A cannabis store has been given the go-ahead to open in Sapperton despite some neighbours’ concerns that it’s located too close to services for children and vulnerable citizens.
Following a public hearing on Monday night, council approved a rezoning application that will allow North Root Cannabis to open a retail store at 416 East Columbia St.
“We think this is the right business, but in the wrong location,” said Gordon Hobbis, who spoke on behalf of the Sapperton Business Association.
Based on a map on the city’s website, Hobbis said it appears the site is located within an area, or close to an area, deemed to be a “no-go zone” for a cannabis retail store.
“We do not understand how this could possibly meet the distance requirements that are common in cannabis retail. This location is directly across the street from a park, the Knox Plaza. It’s next door to Elizabeth Fry. It is across the street from a daycare. The list goes on and on,” he said. “It would seem to be a very inappropriate location.”
Several Sapperton residents expressed concerns about the store’s proximity to vulnerable people who may be accessing services at the Elizabeth Fry Society, as well as children attending nearby venues such as a daycare centre, Sapperton Park and a Kumon learning centre.
Paul Gill, the parent of a child attending a nearby daycare centre, expressed concern about people leaving the store and going across the street to smoke cannabis in the plaza located next to the daycare. He said he’s never seen so many sensitive uses so close to a cannabis store.
“Move it away from that block,” he urged council. “Move it away from the park. Move it away from the Elizabeth Fry Society, a church, a Montessori, a daycare, a learning centre – all just feet away. I know that parents are concerned about it at the Montessori, and so is the neighbourhood.”
Mike Watson, a senior planner with the city, said there are a number of business requirements in the city’s cannabis retail rezoning policy, including separations from play structures in parks and from other cannabis retail locations. He said the application is consistent with the city’s cannabis retail policy.
Curtis Van Marck, owner of Barley’s Home Brewing Supplies at 455 East Columbia St., supported the application. He believes it’s hypocritical to oppose a cannabis store when a pub and a liquor store are already located nearby.
“Neither of these things have had any negative effect on the neighbourhood,” he said. “Regardless of the fact there is a daycare nearby, a hospital or the EFry centre, I don’t feel that a cannabis store would be any different. I think it would be good for the neighbourhood, good for the businesses and good for people in general.”
Robert Dick, the lawyer representing North Root Cannabis, said the city has significant experience with cannabis stores as there are already three regulated, legal cannabis stores operating in New West.
“There have been no problems. There have been no issues,” he said. “We are dealing with a variety of speculative harms which are being alleged, none of which there is experience with as becoming true.”
Other speakers at the public hearing included a representative from the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, who urged council to reject the application. She said any future cannabis stores should be public stores as they provide union jobs that have good family-supporting wages and benefits, a good track record of ensuring substances stay out of the hands of minors and a history of giving back to communities through initiatives such as dry grad fundraisers.
Following a 70-minute public hearing, council approved the application. Council voted 4-2 in support of the application, with Mayor Jonathan Cote and councillors Chinu Das, Patrick Johnstone and Nadine Nakagawa supporting the rezoning and councillors Jaimie McEvoy and Chuck Puchmayr opposing. (Coun. Mary Trentadue did not attend the public hearing.)
“We have three operating cannabis stores in New Westminster, and the concerns I heard today were all heard during the applications for those stores,” Johnstone said. “We haven’t really had the negative impacts in these stores that I hear people expressing concerns about.”
Johnstone said it’s important to educate youth about cannabis, the same way they need to be educated about tobacco, alcohol, harder drugs, automobiles and other things that cause danger to children.
“I don’t think the prohibition or the hiding of its existence from children is a way to make children safe, fundamentally,” he said. “This is part of our community, and we need to find ways to talk about it honestly with children so that they can be safe.”
Puchmayr opposed the application because he believes this particular location is too close to locations frequented by children. He also believes all future cannabis stores in the city should be government-run stores.
“There are locations in Sapperton where I think it would fit. … I am opposed to that location,” he said. “Further down on East Columbia, there are some opportunities there ... that would not interface with the children.”
Nakagawa said New Westminster is an incredibly small city, so there will always be concerns about the proximity of cannabis stores to parks and child-care facilities.
“We are a community that has a lot of social services, so this will always be an issue that we face. We will not find locations, I don’t think, in business districts that are a great deal away from these types of locations,” she said.
Nakagawa said it appears most people going into cannabis stores are “average folks” who go into the shops and quickly leave.
“The truth is that kids have always been around cannabis. And it was much more concerning when it was illegal and there was a street market, especially with the poisoned drug supply that we have,” she said. “Having government control of cannabis is actually a way to make it safer for consumption for everyone when they can legally use it, but it’s also a way to keep it out of hands of children. And there is lots and lots and lots of evidence, peer reviewed from around the world, that prohibition doesn’t work.”