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BC government again rejects dispensary’s request for enforcement exemption, defers to Ottawa

The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club says a recent letter from the BC Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General could provide them with a “path forward” for one of Canada’s oldest continually-operating medical cannabis dispensaries, despite the Province denying a request to cease enforcement against the club.

Details on what that path forward could look like are unclear.

The letter is in response to a request by the city of Victoria to the BC government to create an exemption for the club from provincial enforcement. BC Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth says that while the Province cannot authorize activities that are illegal under federal criminal law, they have “raised the issue” with Health Canada to encourage the federal government to explore the creation of a licence that would allow the club to “continue providing certain services”.

The letter does not clarify what those certain services would be, but rather, passes the buck to the federal government following a request by the club to get an exemption from the Province. It also notes that medical and non-medical cannabis in Canada, noting that under both provincial and federal criminal law, it is illegal to sell cannabis not produced by a Health Canada licensed producer. 

Protecting health and safety is a shared priority of both the provincial and federal governments with the legalization of non‐medical cannabis. That is why cannabis products from licensed producers are strictly regulated to ensure they are fit for human consumption including mandatory testing for the presence of solvent residues and contaminants such as pesticides, mould, bacteria, and heavy metals. Regulated cannabis products are also tested to confirm THC and CBD amounts.

Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General

Earlier this year, the BC Cannabis Secretariat also sent a letter to the VCBC declining the club and city’s request to create a provincial exemption for the club, citing conflict with provincial and federal law. 

New changes to BC’s Cannabis Control and Licensing Act have recently come into force that will allow the province’s Community Safety Unit (CSU) to target illicit retailers as well as landlords leasing or renting space to those retailers. 

The CSU says they have conducted at least 276 inspections and engaged in enforcement action nearly 50 times, and seized almost $8 million worth of product from illicit retailers.

That said, I have raised this issue with my federal ministerial counterpart and encouraged exploration of a licence that could allow VCBC to continue providing certain services. The Province has also urged the VCBC to contact Health Canada about licensing and informed them they may want to share their views about enabling medical users to access cannabis through a storefront.

MIKE FARNWORTH, MINISTER OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND SOLICITOR GENERAL

The VCBC had initially sought an exemption under BC’s own cannabis regulations, utilizing Section #130 of the province’s Cannabis Control and Licensing Act, which allows for exemptions to provincial law under certain circumstances. 

The response from the province’s Cannabis Secretariat notes that it is illegal under both provincial and federal law to sell cannabis that is not from a federally licensed cannabis producer. The club operates by selling cannabis to their registered patients that was not produced by federally approved commercial producers. 

Earlier this year, the Victoria, BC City Council had unanimously supported a call from the VCBC to seek an exemption from the province, following a raid by the provincial Community Safety Unit in November of last year.

“As you likely know, while the Province is responsible for regulating non-medical cannabis sales, Health Canada regulates medical cannabis, including access and sales,” wrote Mary Shaw, Executive Lead at the BC Cannabis Secretariat. “Storefront sales are not permitted under the federal medical cannabis regime. In addition, under both provincial and federal criminal law, it is illegal to sell cannabis that was not produced by a producer licensed by Health Canada. While I appreciate the intentions expressed in your proposal, the Province will not authorize sales of cannabis that are illegal under federal criminal law.”

BC has taken a slow approach to enforcing their own provincial rules around cannabis sales, initially saying they would not prioritize enforcement against illicit cannabis retailers in areas without legal stores. But as the number of legal stores increased, raids on those illicit retailers who stayed open began in the summer of 2019

One retailer who stayed open despite repeated warnings even received a hefty $1.5 million dollar fine. The VCBC has been raided by the BC Community Safety Unit twice now, most recently in July 2020.

“I noticed one today, [October 18,] that was open a week ago and is now shut down,” Farnworth said in 2018. “We were very clear from the beginning that as more legal stores come online, as more legal stores are open, then enforcements by the CSU will be ramping up. It’s only fair that those stores that have abided by the rules, that are paying their fair share of taxes, don’t have their competitive advantage undermined by stores that are operating illegally.”

Enforcement by the province against the VCBC, one of the oldest cannabis dispensaries in Canada, operating since the late 1990s, came after the province authorized several legal recreational stores in Victoria. 

“The Victoria Cannabis Buyers Club would like to sincerely thank everyone who has helped advocate for us during these difficult days,” wrote Ted Smith in the post to Cannabis Digest. “We would also like to extend a huge thank you to Mike Farnworth, John Horgan, Carol James and the rest of the BC government.  Together we will make cannabis legalization function in ways that truly makes the world envious.”

In his letter posted to Cannabis Digest earlier this year, Ted Smith, the club’s founder said he doesn’t see this as the end of his efforts to continue to serve patients who need medical cannabis and do not want to use the legal system. 

“This battle has just begun in a war that has raged for decades, and this email is by no means a game changer,” wrote Smith.

Featured image via Cannabis Digest


About Author

David Brown writes about cannabis policy and industry stuff and lives in British Columbia. He likes plants.