The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is starting down the long, legislative road of legal recreational marijuana.
At its first meeting of 2018 on Jan. 9, council gave the first two readings to a zoning amendment bylaw concerning cannabis retail, production and distribution — likely the first of many prior to federal legalization of the substance in July.
With much still unknown about the full scope of legal cannabis in Canada and B.C., the zoning bylaw is more a preemptive measure than anything — it updates definitions to align with the new federal Cannabis Act, and reinforces the current status quo in Whistler, which limits cannabis production and distribution to a single site in Function Junction (operated by the Whistler Medical Marijuana Corporation).
"The immediate effect of the bylaw will be a continuity of our existing zoning regulations: retail will remain prohibited, and production and distribution will remain limited to a single site in Function Junction," said senior planner Jake Belobaba in a presentation to council.
"That facility in Function Junction will continue to be able to operate under the new bylaw, and that means that if they are eligible for the appropriate provincial and federal licenses, they can transition to producing recreational cannabis."
A public hearing for the bylaw will by held on Jan. 23.
In the meantime, RMOW staff will be monitoring the development of provincial and federal regulations, and further bylaws will be brought forward as necessary.
Before then, the RMOW is not in a position to consider proposals from businesses eager to cash in on legalization — of which there have been a "steady stream" at municipal hall, Belobaba said.
Without an existing provincial framework, RMOW staff can't determine the legality or appropriateness of such proposals, and "should an application come forward, we are likely to recommend that it not be considered further at this time," Belobaba said.
Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden approved of the approach.
"I think this was a very prudent move for us to take, to really just kind of freeze everything until we know what's going on, because this story is moving so quickly," she said after the meeting. "I know that the feds are spending a tremendous amount of time on it, the province is as well, and we have to have all our ducks in a row so that when some more information comes out we're prepared to act on it."
Generally speaking, legal marijuana in Canada will be regulated at three levels: The feds will set criminal laws (around things like impaired driving, trafficking) and those around home growing, production, possession and purchase, while the provinces will control supply and distribution. Municipalities, meanwhile, are expected to be able to regulate within their own scope of authority (through things like zoning and anti-smoking bylaws).
In December, the province released a statement saying its framework for cannabis retail would be similar to how alcohol is sold and distributed in B.C., and that it would control distribution through the Liquor Distribution Branch.
It is likely B.C. will use a public/private retail model, though no draft legislation has been made public yet. The province has indicated more info will be made public early this year.
Legalizing marijuana is a step in the right direction, and one that has a lot of public support, said Scott Bernstein, senior policy analyst for the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.
"That said, I think it's not a perfect system, and I think people should be patient with some of the snags," he said.
"It's not going to have a huge impact on the black market from day one. It's going to take a little bit of time, and I think there's going to be a lot of trial and error as this complicated system is rolled out and adjusted over the years."
With such an ambitious timeline, Canada and B.C. may see something similar to what's happening in California, Bernstein said.
"They're starting up with a very limited approach to it, and there aren't a ton of retail stores opening, but they're expecting over the next couple years that more and more will fall into the system and open up, " he said. "So I think that's probably not a bad way to approach this."