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British Columbia Supreme Court Orders Non-Government Dispensaries to Shut Down

Emily Robertson
cannabis, storefront, dispensaries, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, Canada, legalization, Supreme Court, Vancouver, BC, lawsuits

It’s a move that seriously harms medical cannabis patients and destroys multiple cannabis businesses that have been peacefully operating for years: you can only legally buy government weed.

The chaos of legalization and the awkward intrusions of government oversight have left Canada in a flurry of provincial predicaments. There are provinces without cannabis dispensaries, medical cannabis patients without insurance for prescriptions, and a rapidly diminishing stock. Many in the country are reeling with confusion about the gaps left in legislation and cannabis rights.

Now, the Supreme Court in British Columbia (BC) has thrown another wrench into the gears of legalization by ordering all non-government dispensaries within Vancouver to shut down immediately.

cannabis, medical cannabis, recreational cannabis, BC, Vancouver, dispensaries, storefront, legalization, black market, Supreme Court, lawsuitImage credit: Stories In Light

On 13 December, 2018, the BC Supreme Court declared that any dispensary not operating within the legal bounds of cannabis regulations must shut down or face fines and even jail time. Injunctions against cannabis storefronts are nothing new in the province.

History of Dispensary Versus Government Regulations in BC

British Columbia has a long history of disputes between independent dispensaries and the government. In April 2016, Vancouver created a Medical Marijuana-Related Use (MMRU) model, which gave dispensaries a month to close. At that time, roughly 100 storefront cannabis dispensaries were operating in Vancouver, providing products for medical cannabis to patients across the province and beyond.

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Image credit: Adam Melnyk

In the two years that have passed, there have been 53 injunctions against storefronts. But, rather than shutting these dispensaries down or even diminishing enthusiasm to run a business, storefronts started to fight back. They formed Team Black Market, and acquired a team of cannabis lawyers to help them.

The team was made up of 28 of the shops that faced legal action along with lawyers John Conroy, Robert Laurie, and Jack Lloyd. The movement was known as ‘dispensary test case’, and it meant that the dispensaries continued to provide medical cannabis to patients across the province, despite the laws in the province.

This is the case that was brought forward to the BC Supreme Court in  September 2018.

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Image credit: Howard Sandler

Team Black Market Argues That It’s Illegal for Province to License Dispensaries

Lawyers Lloyd, Laurie, and Conroy made the case that the City of Vancouver does not have the right to license dispensaries at all. In that case, if they were to license medical cannabis dispensaries around the province, they would be ‘aiding, abetting, and profiting from criminal organizations’ (Straight). Basically, the city can’t argue that the dispensaries aren’t legal without provincial licensing, because the province isn’t supposed to be licensing any dispensaries to begin with.

This may not be enough to argue the case, but the team of lawyers went further, conjuring Charter rights. Their case was built on the concept that the City of Vancouver was breaking the rights of Canadian citizens by not allowing them to access their medicine. Shutting down dispensaries that provide medical cannabis to patients in need of that medicine potentially places the city in a position of unconstitutional regulation. Particularly since government stores are woefully low on stock and are not able to make up the shortfall for these medicinal needs.

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Image credit: Government of Canada

The final ruling didn’t support Team Black Market. At this time, 3,713 tickets have been issued to dispensaries and dispensary owners across the province that total $3 million CAD.

Dispensaries Prepare For The Change

But by the looks of it, this is only going to get worse, as the province hasn’t worn out its agenda against ‘black market’ dispensaries. While the police chief claims that the city won’t begin raids immediately, those in Team Black Market are concerned about the harsh ruling that came this month.

Laurie released a Facebook statement following the verdict, expressing his discontent with the ruling: “I don’t know what to say other than I apologize to medical patients for failing to deliver at this time.” In a similar vein, Jeremiah Vandermeer, CEO of Cannabis Culture (one of the businesses represented in the case), said in a statement, “It’s extremely distressing that the City of Vancouver is threatening to close down peaceful business operators that provide a vital service to medical patients and the community.”

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Image credit: Straight

On the contrary, despite legalization and reduced stigma across the country, Kaye Krishna of the City of Vancouver, who is the general manager of development, buildings, and licensing, expressed content with the ruling. Krishna said, “This decision reaffirms the city’s authority over land use and our municipal business licensing for cannabis retail, and confirms the regulatory regime introduced in 2015 was well within the city’s jurisdiction to establish.”

This is frustrating. While the regulation is designed to reduce potentially harmful black market sales, dispensaries are not this. In fact, these cannabis storefronts are allowing medical patients access to cannabis and consultation that they otherwise would not be able to access.  For instance, in BC, there are only two approved dispensaries – one federally licensed in Kamloops and another in Kimberley that has private licensing.

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Image credit: Narcity

Most patients must rely on digital platforms. This causes issues for those who don’t have access to high-functioning internet. It also leaves a paper trail of cannabis purchase history that can become an issue for international travel.

Furthermore, the online ordering process is much slower than accessing a local dispensary.  In these spaces, patients have access to knowledgeable budtenders who can advise on strains appropriate for the condition. Additionally, shortages and postal strikes add the pain (literally) and aggravation for cannabis patients.

The ruling is discouraging for dispensaries across Canada, but Team Black Market can appeal, and hopefully the verdict will be different.

Emily Robertson

Emily Robertson has been writing freelance and contract work since 2011. She has written on a variety of topics, including travel writing of North America and the growing legalized cannabis industry across the globe. Robertson has a master’s degree in literature and gender studies, and brings this through in her writing by always trying to explore different perspectives. Born and raised in southwestern Ontario, Robertson moved to Glasgow, Scotland in 2016 to undergo her doctorate in Scottish Literature. She lives in the West End with her dog, Henley.

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