WEST KELOWNA - A pair of businesses in West Kelowna may have the distinction of being the only legal companies in the province allowed to act as de facto medical marijuana dispensaries.
While such dispensaries abound in Vancouver — over 80 at last count — none of them have business licenses, but intstead operate as non-profit compassion clubs, according to noted cannabis activist Dana Larsen, who operates the Medical Cannabis Dispensary on Hastings Street in that city.
“If any of them do have a business license they got it under false pretences by lying to bylaw officers,” Larsen says.
Vancouver recently announced it will amend its business bylaw in a bid to control the number and location of dispensaries, even as the federal government warned the city they are still illegal.
Not so in West Kelowna where Vital Alternative Healing Association and Black Crow Herbal both managed to get business licenses allowing them to operate as private compassion clubs.
Larsen visited the Okanagan last week as part of the Sensible B.C. campaign to change federal marijuana laws and took the time to stop in at Vital Alternative Healing Association. He was surprised to even see the word marijuana on the company’s business license.
“They might be the only one in Canada as far as I know,” he says.
Despite this, no one is calling West Kelowna liberal in its attitudes toward medical marijuana.
Kirsten Jones, communications officer for the district, says the business licenses applications by the two companies is what prompted council on April 14 to amend the business licensing bylaw to include a provision allowing them to reject any company whose operations might violate the Criminal Code of Canada or the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.
“These two businesses highlighted for us the fact that our business licensing bylaw had a gap,” Jones says.
While the new bylaw cannot be applied retroactively, Jones cautioned council has the power to revoke a business license and has done so before.
“Council is free to consider a license revocation,” she says. “There’s a process in the community charter for that.”
However, Jones says no councillor has yet to suggest revocation, even though there has already been some complaints against both companies.
“I wouldn’t call it a groundswell of public discontent but certainly some people have expressed unhappiness with the fact they are operating in the municipality,” she says.
Amanuel Ghebremicael, executive director of Vital Alternative Healing Association, says he doesn’t consider his company to be in the same category as many of the medical marijuana dispensaries in Vancouver, some of which have been shut down by police as little more than fronts for drug-dealing.
Kelowna has several compassion clubs, but in January RCMP raided and shut down the Kaya Clinic on Lawrence Avenue after complaints passed along to them by city staff.
“We aren’t even close to that,” he says. “We have Vital Alternative Healing Association, which is the clinic and is a non-profit society and there is the associated compassion club next door. We’re not here to dispense cannabis, we’re here to help patients access cannabinoid products."
Ghebremicael's claim is borne out when you walk in to his discrete location in a light industrial area off Stephens Road. No smoking is allowed onsite and the office, while secured with alarms and reinforced doors, looks and smells more like a doctor’s office than a dispensary. What cannabis there is onsite, is displayed in vaccum sealed jars and there isn’t a pot poster to be seen.
He says getting the license hasn’t been easy and he was surprised as anyone when it was granted just prior to the change in the business licensing bylaw.
“Hostile might be too strong a word, but it has been fairly difficult. It was hard finding a location. I knew from approaching the city they didn’t want us anywhere central, they really didn’t want us visible at all,” he says. “I’m a black guy and I think some people see a black guy and a marijuana store and it gives them this bad idea.”
However, he says he’s been given assurances he will be allowed to operate as long as there’s no real problems associated with the site and be offered an opportunity to fix any problems before revocation would be considered.
For his part, Larsen says Vital Alternative Healing Association needs to walk a fine line between promotion and discretion if it is to succeed.
“If you look like you're trying to hide by staying in the shadows that also makes people nervous. You certainly don’t want to have big neon pot leaves in your window,” Larsen says. “You need to be transparent to city hall, transparent to police and to your neighbours, so that everybody is aware of what’s going on."
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