Longtime pot activists are blasting Vancouver's marijuana licencing system as "a new prohibition" as Cannabis Culture prepares to shutter all three of its dispensaries in the city.

The company, which has been at the forefront of the pot legalization movement for decades, announced it's closing down the stores at the end of the month, resulting in dozens of layoffs.

Jodie Emery, co-owner of the dispensaries and Cannabis Culture magazine, told CTV News the city has threatened serious consequences if they continue operating past Jan. 31.

"The city is threatening jail time, significant fines and very serious punishments for those who don't comply," Emery said.

Cannabis Culture is just one of dozens of unlicensed pot shops in the city that were on the losing end of a B.C. Supreme Court decision last month that upheld Vancouver's authority to choose where they can and cannot operate.

On Tuesday, Emery posted on Instagram lamenting the layoffs of "over 50 wonderful people" and calling on supporters to put pressure on the government to issue last-minute licences that would allow the chain to remain open.

"Cannabis Culture will be spending the next three weeks campaigning for a saving grace — and we hope our supporters and community will take part in rallying peacefully to get political support for keeping dispensaries open, to offer a safer alternative to opioids, alcohol and other drugs," Emery wrote.

The company and other illegally run dispensaries have criticized Vancouver's licensing requirements as too stringent, particularly the ones barring pot shops from operating within 300 metres of each other.

Others have played ball with the city and provincial government's rules, which saw the first above-board recreational marijuana stores open up just a few days ago – more than two months after the drug was legalized nationwide.

But Kathryn Holm, Vancouver's chief licence inspector, told CTV News the city has already approved a total of 56 pot shops, and there's still room for dozens more.

"Our analysis suggests there's 70 to 75 locations possible for cannabis retail locations that meet our land use requirements," Holm said.

Another 48 or so marijuana dispensaries are operating illegally, and subject to the Jan. 31 closure deadline. Owners who refuse could be found in contempt of court, but Holm said she's hopeful they will all comply voluntarily.

Vancouver's licensing rules also prohibit pot shops from operating within 300 metres of schools, community centres and neighbourhood houses.

Before the city began offering licenses three years ago, officials and police turned a blind eye to the booming but illegal dispensary industry, resulting in dozens of new stores. At one point, pot shops outnumbered both Starbucks and Tim Hortons locations in the city.

Emery said the approach taken since benefits "big business, police and governments" at the expense of those who have championed marijuana for years.

"All the entrepreneurs, the pioneers, the prohibition victims are being excluded," she said.

"Legalization was supposed to legalize the existing industry and to stop criminalizing people, but we've seen more money, more laws, more punishment. This is a new prohibition, this is not legalization."

With files from CTV Vancouver's Penny Daflos