VANCOUVER - As the City of Victoria is set to debate tighter controls on pot shops, former British Columbia lawmakers say the federal government is forcing cities to take the lead on medical marijuana regulation.
Graeme Bowbrick, one of several former B.C. attorneys general who backed a coalition to regulate cannabis, said he supports the efforts of Victoria and Vancouver to control businesses that sell pot — but the process is happening "backwards."
"In a logical world, what would happen is the federal government would decriminalize marijuana, then the provinces and municipalities would regulate it as they see fit," he said in a phone interview.
Victoria council is set to debate a staff report Thursday that recommends getting tough on the city's 18 marijuana-related businesses, of which only seven have licences to sell drug paraphernalia.
The move comes as Vancouver considers a plan to regulate its more than 80 medical marijuana dispensaries, which are illegal under federal law but have been generally tolerated by police.
Bowbrick was among former politicians who in 2011 joined Stop the Violence B.C., a coalition of lawyers, doctors and academics, that called for regulating and taxing pot.
Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh also advocated on behalf of the group, and said Wednesday that properly controlling marijuana sales would help reduce gang violence and illegal grow-ops.
"If the federal government was truly interested in creating an environment where crime is reduced and there are ... fewer policing costs and court costs, they would be moving to regulate and decriminalize," he said.
According to Health Canada rules introduced last year, the only legal way to buy pot in Canada is to get a prescription and order from a government-licensed producer. A court injunction has kept the old system alive allowing patients to grow their own marijuana, while a challenge of the new laws is heard.
The case wrapped last week in Vancouver's Federal Court with the judge reserving decision.
A spokeswoman for federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay said the government does not support easing access to illegal drugs.
"Marijuana use can have serious negative health impacts and damage young lives. These drugs are illegal because of the harmful effect they have on users and on society," said Clarissa Lamb in an email.
Victoria council will discuss the staff report on pot shops Thursday, with a vote on possible actions expected next week. The report raises concerns that the stores are exposing youth to marijuana or are linked to organized crime.
Mayor Lisa Helps said there is already evidence that youth are suffering from early-onset psychosis after using cannabis. The number of pot-related stores has grown from four to 18 in the past year.
Simon Fraser University criminology professor Neil Boyd said Vancouver's regulations, which would impose a $30,000 fee and rules on where stores could be located, are not equivalent to "de facto legalization." He said hundreds of people in B.C. receive criminal records for possession every year.
Liberal senator Larry Campbell, also an advocate for Stop the Violence B.C., said Vancouver had always been ahead of the rest of the country on harm reduction.
The former mayor pointed to the city's supervised-injection site for intravenous drug users that opened in 2003.
"I am, as always, proud of that city, and I'm proud that they are taking these steps," he said. "The Conservatives don't realize it, but they're fighting a rearguard action. Canadians have already decided ... A majority say marijuana should be legalized."
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