Vancouver pot shop owner unfazed by city's quadrupled fines
Published Thursday, December 1, 2016 6:47PM PST
Last Updated Friday, December 2, 2016 1:12PM PST
The City of Vancouver is increasing fines dramatically for those operating businesses without a licence, but the owner of an illegal marijuana dispensary is unfazed by the decision.
Dana Larsen already has a stack of unpaid bylaw tickets for operating his dispensary without a valid licence.
"It's over a dozen, they're coming more frequently now," he told CTV News on Thursday.
Vancouver became the first Canadian city to regulate illegal dispensaries in 2015, when councillors voted in favour of regulations including that dispensaries must purchase a $30,000 licence.
A whopping 162 of the 176 applications for licences were rejected by the city, mostly due to a rule barring dispensaries from operating within 300 metres of each other, schools, community centres and youth facilities. )
Owners of unlicensed shops were given until the end of April 2016 to shut their doors, before bylaw officers hit the streets in a city-wide crackdown. Many shops chose to defy the city, and officers issued $11,000 in fines on the first weekend after the deadline.
The fines started at $250 per day, but city councillors voted Wednesday to quadruple the ticket price to $1,000.
They were increased partly because complaints were coming in, according to Vancouver's chief licence inspector. Andrea Toma said operators who had paid $30,000 for a licence were frustrated that those who hadn't were still able to stay open.
"The $250 fine wasn't adequate enough to change behaviour," Toma said.
Larsen's business, the Vancouver Dispensary Society, was one of 61 that chose to defy the bylaw and remain open. The owner and marijuana activist says he's received several visits from bylaw officers since April, but he's chosen not to pay his fines because he's appealing the city's decision to deny him a licence.
"We think it's premature for them to be fining us and other dispensaries who are still in the process of finding out whether we're going to be accepted or not," he told CTV.
Larsen isn't the only one ignoring the bylaw tickets. Out of 1,001 fines issued by the city in the last seven months, only 250 have been paid – just under a quarter of the tickets.
The city's next step may be to follow Port Coquitlam's lead, where council is moving to change its bylaws to target landlords found renting their properties for illegal purposes.
That city's mayor said the current bylaws only force dispensaries and other unlicenced businesses to pay the fine, but nothing prevents them from operating.
He's moving to put some of the onus on landlords, in an amendment that could see the property taken away from its owners if they allow illegal activities on their land for five years or more.
Others think the fines should be increased further.
"I am concerned that the fines still aren't stiff enough. $1,000… I don't think it's going to make much of a difference," Councillor Melissa de Genova said.
And de Genova may be right, at least when it comes to Larsen's business.
An investigation earlier this year revealed that his dispensary sells about $10,000 of pot a day, and makes millions a year in revenue, so even if Larsen paid the tickets it may not impact him enough to close shop.
But Larsen said it doesn't matter how much the city increases the fine. He still won't pay it unless he's forced to, something that seems unlikely with bylaw officers already spread thin, de Genova said.
The NPA Vancouver councillor said the city has 21 enforcement officers that are able to issue tickets for violations including unlicensed businesses, two of whom are dedicated to pot dispensaries.
With only a quarter of the illegal businesses paying their fines, she believes it's costing the city more in enforcement than it's receiving in fees.
She added that it's unfair for those who followed the amendments to the city's zoning bylaw and paid the $30,000, when those breaking the bylaw only face $1,000 fees, which aren't doled out as often as they should be because there aren't enough officers to hand out the fines.
"It seems that Vision Vancouver really is rewarding bad behaviour here," she said.
With a report from CTV Vancouver's Nafeesa Karim