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Penticton pot shops continue to operate in limbo

Business owner Jukka Laurio with some of his prized bud at his Westminster Avenue Herbal Greeen Apothecary shop, Thursday. Laurio plans to continue to sell marijuana until he is forced to close down.  - Mark Brett/Penticton Western News
Business owner Jukka Laurio with some of his prized bud at his Westminster Avenue Herbal Greeen Apothecary shop, Thursday. Laurio plans to continue to sell marijuana until he is forced to close down.
— image credit: Mark Brett/Penticton Western News

At least three marijuana dispensaries are continuing operations despite notices from the city, as the future of retail marijuana hangs in limbo for Penticton.

None of the four operations the city is aware of are permitted for storefront sale of marijuana products. Three have been notified, including the Herbal Green Apothecary, associated with the Rush in and Finnish Café, the first dispensary that will have the opportunity to appeal its business license cancellation to the city.

As of press time Thursday, all of the businesses in question continue to operate.

The Town of Osoyoos announced via a press release July 6 that they will be holding a public hearing to gather input on a zoning amendment bylaw prohibiting retail marijuana operations, after previously shutting down a Starbuds branch in June. The July 18 hearing takes place at the Town of Osoyoos Council Chambers at 4 p.m.

Osoyoos Mayor Sue McKortoff did not respond to requests for comment by press deadline.

The hearing is intended to “give the town an opportunity to review these regulations and tailor an appropriate police/regulatory framework to suit Osoyoos needs,” the release stated.

In Penticton, Starbuds and Green Essence have also been issued notices to cease illegal operations by the city.

“I’m not aware of what, legally, they are pursuing, we have spoken with the operator (of Starbuds) face-to-face outlining the city’s position and the following steps if they decide to continue to operate,” said Ken Kunka, building and permitting manager for the city.

Starbuds did not respond to multiple calls.

If the storefront operations continue, it will lead to injunctive action, and Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit said fines will add up to $500 per occurrence, essentially $500 for every day the shops continue to operate.

There is still no definite date yet on the upcoming Penticton public hearing, whether it be a special council session or a regular council meeting.

The production of medical marijuana in Penticton is a more realistic prospect at this point, according to Kunka, as opposed to the commercial sale, as the confusion continues between federal and local governments as well as the RCMP.

Kunka also noted that medical marijuana is available through the mail under federal law.

“If somebody wanted to produce medical marijuana and had appropriate zoning, then we could do that because it’s federally regulated, but the storefront sale is not,” Kunka said.

“It doesn’t appear that it fits into any legal activities under federal legislation, so therefore we would consider it an illegal activity.”

A number of enquiries have been pouring in since the federal election, Kunka said, with the Liberal campaign promise of legalized recreational marijuana bolstered by the nine-man task force announced on June 30 to usher in new legislation, supposedly next spring.

“People kind of want to get on the bandwagon. If it’s zoned appropriately within the city through council’s approval both production and for sale, there may be certain areas in town where it would be OK and certain areas it won’t,” Kunka said.

Federal legislation is key though, Kunka said, pointing to the restrictions related to liquor licensing as an example.

“Once those parameters are set up, then by all means, I don’t think the city would be in objection to moving forward with some kind of regulation to allow persons to either produce or sell.”

Concerns with city staff, Kunka said, are that the city doesn’t know where the products are coming from and the lack of regulatory framework for marijuana products.

“I’m not trying to judge anybody, I understand the importance of medical marijuana to persons, but it seems to have kind of gone over the edge where really in reality it’s one, not permitted by zoning regulations, and two, federally you’re not allowed to do what they are doing,” Kunka said. “Until that happens then, by all means, we’ll start working with them.”

Council could decide to recommend staff seek out areas in town where it would be appropriate for either for-profit or non-profit dispensaries.

“But that’s not in place and they are just doing their own thing right now,” Kunka said.

Jakubeit said that the issue is not the merits of medical marijuana, but the legality. It’s a frustrating grey area for municipalities, he said.

“If council does want to consider it then I think the next step would be creating regulations similar to what Vancouver or similar cities have done trying to regulate it in terms of location, some other provisions, but at this time it hasn’t been contemplated. I think we’re going through this first phase, and in general it has been frustrating because everyone has been dragging their feet on this because of the grey (area) with the federal government announcement,” Jakubeit said. “In the meantime, municipalities are stuck trying to figure out how to deal with an influx of merchants or businesses wanting to cash in on the opportunity and we’re getting inundated with complaints and concerns from the community.”

As it stands now, Jakubeit said the strategy is to continue to shut illegal operations down.

Jukka Laurio, owner of the Rush in and Finnish Café, thinks the city has an opportunity to get ahead of the game when it comes to marijuana storefronts.

“(The city) is actually behind the ball, a couple more years and they are going to have to have it all figured out because (shops) are going to be opening everywhere,” Laurio said.

The City of Vancouver adopted marijuana retail regulations in 2015 after the number of marijuana-related businesses grew by 100 per cent per year from mid-2013 to mid-2015, with an increase from 60 to 100 businesses in the first six months of 2015. The regulations include stipulations that the shops only be in commercial zones and are at least 300 metres from schools, community centres, youth facilities and other pot shops. As of April, a total of 20 businesses had passed the first stage of the licensing process in Vancouver.

Jakubeit said Vancouver has its own charter, while Penticton falls under the Community Charter, giving Vancouver “more latitude.”

“At the end of the day it’s that philosophical viewpoint of do you allow something that is illegal to have a business license and operate because there is a sudden influx of interest? It’s not as easy as it sounds to turn a blind eye to this,” Jakubeit said.

The principal behind Laurio’s appeal is that everybody knows the legalization of marijuana is coming down the road, Laurio said.

“Many other cities have already taken control of the situation,” Laurio said.

“I’ll continue operating until such time until I’m forced to close,” Laurio said. “It’s a cause to me, so I’m quite willing to speak up about it.”

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