to a series of arrests, and successful activist-patient charter challenges that ran from 1998 to 2016. That series resulted in a set of Licensed Producers; a mail order-only program; and a range of products limited to dried flower, and dilute (3% THC) infused oil, insufficient for most patients. In practice, this system worked only because it was bolstered by the presence of dispensaries.


Some Historical Perspective


Dispensaries are the offspring of a movement that began with the passing of Proposition P in San Francisco, in 1991. The proposition ‘legalized’ cannabis use for local AIDS sufferers, and patients coping with chemotherapies. The San Francisco Buyers’ Club, North America’s first dispensary, opened in 1992. Then in 1995, California passed Proposition 215, sanctioning medical cannabis in that State, and ushering in a new era. By 1997, Canada had four dispensaries: Cannabis as Living Medicine, in Toronto; the BC Compassion Club Society, in Vancouver; the Victoria Cannabis Buyers’ Club; and Vancouver Island Compassion Society. Today, there are an estimated three to four hundred, countrywide.


Though frequently dismissed by media as ‘pot shops,’ dispensaries carry a range of medicines that treat serious illnesses. These include edibles; tinctures; potent oils; concentrates; resins; and topicals. None is currently legal, and it is not known which, besides edibles, will be legal in 2019. Whatever the case, they are needed now.


In addition, older dispensaries provide care and community, qualities not found in ordinary shops. They have staff able to offer expert, face-to-face support. Some offer access to alternative therapies at discounted prices; others host potluck dinners, and holiday parties. For many, they are a lifeline.


Navigating Political Spaces


For Canadians wishing to remain legit, legalization has brought a medical crisis. There are shortages of legal product, and not all LPs have chosen to reserve quantities for established medical clients. But from a wider perspective, it has created a crisis of categories. The Venn Diagram indicates: the black market must go. But that market includes dispensaries.


How dispensary owners manoeuvre in this space depends on local governments, and law enforcement. Toronto has stuck with dramatic, police-led busts. These, however, have resulted in few convictions. Thus, some proprietors have learned to keep calm and re-open, limiting inventory to a day’s needs. Vancouver has chosen to license some, but control their numbers via injunction, opening the door to legal challenge. Victoria, which has also licensed dispensaries, provides another model. There, by-law officers visit storefronts regularly, but are, in the words of Alex Robb, manager of Trees Dispensary, “charming.”[3] And City Council has remained silent, leaving dispensers to carry on as usual.


Can the Dispensary Survive?


Robb is in the process of applying for a Provincial License. Given bureaucratic timelines, we should expect legal shops throughout BC by spring of 2019. Currently, there is one. But when these open, they will be just shops, as they will likely carry few real medicines. For that reason, some BC activists, like Dana Larsen,[4] have vowed to uphold the legacy, dispensary model.


If the court challenge is successful, the BCSC will toss the ball back, in effect, to government at all levels. After that, we will likely creep a little closer to resolution.

Judith Stamps December, 2018.  Published in BotaniQ.  p.22.

[1] Interview, Robert Laurie.

[2] Interview, Jack Lloyd.

[3] Interview, Alex Robb.

[4] Speech, Dana Larsen.

Judith Stamps

Judith Stamps holds a doctorate in political theory from the University of Toronto, and has taught political science at the University of Victoria. She is author of Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan and the Frankfurt School, as well as numerous journal articles and letters to the editor. From 2013-2018, she served as editor of Cannabis Digest, and wrote weekly blogs for Cannabis Digest Blogs. Her current writing focuses on cannabis history, science, and culture, and the concept of prohibition. She is a guest writer for The Daily Hive: Grow; Post Media's TheGrowthOp; and BotaniQ Magazine.

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