City marijuana sales stuck in a legal shadowland

Regulatory changes won’t make pot cafés legal, but city still tolerates prescription sales

News of Olympic snowboard champion Ross Rebagliati’s plans to launch a chain of stores that combine cafés with medical marijuana dispensaries has prompted government regulators and pot-dispensary owners to warn entrepreneurs against jumping on the bandwagon.

Jeannine Ritchot, director of Health Canada’s medical marijuana regulatory reform, told Business in Vancouver that Rebagliati’s vision would violate proposed government regulations.

She said Rebagliati could apply to be a government-approved marijuana producer, but he would have to fill prescriptions through a “secure shipping method” such as Canada Post.

“The intention of the new regulations [was] not for licensed producers to set up a storefront. Marijuana continues to be a controlled substance so we want to make sure we mitigate against any risk of diversion.”

Ottawa would allow only registered pharmacists to be face-to-face distributors of marijuana, if the B.C. government were to pass a law to legalize that practice.

Rebagliati’s stores would therefore be illegal – just like the 15 medical marijuana dispensaries that currently operate in Metro Vancouver.

Rebagliati told BIV in January that he plans to open a chain of Ross’ Gold stores, which would have a coffee shop at the front and an adult-only space at the back where patients could have medical marijuana prescriptions filled.

Patrons without prescriptions could get one from an on-site doctor. They would then be allowed to buy paraphernalia and smoke whatever is prescribed.

Rebagliati said his vision was fuelled by regulations Health Canada plans to announce in March and be in effect on March 31, 2014.

Draft regulations released in December would allow entrepreneurs to apply for a government licence to grow marijuana and sell pot to people who have prescriptions from doctors.

Health Canada currently contracts a grower to cultivate marijuana. It also processes mail-order requests to that supplier, who can then send marijuana to patients with prescriptions.

Under the changes, Health Canada would allow approved growers to operate their own mail-order system to supply marijuana to patients.

Ottawa would also stop its current practice of allowing approved patients to grow their own marijuana or to designate a third party to grow it. So there would no longer be any approved patients – only approved mail-order suppliers.

Many patients, however, prefer to go to dispensaries for personal service rather than using mail order, said Dana Larsen, general manager of the two-store Medical Cannabis Dispensary Society.

“We could be charged at any time,” Larsen admitted to BIV.

The Conservative government’s Safe Streets and Communities Act, which took effect in November, mandates minimum penalties for marijuana possession and production: one year in jail for more than three kilograms and six months for between six and 200 plants.

Even though medical marijuana dispensary operators are openly flouting the law, both city hall and the Vancouver Police Department allow the stores to operate as long as sales are made only to patrons who have prescriptions.

Tolerance for the enterprises also stems in part from respect for court rulings across Canada, including a 2011 Ontario Superior Court decision that laws prohibiting the possession and production of cannabis are “constitutionally invalid and of no force and effect.”•

From pot prohibition to the present

1908: Canada passes the Opium Act and starts a drug prohibition registry

1923: Canada outlaws cannabis possession and production

1937: Canadian police seize cannabis for first time

2001: Health Canada starts to regulate access to cannabis for medical purposes

2002: A federal bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis appears likely to pass but dies when Prime Minister Jean Chretien prorogues Parliament

2004: Prime Minister Paul Martin reintroduces the bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis, but the bill dies when Martin’s government is defeated on a confidence motion

2005: Canadian police, acting on a request from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration , arrest pot legalization activist Marc Emery for distributing marijuana seeds in the U.S.

2008: Federal Court of Canada Justice Barry Strayer strikes down federal regulations concerning the growing of medical marijuana by licensed producers. Prior to the case, a producer was prohibited from growing for more than one person

2009: Pot legalization activist Marc Emery pleads guilty to drug distribution in the U.S. and is sentenced to five years in prison; he is now in Mississippi’s Yazoo City Prison

2011: The Ontario Superior Court rules that laws banning the possession and production of cannabis are “constitutionally invalid and of no force and effect” and gives the federal government three months to change them – later extended until the February 1, 2013, Ontario Court of Appeal ruling on the decision

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