Burnside Weed Dispensary, located at 3175 Harriet Rd. in Victoria, is just a stone’s throw away from the municipal boundary of Saanich, which does not permit such shops. It is not clear yet whether Saanich will allow recreational marijuana retail operations. (Saanich News File Photo)

Saanich is still grappling with pending pot legalization

Saanich –unlike Victoria – has shown zero tolerance for marijuana retail shops

Mayor Richard Atwell says a “lot of work” lies ahead of Saanich as the clock counts down towards the legalization of recreational marijuana, while also expressing confidence in police and municipal staff.

“I have full confidence in our police and municipal departments that will be readying themselves ahead of the legislative changes,” he said.

He made these comments during his annual address Monday delivered just hours after the provincial government had announced its mixed private-public retail model for recreational cannabis, which the federal government has promised to legalize in July of this year. The provincial government will set up a string of government-run shops, but also allow individuals and business to apply for private retail licenses. British Columbians will generally not be able to buy pot and alcohol in the same location, unless they live in yet-to-be-determined rural areas.

While Monday’s provincial announcement offered some additional clues about the social, cultural and economic conditions post legalization, Saanich residents are not much wiser about where their municipality stands on one of the most significant issues in generations, largely because senior levels of government are still working out key details, but also because Saanich is still working its way through some key questions.

Top among them is the question of whether Saanich will allow individuals or businesses to apply for licenses to sell marijuana, as the provincial government permits “local governments to decide whether they wish to have a non-medical cannabis retail store in their community.”

Richmond, for example, has already stated that it will not allow marijuana retail stores. Other communities, including Saanich’s neighbour Victoria, already tolerate so-called pot shops – retail outlets that officially sell medical marijuana, but have in practice jumped the gun when it comes to selling recreational marijuana well before official legalization.

Saanich – unlike Victoria – has shown zero tolerance towards these operations, suggesting Saanich might take a less lenient approach. Working on the assumption Saanich will allow some form of recreational cannabis retail — an assumption that still awaits confirmation – it is also not clear which criteria will guide Saanich’s approval process.

A list of questions from the Saanich News to Sannich staff about the potential economic benefits and social costs of allowing recreational marijuana also remains unanswered for now. For example, the Saanich News asked staff if they had considered whether any areas in Saanich might be off-limits for recreational marijuana retail operations.

“You are asking for information that [council] has not yet provided direction on,” said Megan Catalano, a spokesperson for the District of Saanich. Staff are currently examining these issues, she said.

Chief administrative officer (CAO) Paul Thorkelsson said Saanich’s planning department is working closely with building, bylaw, licensing and legal departments on a report to present to council within the next few months, likely in April 2018. “We’ll be able to share more detailed information about marijuana retail in Saanich after the report is finalized,” he said.

Atwell’s address, however, suggests Saanich residents should brace themselves.

“This change in legislation will not only have financial impacts on policing but it will be the subject of zoning and business licensing and possibly other bylaws of the municipality just as we have seen in the City of Victoria where so called pot-shops have proliferated ahead of the legislative enactments,” he said.

Several of these pot shops actually exist near the border between Victoria and Saanich, yet Saanich staff have made it a point not to weigh on them. Last December, Victoria denied a proposed pot shop close to Saanich’s border, and Saanich residents living within 100 metres of the proposed site would have received public hearing notices under Victoria’s procedures. But since the application did not move forward, Saanich officially declined to comment on Victoria’s decision.

Saanich, for the record, has granted one business – Emerald Health Botanicals located at 101-4226 Commerce Circle – a business licence to grow medical marijuana following a rezoning and public consultation process.

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