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Dude, where's my store?

Retail cannabis in the Sea to Sky

For Bryan Raiser—owner of the Sea to Sky corridor's first recreational cannabis store, 99 North Medical Cannabis Dispensary—every phone call is pregnant with anticipation.

"When you rang, I was like, 'This could be it!'" he says, excitedly.

Raiser's excitement is understandable—as technically, his cannabis store is illegal.

But his retail license application is "in the late" stages, and he's awaiting a phone call from the province any minute now. A former two-term Squamish councillor, Raiser opened his pot shop up back in 2015.

Like many in the corridor, Raiser sees cannabis as a transformative product that shouldn't be treated any differently than alcohol. "This is an economic driver—it helps people," he says.

"What I've been trying to do, as soon as I opened the store, is say, 'Hey everybody, come to Squamish. Smoke weed. Check this shit out!'"

As the province sorts through a glut of private cannabis-store applications, Raiser's included, municipalities across the province are adapting to an uncertain new reality.

With businesses eager to set up shop, the province is attempting to balance the needs of retailers and smokers with the earnest concerns of citizens.

Here in the Sea to Sky corridor, municipalities are proceeding at their own pace, figuring out what works for them. Step by step.

Squamish: Spark it up

According to Squamish's new mayor, Karen Elliott, the community's decision to regulate cannabis back in 2016 simply made sense.

Council was looking at Vancouver, which already had its own licensing program in full swing (one that, admittedly, sat in a legal grey area) and they anticipated retailers were ready to move in.

"We took a very proactive approach right from the start," says Elliott. "We knew people wanted to open stores here, and we wanted to get in front of that."

Squamish developed a set of rules that still hold force today: that dispensaries must be 300 metres from other dispensaries, and 300 metres from schools, the youth centre and skate park on Buckley Avenue. Squamish also banned dispensaries from its main drag, Cleveland Avenue.

"The thinking was we want to regulate where these stores were," says Elliott. "We didn't want the stores to be able to dictate that."

According to Elliott, the approach has worked well: The 300-m setback prevented too many stores from popping up, and the local government introduced cannabis shops in a deliberate way. Currently, Squamish has four cannabis stores, and the sky hasn't fallen.

That said, Elliott notes that Squamish has already granted a variance—to Raiser, in fact. In September, Squamish council permitted him to move into the old liquor store location, in the Squamish Station Shopping Centre. (He's staying put in his Second Avenue location for the time being, however.)

The new store would fall within 300 m of Ecole Squamish Elementary, but Elliott says that there was little opposition to the location.

And, she adds, the rules governing cannabis sales are stricter than for alcohol: "People under the age of 19 aren't even allowed in the building ... The windows are frosted, you can't have products in the windows—there are a lot of protections," she says.

Elliott also takes exception to the idea that shops should be relegated to the outskirts of town.

"Where would you rather have cannabis retail? Down in a low-traffic part of town where there is not good lighting and no parking and no eyes on the street?" she asks.

"Or do you want your cannabis retail in a busy part of town where there are eyes on the street and people are accessing other things they need?"

Pemberton: Just one hit, bro

This fall, Pemberton's council created a policy for the regulation of cannabis stores in the rural community.

After hearing from schools, police, and the public, council decided to restrict retail stores to the town centre, and cap the maximum allowable number of stores to two.

It also set distancing requirements of 150-m from key areas, such as schools and the library, and limited operating hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Initially, the Village proposed eliminating setbacks entirely given the small size of Pemberton and the fact that local schools are within close proximity to the downtown core. The move to establish the 150-m setback came after School District 48 expressed "strong opposition" to the potential abolishment of setback limits in a letter from school district secretary treasurer Mohammed Azim.

According to Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman, the policy and other bylaws are likely to evolve over time as cannabis goes mainstream and issues arise.

"There are gaps that are for sure going to emerge, from a zoning point of view," he explains. "I think the public needs to be aware, and everyone needs to work through this, and be nimble, and make sure we recognize all the impacts of it and react to that."

The Village has already approved its first cannabis-store application, from the owners of the Pemberton Hotel. Under the licensing framework, the province's Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch ultimately administers licences, but municipalities are given the right to veto applications if they so choose.

Following the Dec. 11 decision, Richman explained that council felt that the application "falls in line with all of the criteria put out" in the policy and should therefore be supported.

Counc. Amica Antonelli did, however, oppose the motion and called for a three-year moritorium on reviewing cannabis licences in order for policy makers to have "a chance to review the impacts of legal cannabis on B.C.'s communities and update our policies."

Coun. Ted Craddock was absent for the vote. But since the early days of retail-cannabis policy development, he has advocated for a somewhat novel project: that the Village should explore the possibility of running its own cannabis shop.

In an interview, it's clear he's given it some thought. It would be "no different than starting any other business," he says. "What the town would have to do is set up and register a business, and then from that business, we would have to get a licence, and go through the same process as any other retail person would."

Given Pemberton's small tax base and growing needs, it's worth a look, says Craddock, noting that a one-per-cent hike in taxes raises just over $13,000.

"If we don't take this opportunity, five years or 10 years down the road, we're going to look back and say, 'Jesus, you know, there are two retail businesses (shops) in town, they're both making $40,000 or $50,000 a year. We could have taken that and put it back in the community."

Whistler: I'm good for now

Like other communities around the province, Whistler appears to be taking a wait-and-see approach to cannabis regulation. With the prospect of big money on the table, Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) staff has reportedly seen a high volume of inquiries.

In January, Whistler council updated its bylaws to prohibit retail stores from setting up shop. This hasn't, as some residents have come to believe, shut the door on dispensaries permanently. "We prohibited retail sales in the near future, so it could be introduced in a thoughtful way," explains Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton.

"We don't have a specific timeline. But, needless to say, it's a 2019 agenda item."

Asked if there is any chance Whistler would ever consider opening up a cannabis store of its own, Crompton stresses the fact that the RMOW has yet to arrive at a direction in terms of its approach.

"Nothing is off the table," he says. "Our goal is to be thoughtful and strategic as we roll it out."

Can I get a cut?

With a new market to regulate, municipalities are facing a host of new tasks, all of which cost money to carry out. And while local governments will charge for business licences (Squamish, for example, charges $5,000 for a cannabis-store license), officials are looking to the province for a share of the lucrative tax stream.

At the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) Convention that was held in Whistler this past September, delegates voted to endorse a plan that would see municipalities take 40 per cent of the province's share of the excise tax, roughly $50 million of a projected $125 million over the first two years of legalization.

Any amount beyond that $125-million mark would be split between the province and the municipalities. The revenue would be delegated to local governments on a per-capita basis, with a minimum of $10,000 for municipalities regardless of their population. (Whistler could potentially get the short end of the stick if Ottawa decides to dole out additional funds based on the resort's permanent population of nearly 12,000, not its fluctuating seasonal population. Whistler's daily population equivalent for 2017 was 36,306.)

The federal regulatory framework calls for an excise tax on cannabis of $1 per gram or 10 per cent of the final retail sale price, whichever is greater, with revenues split 75 per cent to provinces and 25 per cent to Ottawa.

According to Brian Frenkel, a Vanderhoof councillor who sits on the UBCM cannabis working group, the money is imperative given the financial costs being downloaded onto municipalities. From public hearings to drafting legislation and bylaw enforcement, it all comes at a cost, he explains.

Frenkel says that while the regulation process has been slow, one has to bear in mind that municipal elections in October brought major change to councils across the province, and for most councilllors, recreational cannabis policy is uncharted territory.

"It's a slow process for everybody," says Frenkel. "You've got to remember that as an elected representative, I may know some infrastructure things, and I may know how to pick up garbage—but this is new for us.

"I don't mind that it's been a slower rollout than maybe some people anticipated .... We'll all get there as communities; it will just be slower than what some people thought."

Back at it

As he waits for the province to ring him up, Raiser explains that, even in 2015 when he opened his shop, things were way different when it came to cannabis.

"It was a different time," he says. "Harper was elected, and it was scary right-wing conservative politics."

Opening up a cannabis store was risky. "It was scary. Super scary. Like, I'm-going-to-lose-my-house-and-kids scary."

His resiliency in the face of so much uncertainty, he feels, owes to the community of Squamish, which rallied behind him, and developed policy ahead of the curve.

"They took a chance. They were definitely early adopters,"Raiser says.