Vancouver’s 4/20 controversy exposes challenges cities face over marijuana regulation

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

It’s hard to find a better example of marijuana’s uncertain status in Canada than the current flap in Vancouver over where to hold the annual 4/20 pot smoke-in this year.

The controversy pits event organizers and Vancouver administrators against the city’s own elected park board, which opposes plans to move the April 20 event from its traditional site on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery to Sunset Beach, a waterfront city park looking out onto English Bay.

Moving 4/20 makes sense. Growing crowds – estimated last year at between 20,000 and 25,000 – made the downtown locale increasingly troublesome, with major streets closed for much of the day. The protest has morphed into a kind of festival, with food, vendors’ tables and music.

Crowds attracted to the event have grown steadily as people become less fearful of openly smoking pot. They’re likely to be even larger this year, now that the Liberal government has promised to fulfill a campaign promise to legalize recreational use of the drug.

[Thousands attend a 4-20 event in downtown Vancouver, B.C., on Monday, April 20, 2015. / THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward]

But the park board has balked at the thought of huge throngs sparking up on beach next to the chilly Pacific and adjacent green space beside Vancouver’s densely populated West End, especially since smoking is banned in all city parks and beaches.

“We respectfully request that you direct city staff immediately to work with organizers to identify an alternate location to Sunset Beach, respecting the will of the board and the parks bylaw prohibiting smoking,” board chairwoman Sarah Kirby-Yung wrote in a letter to Mayor Gregor Robertson this week.

Acting city manager Sadhu Johnston said 4/20 had outgrown its downtown venue but moving to Sunset Beach was the organizers’ idea, not the city’s.

“We gave them a number of city sites that we thought would work that we could kind of manage a little bit more effectively the impacts in the neighbourhood,” Johnston said in an interview. “They didn’t choose to go to those locations, they chose Sunset Beach.”

ALSO READ: 4/20 at Sunset Beach not ‘great safety recipe’, says Vancouver Park Board

Johnston said in a statement earlier the new location outside the downtown core would require fewer city resources.

Park board questions safety of moving pot smoke-in to beach venue

Kirby-Yung, who says she’s yet to receive a formal response, told Yahoo Canada News the board is concerned about safety at the waterfront location, especially since organizers are suggesting the event could draw double last year’s crowd. Last year’s event resulted in more than 60 people being taken to hospital, she said.

“So I have a hard time reconciling the city manager’s statement that they feel Sunset Beach will require less resources from a safety perspective,” she said in an interview.

What the two public officials do agree on is the situation hasn’t been helped by the legal grey area marijuana now inhabits.

“I would say it has created some very unique challenges,” said Kirby-Yung.

“The concern is how do you navigate through this area until there may or may not be more clarification from the law. In the meantime we have to do our best to respect people’s right to protest versus protecting our parks and our green space.”

ALSO READ: Ahead of 4/20, marijuana losing its rebellious stigma, gaining more acceptance

The uncertainty isn’t all the Liberals’ fault. While the former Conservative government unequivocally opposed decriminalizing or legalizing recreational pot, it made major changes to the delivery of medicinal marijuana.

Cultivation was taken out of the hands of individuals and small grow-ops in favour of larger commercial operations. But the reforms only seemed to muddy the waters. Dozens of dubious medical pot “dispensaries” sprang up, some of which arranged for customers to get the necessary paperwork to buy pot legally.

With no guidance from Ottawa, Johnston said the city was forced to step in and set up its own regime for licensing dispensaries. The first five of 165 applications are being approved this week, he said.

“The last number of years has been a major challenge for the city with a complete lack of direction from the federal government on this issue,” he said. “We were seeing almost exponential grown in dispensaries.”

Ottawa, with other priorities on its plate, has given no timeline for legalizing and regulating pot and Johnston said there’s been no consultation with cities dealing with issues such as licensing and zoning for dispensaries and commercial grow-ops.

Vancouver turns to U.S. cities for guidance on pot regulation

Meanwhile, the city has turned to counterparts in U.S. states that have legalized marijuana.

“Those cities had experience establishing a regulatory regime – in Denver and others – and they’re much further along the path that we’ve been on, so we’ve been learning from them and engaging how do you set up a regulatory structure,” he said.

The lack of guidance from Ottawa is not surprising, said Zachary Spicer, a Brock University political scientist who studies municipal government.

“For the most part, whenever there are federal policy changes that affect cities, cities are often sort of the last to know,” he said.

ALSO READ: Medical pot users make case against large-scale production in court

Municipalities aren’t formally recognized as a third order of government in Canada, so the federal government does not feel obliged to consult them in the same way as provinces when it comes to policies and programs.

The most recent example of this relationship has been the Syrian refugee crisis, said Spicer. The Liberal government set up its game plan knowing federally-sponsored newcomers would have to be resettled in cities but “there wasn’t a whole lot of consultation.”

The result, said Spicer, was refugee families crammed into hotel rooms for weeks because of of a lack of housing, problems with delivering health care and other services.

Spicer was not surprised Ottawa hasn’t reached out on pot yet.
“I think part of this has to do with the fact that feds haven’t really gotten to the stage where they even know exactly how this is going to roll out,” he said.

“When the feds move, the provinces move and the cities will have to do something too.”

Spicer said he doubts other cities will take a cue from Vancouver and implement their own regulations.

“Most city politicians are timid – I guess that’s sort of a nice way of saying it – especially when it comes to policy areas that they feel are firmly outside of their jurisdictional reach,” he said.

Civic politicians wait on feds to lead on pot regulation

Most will watch and wait, nudging gently via their local MPs to try and speed up the process, said Spicer.

“I think when consultations start they’ll absolutely want to be at the table for that,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kirby-Yung faces the prospect of hordes of pot smokers, sensing they’re close to achieving their dream, descending on one of Vancouver’s most scenic places – with or without her board’s permission.

Vancouver police spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham said the priority for policing 4/20 will be public safety over writing bylaw-infraction tickets or arresting people on pot charges if enforcement at such a large gathering might cause harm. In the past, police have stepped in when there’s violence or open drug dealing.

“We take a proportionate approach to what’s going on,” Fincham said.

Residents of the nearby apartment towers have flooded the board with calls and emails opposing the event but Kirby-Yung said there are no plans to try and block it through legal action.

“We’re looking for a good partnership with the City of Vancouver to work with us to try deal with an event that’s happening and the public feels very strongly about,” she said.

So in all likelihood what may look like a small fog bank hugging the shore of English Bay this April 20 in fact will be a pungent cloud of something altogether different.