Langley Township has collected more than $200,000 in fines from unlicensed marijuana dispensaries since last spring, in what a former dispensary owner calls bullying.
Four medical marijuana dispensaries were operating in the Township, mostly in Aldergrove, in recent months, said interim head of bylaw enforcement Bill Storie.
“We’ve been actively, as they crop up, pursuing them,” he said.
The Township won’t give a business licence to a dispensary.
“There’s nowhere in the zoning bylaw that would permit a dispensary to operate anywhere,” Storie said.
If the dispensaries don’t comply with local bylaws – by shutting down – they can be fined daily.
That means daily fines of $500 for operating without a business licence and $300 for being contrary to zoning bylaws. An additional $500 daily fine for using an advertising sandwich board on the sidewalk has also been levied in some cases, meaning between $800 and $1,300 in daily fines.
Giovanni Romegioli, who grew up in Brookswood, was affiliated with the now-closed Starbuds dispensary on Fraser Highway in downtown Aldergrove.
“They pretty much just bullied us into submission,” Romegioli said.
After months of accumulating fines, the storefront operation shut its doors.
“We tried to run a good business,” he said, noting that they contacted the Township and put $60,000 into renovating their storefront.
The Township handed out tickets worth about $100,000 each to the numbered company that owned the outlet, Starbuds as a society, and the landlords, Romegioli said.
He tried to take the Township to court in a Charter of Rights challenge, after first losing an appeal to a local government adjudicator.
According to the lawsuit, local police enforcement against dispensaries stopped in June of 2017, after which several opened.
Starbuds had about 100 to 150 customers a day, and the court filing said it only sold to adults with legitimate medical needs.
The lawsuit claimed that ticketing began in late May and that by September, approximately 520 tickets had been issued.
The lawsuit was discontinued on Dec. 18.
It was simply too expensive to continue the case, Romegioli said.
While medical marijuana can be acquired through online ordering with registered suppliers, Romegioli said the benefit of a storefront dispensary is the ability to discus options with people and answer questions.
“Customer relations, being able to talk to the people and figure out their problems,” he said.
“Not a lot of people know how to use it properly,” he added.
The service is needed because marijuana has been unregulated for so long, he argued.
Money from tickets goes into general revenue at the Township. Storie said that the more than $200,000 will not be the total windfall.
There were also costs involving serving the tickets and legal costs, as lawyers for the municipality become involved in the process.
“We don’t do it to make money,” said Township Mayor Jack Froese. “We do it to obtain compliance.”
He noted that a shoe store operating without a business licence would also be ticketed daily.
Storie said he was not aware of any other type of business that has resulted in so many fines.
As of late January, there appear to be no dispensaries operating within Langley Township or City.
In Langley City, the RELEAF Compassion Centre has been operating for several years.
“We are not a traditional dispensary,” its website says. “Rather, we work with people and their physicians to broaden the dialogue and understanding needed in the use of marijuana as medicine.”
Langley City also bans dispensaries.
“We certainly have had many inquires about establishing dispensaries in the City of Langley,” said City administrator Francis Cheung.
But they’ve all been turned down.
Romegioli is planning to open a business similar to RELEAF in Abbotsford in February.
“We won’t be selling marijuana there,” he said, but they will be offering education and advice.
Medical marijuana dispensaries have existed in a legal grey zone for years.
Medical marijuana has been legal in Canada with a doctor’s prescription since 2001. However, accessing it requires that patients either grow their own in small batches, or connect to a licensed producer.
New regulations have suggested distribution through pharmacies, and Shoppers Drug Mart has lined up three cannabis suppliers as the chain awaits Health Canada approval of an application to dispense medical pot.
“It’s really up to the provincial and federal government,” said Froese when asked whether dispensaries will be allowed in the future.
Local governments are waiting for clarity, he said.
Romegioli is planning to challenge the $100,000 in fines now being levied against him.
“Who has $100,000?” he said.