Weedy wondering

I spent three weeks in Vancouver over Christmas. Everywhere i went, there seemed to be marijuana dispensaries unabashedly in evidence, despite uncertain legal status and an active bylaw crackdown. I was curious, because Tofino has received a few inquiries about starting one up, and the people i talk to think a dispensary or two would not jar Tofino’s image in either its own or the world’s eyes.

Nonetheless, it took me several days to work up the nerve to go into one of them. I wasn’t thrilled about being caught on video frequenting such an establishment — even just “for research,” as i rationalized it to myself.

There seem to be two different characters of storefront in Vancouver: the “head shop,” aimed at the open, unrepentant recreational user, with a retail storefront and window display of pipes, t-shirts and a wide variety of merch for your herb-using enjoyment — and, often as not, a pungent cloud billowing out whenever someone opens the door.

The opposite type aims for a medical-office vibe: glass-fronted, white, clinical, one long desk inside with a doorway into the back rooms where mysterious “processing” must go on, and one or two neatly-dressed staff — as welcoming and unthreatening as possible. I gather the appearance is less for clients’ benefit, as the people entering and leaving didn’t look much different from the head-shop clientele, and more as camouflage against bylaw attention. There was no smoking or pot use in these outlets, they are strictly for buying product.

 

I chose the latter to investigate, and over the next week checked out half a dozen shops. I found the staff (almost all young women) friendly and helpful, knowledgeable, real believers in their industry, and pretty darn good sales people.

A woman at Eggs Canna on Commercial Drive talked to me for half an hour. She had transitioned into marijuana after two decades as one of the few women in Vancouver’s video-game industry, because she loved “getting in on the ground floor of industries that are going to explode.” A keener, she was enrolled in Kwantlen College’s medical marijuana program (who knew?).

The shop, like most i visited, was part of a small chain, and membership based. You fill out a form with name and contact info, declare what medical condition you need the marijuana for, and get a (free) membership that entitles you to buy weed. It sold by the gram, prices ranging from $7 to $12. That shop was notable for its twin vending machines: one dispensing pre-packaged weed of various strains in amounts ranging from $20 to $100 and, beside it in a classic Cheech-and-Chong image, another vending machine stocked with chips and candy bars.

The shops honour each others’ memberships, so if you have a card from one you can just show it to get a membership at another outlet. They were firm that there be a “medical requirement,” but varied a lot in how that was established. One chain required a credible reference from a medical professional — not necessarily prescribing medical marijuana, but indicating a medical condition that is though to be helped by marijuana (e.g. chronic pain, cancer, glaucoma, anxiety, etc.). Another shop displayed a “suggested list” of a couple of dozen conditions that i could choose from to establish my “need.”

The only exception was a Hastings Street shop, Crosstown Dispensary, where all i needed was a picture ID (not recorded) to buy over the counter.

The Commercial Drive shop was the only one i visited that had also established a “recreational membership,” which doesn’t require a medical justification. They claimed that possession of a membership card meant that, within Vancouver at least, the police would not seize your stash or otherwise hassle you. This chain had three outlets, and claimed it was one of only eight dispensaries that are properly licensed, out of 84 in Vancouver.

 

At first i didn’t mention my council connection, thinking it would turn people off talking to me. I quickly learned it had the opposite effect: They all had strong opinions on every aspect of the industry and were not shy about sharing. A couple gave me their contact info and said to get in touch with any questions.

There was much speculation on how the industry would evolve after legalization. The owners were legitimate businesspeople — one a former BC Cancer Society nurse; another boasted that just the Main Street shop (there were seven in the chain) had 4,000 members, and its Victoria location (Weeds Social Club, “right across from City Hall”) had 15,000 — huge numbers. Some alluded to feeling pressure from gang connections, and most stressed the importance of running a clean, respectable business.

On the topic of where they get their product, everyone was vague or evasive. They protected their supply chain; some hinted that licensed home growers supplied them. I didn’t get the impression of a robust, controlled supply chain — not surprising, given the uncertain legal situation.

Almost all the dispensaries only sold the plant itself, plus maybe a limited number of extracts or oils. The whole area of edibles seemed to be problematic, in terms of dosage, supply, and possibly FoodSafe rules. One, however, Cafe420, had a bewildering list of oils, butters, salves, concentrates, resins and other formulations i’d never heard of.

On the topic of being an official medicinal pot user, one owner said there are “any number of companies out there” that, for a fee of $200 or so, will get you a prescription for medical marijuana (if you have a legitimate need), but that most people don’t find it necessary to jump through those hoops.

 

Thinking of Tofino, overall my impression is that it’s vitally important to get the right operator for any dispensary that might open here. If done right, it doesn’t seem to have a negative impact, and is just another storefront on the street. One big choice (perhaps the biggest) is between a dispensary model (sales only) and a “compassion club” where people actually use the herb.

Tofino, at present, does not include marijuana dispensaries in its zoning or business bylaws, as it is not a legal business (yet). There’s a lot of money to be made, however, which means that many people are willing to risk the law and set one up. Which means that many jurisdictions, like Vancouver, were caught with no regulations to control what became a burgeoning business sector, and are frantically playing catch-up. The suggestion is to get some regulations in place before they are required. Ucluelet is reportedly working on a bylaw, and i’ll be watching eagerly for that. In the meantime … it’s on the radar of staff and council.

Think housing (a spontaneous rant)

I just had one of those sparks of clarity, in which something i was clumsily trying to elucidate during today’s (5-hour!) council meeting suddenly took shape in my head. Tofino’s planner was introducing first reading (effectively, first draft) of part of our zoning bylaw — the all-powerful bylaw that dictates what an owner can and can’t do on their land.

I was wondering about some provisions proposed in that bylaw, such as a minimum house size for a “small single family dwelling” (42 m2/450 ft2), and minimum allowable dwelling width (4.9 m/16 ft). I can see the point of maximum limits, having witnessed the neighbourhood impact of oversize McMansions in Vancouver. But what would it matter how small, or how wide, a dwelling is? Why should the district have its fingers in that pie?

It hit me just now that, residentially speaking, the whole bureaucratic process of zoning is based on a suburban model of living: land parcelled out into big lots where nuclear families, each in their private castle, live row on row with other private castles on big lots, and nobody rocks the boat by doing anything different.

That model sort-of worked in decades past (though savvy planners now decry the car-based sprawl, alienation, and lifeless city streets it creates). But the world has changed, economically and demographically. It has changed a lot, even in our tiny end-of-the-road slice. That suburban housing model assumes stable, two-parent families. It assumes breadwinners with well-paying jobs-for-life, who can get big mortgages. It relies on lots of available land, and on doing everything by car. Today all those assumptions are falling by the wayside, for a variety of reasons, good and bad. But the suburban zoning model lives on, unchallenged.

Like many, i often daydream of doing something really creative with housing in Tofino, something daring and innovative. And then i think of ZONING BYLAW NO. 770, 1997, all 138 pages of it, and i deflate. Co-operative housing? Co-housing? Tiny houses? Three families getting together to buy a lot and build three small dwellings? Someone with a large lot wanting to split it and sell half to a friend? All these seemingly simple things would probably take years, and tens of thousands of dollars, and dozens of meetings and reams of paperwork, just to wade through the zoning process. There’d be no guarantee of a positive result. And even if you were lucky, that would only get you to the starting line: from there, you’d still have to build the damn house.

Under the present system, the obstacles to housing innovation in Tofino — temporal, financial, and bureaucratic — are almost insurmountable. Given the modern world, with its modern challenges, our basic zoning model needs a serious rethink.

Permissive tax exemption

Property tax revenue is the main source of income for the district: It’s what we use to pave roads, replace pipes, build infrastructure, run programs, and pay staff to do all of the above.

People tend to dislike paying taxes, but they usually enjoy the benefits of having paid taxes. Council tries to keep taxes as low as possible, consistent with staying on top of things like infrastructure maintenance and keeping the district running. Previous councils arguably haven’t kept up with demand, which translated into this council’s 8% tax increases in 2015 and 2016 (dropping to 2% for the rest of the five-year budget).

So here’s a tax issue i’ve been wrestling with: permissive tax exemptions. That’s when council decides to exempt certain properties from the property tax that every landowner pays to the district each year, because those properties are perceived to offer a benefit to the community at large. Continue reading

Council grants 2016

Here are my notes on the recent council grant awards. I’m not speaking for council here, just giving my impressions of how the conversation went, in hopes that the info will be of use to local nonprofits in future applications.

Big picture, the district has three grant streams available:

  • RMI event grants (for events that fit RMI criteria; awarded by council)
  • arts & culture grants (decided this year by public “Participatory Budgeting” process)
  • council grants (awarded by council)

Each has its own criteria and application deadline. The first two have been awarded already, and we settled the council grants at our 4-May meeting. Continue reading

Council at the movies

Thanks to a volunteer initiative by Citizen V (for “Video” — anonymity requested for now), we’re exploring the subject of presenting council meetings via YouTube. It’s an experiment, V says, “to help improve community engagement.”

The timing of council meetings — 10 a.m., 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month — is not the best for working folks. (We tried evenings in the past, and attendance was even lower.) So now anybody can dial in after the fact, to see and hear the discussions.

Three council meetings are up so far. Here are the links, with their hot issues: Continue reading