Local medicinal marijuana advocates are asking Fernie city council to consider overriding a bylaw prohibiting them from receiving a business license.
The group, led by James Gittens, is interested in opening a medicinal marijuana dispensary, enabling patients to have access to high quality marijuana for medicinal purposes. Gittens said he is hoping that the City of Fernie will take a proactive approach to the issue.
“We are hoping that they will be proactive because what is happening across Canada is that there is a plethora of black market dispensaries opening without any oversight by the municipal government. We are looking for a really proactive approach. This is coming,” he said.
In accordance with city bylaws, the city cannot grant a business license that is not in compliance with federal or provincial regulations. As marijuana is still considered an illegal substance by federal laws, the city would be neglecting their own bylaws if they granted the group a business license to open a medicinal marijuana dispensary.
Gittens, along with Jeremy Grassic and Marsha Churchill, presented to council on Nov. 9, asking them to consider granting a business license despite Bylaw 2028, which outlines requirements for business licenses.
“We were in there to ask if they could override a particular part of the bylaw, which states that you cannot run a business that contravenes federal law,” said Gittens.
Fernie isn’t the first city to be confronted with this request. In June, the City of Kimberley granted a business license to a medicinal marijuana business, making headline news across the country. According to Scott Sommerville, chief administrative office for the City of Kimberley, the councillors agreed that the benefits of a medicinal marijuana dispensary would outweigh the potential risks.
“The first applicant came forward and put in an application and I denied it because our bylaw says we can’t grant licenses to businesses that go against either city bylaws, provincial laws or law of the Dominion, which are federal laws,” said Sommerville. “They came to council and they gave a very heartrending version of why they wanted to do this and what their own personal experience was and council passed a resolution to issue them a license. And we had two other applicants, and same thing – both of them came to the delegations, spoke to council and after their delegation, council instructed staff to issue them a license.”
Sommerville said news outlets and mayors from across Canada contacted their city hall, asking why they decided to go ahead with granting the business licenses.
“We were being asked for interviews all the way from Fernie to Ottawa,” he said.
“Kimberley set precedent in Canada because they actually enabled small business and entrepreneurs to get a business license first,” said Gittens. “Kimberley is awesome because they kind of saw the writing on the wall and they’re actually controlling the market by giving business licenses. They’re not having dispensaries just randomly open, which I think is really progressive. So that’s what we are hoping the City of Fernie will do.”
City councillor Jon Levesque said that the issue is multi-faceted, but one that the City of Fernie needs to start researching.
“We knew this was coming. It is inevitable,” he said. “We need to think about what this means for our communities.”
Levesque attended a seminar about marijuana in communities at the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) conference in Vancouver this fall and said there are three main categories that marijuana dispensaries affect – the legal ramifications, the public health concerns and the reality of how it will operate in a community. He believes the area that council can have the biggest impact on right now is education.
“If we look at all three – the legalization portion, if we have an appetite for risk as a community, we can do what Kimberley did, but I’m not sure I’m convinced that’s the best route either, especially if our current [federal] government is looking at ways to make it that no one has to go to jail. I think that the heavy lifting that we have to do as municipal councillors or as politicians is focus on the education of it. Informing our plebiscite, informing our citizens, providing contextual information,” he said.
The main issue, according to Gittens, is the timeline. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is starting to look into legalizing and decriminalizing marijuana, which would enable Gittens to receive the business license without issue. However, he is concerned about how long that might take and the fact that local people could benefit from medical marijuana now.
“I just don’t think that people should have to wait. I think that there is benefit to this,” Gittens said. “People have waited long enough for this stuff, they really have. Why should they wait longer?”
Jeremy Grassic, who is a medical advisor to Gittens, said he has seen many patients in his massage therapy clinic that could benefit from medicinal marijuana.
“Patients that weren’t getting any help from anything else that went on to use it and found it really useful,” he said. “I just talked to a patient whose biggest stress of it all was having to drive to Nelson and pick up 70 grams of weed and then hiding it in his car and being paranoid the whole way home that he was going to have to go through a check stop.”
Gittens and Grassic both said that they hope to provide a high quality product, in accordance with the best practices, which is something that is not regulated through black market products.
“Everything has got to be tested by best practices, so you make sure there is no herbicides, you make sure there is no pesticides. In Vancouver, they are not following a supply chain. There is no oversight, they have no control over their product from hand to hand,” Gittens said. “We’ll have a barcode – this is where it came from, this is where it was grown, this is the strain and you can follow that all the way through. You need to have that, especially when you are providing a health care product. Unless you have control over that supply chain, what are you selling?”
While Levesque personally sees the benefits of medicinal marijuana, he said right now the issue is black and white, as granting a business license for a dispensary is currently illegal. While Sommerville and the City of Kimberley understand that granting the business license was in contravention of the bylaws, city council made a moral judgment on the issue.
“It was a very quick and easy decision. They know that people are using this for their health. Just about everyone that they know or themselves have been personally affected, whether it’s cancer or MS. I think we are at a day and age where just about everyone knows someone who could have been helped or has been helped through the use of cannabis, so I think they thought it was the morally right thing to do for the betterment of the community and for the health of the community and I think that made it an easy decision for them,” he said.
Regardless of legalities, Levesque agreed with Gittens in the fact that council has to face this issue, and start a conversation about the nuances of marijuana dispensaries, legal or not.
“If I got to speak to the City of Fernie and its citizens, I would say that these are exciting times, that we are not without some heavy lifting in front of us, and that I do appreciate why this is of concern to many people,” he said.
“It’s important that we start talking about it and I encourage everyone that has concerns or questions to come to the public input sessions and committee of the whole and at the council meeting because we do need to have this talk and we need to wrap our heads around it.”