THE MORNING AFTER Canada legalized recreational marijuana, I ran into Tommy Chong at the Victoria airport.
Knowing the 80-year-old pot icon had flown in the day before for an event with Vancouver Island dope-growers, I didn’t think much of it at the time.
It still is, say those who thought legalization would mean open and easy access to marijuana.
Instead, one month to the day after legalization, it remains more difficult to buy cannabis in the capital than it was before pot went legit. And there’s no end in sight. Who knew that all the government needed to do to win the War On Drugs was change sides? Trust the people who brought you the Phoenix payroll system to take the most lucrative business in Canada and drive it straight into a tar pit.
The potocalypse so many feared (or hoped for) has yet to appear. One Toke Over the Line hasn’t replaced O Canada at hockey games. Snoop Dogg did not unseat Lisa Helps as mayor. You can actually walk downtown these days without inhaling more smoke than a California firefighter. In the past month, Victoria police have imposed just two 24-hour suspensions for driving while stoned, while Saanich police fined a passenger for smoking up in a car.
All but a handful of Victoria’s two dozen marijuana dispensaries have closed their doors while waiting to be licensed — a process that will take into the new year.
Beyond the city of Victoria’s boundaries, the picture is even hazier, the red tape often tied even higher.
And the agency in charge of government-run cannabis stores says it really wants to open shop in Greater Victoria and elsewhere on the Island, but is having a hard time finding suitable locations that aren’t too close to schools, community centres or private retail shops that it expects to be licensed.
The irony is evident. “All of a sudden cannabis is legal, but they can’t find it anymore,” says Mason Parkes, who sees frustrated would-be buyers stream into National Access Cannabis on Quadra Street, where he works, every day. Alas for them, National Access doesn’t retail cannabis. Instead, it merely refers customers to Health Canada-licensed producers after they’re checked out by a doctor.
The few retailers that remain open are doing a brisk trade. Some say they know they risk falling afoul of the law eventually, but their medical-marijuana customers need some place to buy.
Friday morning, three counter staff at the Lotusland Cannabis Club on Douglas Street were doing well to keep up as a dozen customers waited in line.
Meanwhile, across the street at city hall, the wheels of government continued to grind. Not until Victoria’s cannabis bylaw is harmonized with provincial regulations Nov. 22 can the city look at the seven retail applications that have been forwarded by the province so far.
The approval process works like this: A wannabe retailer applies to the province’s Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch, which then asks the municipality if it will entertain the idea. If it will, and no rezoning is required, the application goes back to the province for security and financial vetting. If it clears that hurdle, the application then ping-pongs back to the city, which must then consult the retailer’s neighbours for a couple of weeks before city council makes a yes-or-no recommendation to the province, which has final approval.
Victoria, at least, has zoning and regulations governing pot shops. Some municipalities — including Saanich, Sidney, Colwood, Metchosin and, as of this week, Oak Bay — have altered their zoning bylaws to exclude marijuana retailers. That would appear to stall applicants right at the outset of the process. Not an ideal long-term solution, acknowledges Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch, but staff and council need time to sort out the ground rules before putting out a welcome mat.
The province says 41 applicants in the zone encompassing Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and Powell River have gone to local governments for consideration so far. None has received final approval. In all of B.C., just two have been licensed.