Council rejects variance to allow cannabis shop on Main Street

Council voted last week to deny a development variance permit that would have cleared the way for a retail cannabis store at 657 Main street.

Council’s 3-2 decision, which came after considerable discussion and public input and after a motion to defer the matter pending further investigation was rejected, was contrary to a staff recommendation to allow the variance.

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More written submissions to council on the matter were in favour than opposed, by a small margin, but opposition from members of the public who spoke at the meeting was unanimous.

The district’s zoning bylaw currently prohibits cannabis retail operations within 150 metres of any community use. The proposed location is nearer than that to a number of locations that meet that designation, including Hangman’s Park, Miyazaki House, Service BC, the post office, the district office and the Seventh Day Adventist building.

Bob Van Natter was one of three people to address council before the vote and spoke against granting the variance while making it clear his objection was not to cannabis sales in general.

 “This isn’t just like a variance or an amendment for a parking lot or something like that. I think there should be a little more public input into this decision, there’s a lot of delicacy that needs to be walked through here,” Van Natter said.

“I’m not here to judge or argue or debate the legalities of cannabis, using it or anything like that. That’s settled law; I’m fine with that… I’m here to say that I oppose amending the 150-metre setback bylaw to allow a dispensary in the centre of town for not just medical, but also non-medical purposes. Having it directly in the middle of town basically invites the normalization of non-medical usage…  Being right in the centre of town, lots of families, lots of children’s going around, it just becomes another issue that parents with kids are going to have to deal with. Obviously, I believe that parents have a responsibility to train their kids and educate them, I’m 100 per cent with that but I still think we as a society need to understand that we also hold a lot of sway.”

Next up was Rob McMillan with Mojo Cannabis, who compared retailing of cannabis to that of alcohol and said if it wasn’t allowed in Lillooet then it would be sold elsewhere and the revenue associated with it would likewise be leaving town.

“Introducing this allows people to responsibly use marijuana and buy it from a private place where they can get proper information in regard to the product they’re buying,” McMillan said.

“Currently how it’s zoned, it’s basically zoned as if you’re going to be doing it in an industrial area. It’s just not viable if someone was to do it up there. Yeah, somebody could possible do it up there, but then you run into problems like security and no one being around so these are issues that I have with making the business viable.”

McMillan also said the business would be an asset to the local economy.

“We’re looking to hire approximately six to eight people on a full-time basis paying $17 to $20 an hour so this also creates jobs within the community and, like I said, keeps the money in Lillooet.”

He said placing the business in any area permitted under current zoning would stigmatize the business in addition to creating security concerns and that the proposal would not be viable under those conditions.

 “Putting it in the industrial area simply won’t work, and I really want to bring business to the community and I want to put a rather large investment into the city. The renovation cost would be between $200,000 and $300,000 that we would put into the building and like I said we’d be bring high-paying jobs as well to the community that could definitely use the jobs.”

Coun. Barbara Wiebe asked McMillan what sort of training staff would have if the variance was allowed and the business established.

McMillan said the training standard is mandated by the provincial government and that the cost of that training would be paid by the company.

“Without this training they would not be allowed to work at a cannabis store anywhere in British Columbia.”

George Vanderwolf strongly opposed the proposal, standing up twice during the meeting to voice his concerns.

“My question to this council is why do we need marijuana in the first place? Of value is it to society?”

Vanderwolf said he’s heard the argument that products and activities like alcohol and gambling are permitted so why not marijuana, but he suggested it wasn’t a sound point.

“How does adding one more thing that is harmful to society improve society? As far as I’m concerned, we do not need marijuana, period,” Vanderwolf said.

“Now the last speaker (McMillan) seemed concerned with the viability of the operation. He seems to think that if it’s outside of Main Street or right down where the kids can be, it won’t be viable. I’m not interested in it being viable.”

Vanderwolf also addressed the subject of medicinal marijuana, saying he had no doubt cannabis has medicinal properties but suggesting those benefits should be accessed within a medical context and in a more traditionally medical fashion.

“If you want to call it medicine, let’s put it in a pill, let’s put it in liquid form, and let’s sell it in a drug store with a licensed pharmacist. Anybody that tells me you’re going to smoke that stinking weed and call it medicine, that person needs a large dose of common sense,” he said.

“We spent millions of dollars fighting the tobacco industry because they were killing people with their tobacco. Now we’re going to go into killing people with marijuana and think we’re improving stuff. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good or doesn’t mean it’s right.”

At one point in the meeting, Vanderwolf asked to direct a question to McMillan but Mayor Peter Busse wouldn’t permit it.

Councillors asked McMillan about what he meant by “responsible use” as referenced in variance application, and about security measures that would be in place at the facility.

He talked about signage and education of customers with response to responsible use and said there would be extensive video surveillance and alarm systems and that all product would be kept in a safe as well as one-way glass and multiple staff members on site at all times. He said there are provincial mandates with regard to security as well as training.

Busse kicked off council’s discussion of the matter.

“We’re not here as a council today to approve a facility retailing cannabis, that work has already been done. That was done by the previous council which two of you members were part of.”

Busse said he hadn’t been impressed with the new zoning bylaw put together at that time, in 2018, without an accompanying update to the Official Community Plan (OCP).

“The one thing I do have to say though… the one item that was discussed at length and understood was cannabis,” he said.

“And less than a year later we’re sitting here ready to variance it; I just don’t see that as a requirement. I feel that there’s no need for us to create a variance because there’s no historical precedent here in this community, whether it’s viable or not is not material to us. We just determine where the location is going to be.”

Coun. Wiebe saw the matter differently. She acknowledged she was a member of the council that determined the setback Busse wanted to retain but said the decision made at that time may have been naïve.

“You can buy this stuff on any given corner of this town, and anybody who thinks you can’t better get their head out of their butt,” Wiebe said.

“To say that it’s in a school area or by the Miyazaki House – there’s probably dealers up there dealers up there across from Cayoose Elementary, I know of three right across the street from George Murray Elementary School – and I personally would rather go through with the variance and have them knowing what they’re buying and what they’re taking than to getting it from behind a bush. And I will wear that one.”

Coun. Jennifer Leach also argued in favour of the variance. She echoed Wiebe’s point about marijuana being readily available, noting that is something to which society has to some degree grown accustomed, but agreeing the product needs to be sold in a proper environment.

“It’s not just a neighbourhood on the Hop Farm it is actually everywhere and these are people who are not looked upon as drug dealers in their community. They are working professionals that are growing it whether they’re saying it’s for personal use or not but they’re selling it to their buddy or whomever. I do agree with the fact that it needs to be in a safe controlled environment.

Leach made the case that while it is a business that comes with some special considerations, it ultimately is a business, something Lillooet needs.

“Having it in the downtown core, I do not have a problem with because it does come down to being a business, we have many empty buildings in this community and we need to invite investors in to fill some of these buildings because our local people are not doing that,” she said.

Leach also explored the question from a more philosophical perspective.

“This is a really big unknown for a lot of people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s cannabis or something else, the unknown is very scary. It’s scary to individuals, it’s scary to communities, it’s scary to families,” she said.

“But on the flip side of that, if we are not pushing ourselves into the grey areas we’re not learning and if we’re not learning we’re not growing as individuals and that is something I value as a citizen and as a human being and that will play into part of my decision tonight.”

Coun. Laurie Hopfl said she’d spoken to a lot of people leading up to the decision and that responses had been roughly equally divided between supporting and opposing the variance.

“My issue is the location. It is on Main Street, and I get that in cities – Kamloops, or other towns, Vancouver – they have a lot of streets, we have one main street. And I don’t know what the advertising would be, but I don’t want to drive down the street and see a marijuana leaf. I don’t want to see these things on my Main Street and like I said we only have one main street.”

Coun. Jamie Howe didn’t feel council had enough information to make a decision on the issue yet, and made a case for deferring the question until some questions were answered.

“This particular subject is too important to vote on not having our full attention, and research done. And yes, I understand that marijuana is legalized and I’m not going to push against that.”

Howe wondered how many communities allow businesses of this sort to set up shop in the centre of town and how many have successfully placed them in other areas.

“I’d be willing to look at how we can make that work so that there is a win-win here.”

She was also interested in finding out more about Mojo Cannabis’s history in other communities, as well as in consulting with harm reduction workers in the district.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far we haven’t received anything, and I think that would be important to hear.”

With those questions in mind, Howe requested a motion to defer a vote on the variance until Sept. 16 to give council a chance to become better informed before making a decision.

That motion was defeated as was the motion, immediately following, to allow the variance permit, with Busse, Hopfl and Howe voting against the proposal, and Wiebe and Leach supporting.

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