Pubdate: Thu, 28 Apr 2016
Source: Vancouver Courier (CN BC)
Copyright: 2016 Vancouver Courier
Author: Mike Howell


The oldest medicinal marijuana dispensary in Vancouver cleared a big 
hurdle Wednesday in its battle to keep its doors open for its 6,000 
members and continue operating on Commercial Drive.

The B.C. Compassion Club, which was founded in 1997 and moved to 
Commercial Drive in 1998, won its appeal Wednesday from the Board of 
Variance, overturning an earlier decision by the city that ruled the 
dispensary was too close to two schools to operate under the city's 
new regulations for pot shops.

The dispensary can now apply to the city for a development permit. If 
granted, the next step would be to seek a business licence. For now, 
the dispensary is not in danger of closing.

"I feel a tremendous sense of relief because I've been terrified 
about this process," said founder Hilary Black, after leaving the 
hearing at city hall, where she spoke before a packed room of 
supporters, including members, dispensary staff, neighbours and the 
club's landlord. "I presented on behalf of the Compassion Club many, 
many times over the last 20 years and never once has the fate of the 
entire organization been threatened like this."

The club, which Black said has had "tacit approval" by the city and 
police to operate since its inception, was forced to appeal because 
its location at Commercial Drive and East 14th Avenue was within 300 
metres of Stratford Hall (across the street) and St. Joseph's School 
(almost 200 metres on the other side of Clark Park).

The dispensary was among dozens the city rejected last October as it 
began its process to grant business licences to pot shops that met 
new regulations, including being more than 300 metres from a school.

In the compassion club's case, both schools wrote letters of support 
to the board, as did neighbours, businesses, residents and members. 
The board heard only one resident was opposed to the dispensary 
continuing to operate.

Board member George Chow noted the 300-metre rule but based his 
decision on the effect a closure would have on the dispensary's 40 
staff and 6,000 members, many of whom are seriously ill and rely on 
cannabis for treatment. The members also have access to a wellness 
centre staffed with herbalists, counsellors, nutritionists and acupuncturists.

"This would be quite a hardship for the membership if this club were 
to close," said Chow, after hearing from Black, who said the club 
couldn't afford the rent at a similar-sized facility in Vancouver.

The five-member board's main principle on which it bases its 
decisions is related to a so-called "hardship" clause. The board must 
be satisfied the application of the city's bylaw would impose "an 
unreasonable restraint or unnecessary hardship on the use or 
development of the property," according to information on the city's 
website. Or, the board must be satisfied "the special circumstances 
giving rise to hardship upon which an appeal is based are unique to 
the property in question."

The board, which was unanimous in its decision, heard from members of 
the club, including Jin Un, who was driven to tears in explaining how 
cannabis therapy has given her hope in treating a rare disease that 
confines her to a wheelchair.

Rodney Torrence, a quadriplegic, said receiving acupuncture, coupled 
with treatment from a herbalist and nutritionist, has helped him feel 
better and improved his diet.

"I don't know where I could find a replacement for what the club 
provides," he said.

John Kaurinovic, the club's landlord, said his father first rented 
the one-level storefront to dispensary. When his father died, the 
club planted a memorial outside the building. He wouldn't reveal what 
he charges for rent but told the board he could probably get double 
from a new tenant.

"It's an honour to have them there," said Kaurinovic, noting his 
87-year-old mother uses the wellness centre. "I would basically give 
them a lifetime lease, if I could."

Lawyer John Conroy, who has acted on behalf of the club since its 
inception, told the board the dispensary meets the criteria city 
council approved last year in its bylaw for a compassion club.

The club is a nonprofit, has membership in the Canadian Association 
of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries, offers at least two health services 
such as traditional Chinese medicine and psychological counselling 
for 200 hours or more per month and can produce records regarding 
number of health care hours provided to members (3,300 health care 
appointments last year).

"We really are a frontline harm reduction centre that catches people 
falling through the cracks," said Black, noting the club gets its 
marijuana from a small group of growers who work under contract and 
provide organic, high quality cannabis with specific strains. "We are 
an actual treasure in your city. We are literally saving people's lives."

Andreea Toma, the city's chief licensing inspector, said the club and 
other existing dispensaries could not be initially "grandfathered" 
under the new regulations because they never did receive a licence 
from the city to operate.

Now that city council approved a business licence scheme in June 
2015, the club and others have to meet a series of requirements to 
get a business licence. The city's goal is to regulate the business, 
not the marijuana.

A compassion club's annual licence fee is set at $1,000 and a retail 
outlet at $30,000. So far, Toma said, the city has received four 
applications for a business licence.

"They're still not fulsome, but there's back-and-forth with the 
applicants," she said. "We do have two that are further along, in 
terms of getting information back - one being a for-profit and one 
being a non-profit compassion club."

Of the 176 applications the city received for dispensary licences, 69 
were for compassion clubs. The rest were for retail businesses. The 
Board of Variance will continue to hear appeals from those rejected 
by the city until November. So far, three other dispensary operators 
have been granted an appeal.

Black's club received its appeal on the same day that Health Minister 
Jane Philpott announced the Trudeau government will introduce 
marijuana legislation next spring. It's not clear how legalizing and 
regulating marijuana will affect dispensaries, although some analysts 
believe they could become irrelevant if cannabis is sold in 
pharmacies and liquor stores.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom