Vancouver police board dismisses complaint about pot-shop enforcement

Vancouver’s police board has unanimously rejected a prominent advocate’s complaint that the city’s police department was failing to enforce the law against marijuana dispensaries.

Pamela McColl of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana Canada had accused the department of not doing its duty “to maintain law and order” by not shutting down all pot shops in the city.

But deputy chief Doug LePard delivered a report to the board Thursday that stated criminal laws are less effective than municipal bylaws at closing illegal businesses.

The VPD must respect the City of Vancouver’s decision not to use its bylaw powers to shut down dispensaries and instead create a regulatory framework, he said.

“We don’t operate in a vacuum. We have to consider the circumstances that we operate in,” LePard told the board.

“We have the greatest of respect for policy decisions that the democratically elected council has decided on, and we will work in that environment.”

The police board, chaired by Mayor Gregor Robertson, voted unanimously to dismiss McColl’s complaint after less than 10 minutes of discussion.

The city recently became the first in Canada to regulate its 100 marijuana dispensaries, requiring owners to undergo criminal record checks and pay a $30,000 licence fee. 

LePard said police held discussions with the city about how to deal with the proliferation of dispensaries in 2013, when there were 27 pot shops.

The city decided not to use its bylaws to shut down the stores — most of which were operating without a business licence — and instead work on setting up a regulatory framework, he said.

LePard said the VPD must use its limited resources to deal with more serious drug offences and dispensaries that are suspected of selling to youth or involved with organized crime.

Police have executed 11 search warrants at pot shops and recommended multiple charges since 2013.

But LePard noted these actions have been generally unsuccessful at closing the dispensaries. Some stores re-opened shortly after raids, and search warrants were executed three times at one location.

He said he’s hopeful the new regulations will be effective, as they will allow the city to take action against dispensaries that don’t meet its criteria, including being located too close to schools.

Selling marijuana over the counter is illegal in Canada, and last week Health Canada sent cease-and-desist letters to 13 pot stores warning of RCMP raids if they don’t close.

Chief Adam Palmer said he had spoken to RCMP about the letters. He said Mounties have legal authority anywhere in Canada, but in practice they don’t interfere with local police.

“I don’t believe in any sense of the word you’re going to see the RCMP come marching into Vancouver,” he said outside the meeting. 

“Vancouver police will deal with Vancouver issues and the RCMP will deal with the issues in their territory.”

City staff are processing 176 licensing applications for marijuana dispensaries. Robertson said outside the meeting that it could be months before it’s clear how many will be approved.

“I’m sure it’ll be a much lower number than the number that have applied,” he said.

McColl said she was disappointed but not surprised by the police board’s decision. She said she doesn’t believe the new regulations will root out dispensaries that are selling to youth or involved with organized crime.

“These guys are going to proliferate, they’re going to sell their dope and they’re going to do whatever they want to do because that’s what they’re all about,” she said.

“They don’t believe in law and order, and they have shown that.”

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

Laura Kane, The Canadian Press