Pubdate: Wed, 14 Feb 2018
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2018 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Mike Hager
Page: A11


Vancouver won't grant pot-shop licences to people with ties to illegal
drugs, but critics urge reconsideration

Rocco Dipopolo is an entrepreneur juggling three businesses - a tattoo
parlour, a gym and a boxing clinic - in East Vancouver, an area of
hipster coffee shops and chic duplexes that the 46-year-old remembers
as gritty during his delinquent adolescence.

Until recently, he also owned an illegal cannabis dispensary in the
city's trendy Commercial Drive neighbourhood. He had to step away from
that venture in order for it to secure a coveted business licence from
the City of Vancouver.

That's because, he says, an official check of his criminal history
file by Vancouver police - an extensive search of all available
intelligence - indicated he was a "danger to the public."

Mr. Dipopolo has no criminal convictions and no charges show up on the
province's public online database, but he says he was acquitted of an
assault charge and two charges of obstruction of a peace officer in
the early 1990s - when he was a prospect for the Hells Angels. His
identical twin brother is still a full-patch member of the gang, but
Mr. Dipopolo says he has nothing to hide, including the fact that he
and his brother regularly hang out with their families with an
explicit agreement to never chat about illegal business.

"I sent [the police] another letter explaining what I've done with
myself for the past 20 years - I've made nothing but moves to make
myself a better person," he told The Globe and Mail recently.

He says he can't afford to sue the force to appeal the rejection so
that he can again work in the dispensary, a move he says a lawyer
recently told him could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Mr. Dipopolo says he, as with thousands of people on the margins of
the legal cannabis sector, is watching as the Liberal federal
government moves to end nearly a century of prohibition this summer -
a key government goal is to stamp out as much of the black market as

Canada's police chiefs say those with ties to organized crime or large
networks of illegal cannabis farms shouldn't be allowed to participate
in the industry. But they also acknowledge that slamming the door to
those with past convictions for possession, small-time trafficking of
the drug or other minor offences could hinder efforts to end the
underground sale of the drug.

Lawmakers are still deciding if and how these people, many with
expertise in growing and using cannabis products, should enter the
legal market.

In 2016, just over half the criminal drug offences across the country
- - 55,000 - were related to cannabis, with three-quarters of those
charges for possessing, not trafficking, the drug. Non-white and
low-income Canadians have been disproportionately prosecuted and
harmed. Amid sustained public pressure, the Liberals recently
signalled they are considering pardoning those convicted of these
low-level crimes.

Travis Lane, a Vancouver Island consultant to cannabis growers and
dispensaries who once managed a chain of illegal dispensaries on
Vancouver Island, said federal and provincial governments should not
only expunge all convictions related to possession of the drug, but
also give preferential treatment to those in the underground trade who
want to go legit.

"If you bring in black-market entrepreneurs then you're taking the
best away from that illicit side - so you get to have your cake and
eat it, too," said Mr. Lane, director of the non-profit B.C.
Independent Cannabis Association.

Mr. Lane, who managed liquor stores before entering the illicit
cannabis industry, says it's much easier to get a liquor licence than
start a legal cannabis business under the system being recommended by
the police chiefs. That's because, at least in British Columbia,
applicants for a liquor licence face a "much less stringent"
background check of their criminal record - as Mr. Dipopolo found when
applying for a city licence to run a dispensary.

The current law for Canada's commercial medical cannabis producers
allows for Health Canada to use a level of discretion similar to the
City of Vancouver's process in granting clearance to aspiring growers.

The federal agency can deny a licence to anyone convicted of a
criminal drug offence in the past decade or those - such as Mr.
Dipopolo - it has a "reasonable grounds to suspect" have been involved
with organized crime or drug trafficking in the past or are still
associated with people engaged in those illicit activities.

The rules appear looser for people applying to Health Canada for a
licence to grow their own medical cannabis or have someone else do it
for them, stating that those convicted of drug charges within the past
10 years will be denied. A recent Globe and Mail investigation
revealed that an increasing number of these individual medical
cannabis patients are using this licensing system to grow hundreds of
extra plants, creating a shadow market in Ontario susceptible to armed
robberies and abuse by organized crime.

This summer, Health Canada is expected to do background checks on
directors of those companies aspiring to grow recreational cannabis.
The provinces that will allow private sale of the drug - British
Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia - will
conduct their own screening for retailers.

Neil Dubord, chief of the municipal police force in the Vancouver
suburb of Delta, said the B.C. Association of Municipal Police Chiefs,
a group of more than dozen chiefs that he heads, is recommending that
the province disqualify people who have grown for gangs, but not the
hundreds of small-time "mom-andpop" growers that have been doing it
for decades.

"Each situation will require discretion and a conversation," he

Abbotsford's Deputy Police Chief Mike Serr, a former Vancouver gang
officer who helped write a federal brief for the Canadian Association
of Chiefs of Police on cannabis legalization, agreed that authorities
should decide on a case-by-case basis whether to license aspiring
cannabis business owners with criminal histories.

"That's where we're going to have to find that line: When there's no
longer that relationship and we can't find anything to prove that
there is that ongoing relationship, then that's when we're going to
take a real hard look at that individual," he said.

"It's a tough one, on the front end it's concerning," he said of Mr.
Dipopolo's case. "But, again, there's police officers who have family
members [involved in organized crime].

"They're not part of an organized crime family; it's just that they
may have that brother or they may have that uncle who has an
association or a criminal background and that doesn't preclude them
[from becoming an officer] just by that alone."

Both Mr. Dubord and Mr. Serr agree that provincial and federal
mechanisms should be created for those shut out of the legal industry
to appeal that decision.

Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant professor of sociology at the
University of Toronto, said the argument for including people with
criminal pasts in the new legal market, rather than barring them, is

"People become involved in gangs oftentimes because they face other
forms of social exclusion, so we are then seeking to exclude them
further from participation in the licit economy, which is going to do
nothing to stop them from being involved in violent gangs," he said.

"If anything, we might want to do the opposite: take people who are
involved with the criminal underworld and provide them with
opportunities for gainful employment."

Prof. Owusu-Bempah said the federal Liberal government has a duty to
repair the harm done to Canadians by decades of prohibition,
especially minorities who may use the drug as much as white people but
are more likely to be charged.

He said Ottawa should also help people with low-level criminal
cannabis convictions to enter the legal industry, as the city of
Oakland in California, a U.S. state that legalized marijuana Jan. 1 is
doing, as well as reinvest some of the tax revenue into those
communities hardest hit by the war on drugs.

Mr. Lane, of the B.C. Independent Cannabis Association, said pioneers
in the illegal sphere deserve that acknowledgment.

"There should be no doubt that the people who made the point - that
cannabis being illegal was unjust in the first place - should not be
punished for breaking an unjust law," he said. "If anything, they
should be considered the forebearers of the law."
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