Dan Fumano: Is there a place for mom-and-pops in future of legal pot?

Like a vignette of small-town life, a laid-back shopkeeper sits at a yellow table beside the unlocked bicycle leaning against the storefront, smiles, puts down his coffee mug and greets a customer by name.

“Hey Fred, how ya doing?” Jeremy Jacob said to his visitor Thursday, welcoming his old friend into the shop.

Jacob and his wife Andrea Dobbs run a family business in Kitsilano, a bright airy space where a loud waterfall rushes outside, dozens of cannabis products line the shelves inside, and a Pomeranian named Lego lounges on the ground.

Jacob said it was “surreal” Thursday afternoon, to think that while we chatted at the shop, politicians gathered five minutes away were discussing the future of not only his family’s shop, but the whole industry of dispensaries, which, while illegal under federal law, have become the preferred place for many Canadians to shop and have proliferated across Canada, especially in Vancouver.

In addition to running his own place, The Village Dispensary in Kitsilano, Jacob represents the national industry group, as president of the Canadian Association for Medical Cannabis Dispensaries.

On Thursday, just a stoner’s throw away across the Granville Street Bridge, Canada’s federal, provincial and territorial ministers responsible for justice and public safety met at a downtown hotel where cannabis legalization was a top agenda item.

When Ottawa legalizes marijuana next July, it will be left to provincial governments to figure out to regulate its sale.

“Obviously, the province holds our future,” Jacob said. He hopes Victoria will look south for examples, where some U.S. state governments brought the most established and responsible of the “grey area” operators into the fold when non-medicinal legalization came into effect.

Marijuana at The Village Dispensary in Vancouver. ARLEN REDEKOP / PNG

Jacob pointed to California, a jurisdiction which, like B.C., has a decades-long history of compassion clubs predating legalization. The chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis, Lori Ajax, has emphasized in recent media interviews the importance of bringing as many of those existing operators as possible into the regulated market, “particularly those that are complying with their local jurisdiction.”

That’s the kind of “inclusive” approach Jacob hopes to see.

By contrast, Jacob said, he was discouraged by Ontario’s plan, released last week. The first province to unveil a framework for legal pot sales, Ottawa intends to close private dispensaries and open a small number of its own stores, run by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario and carrying a limited number of products.

Ontario’s plan was met with widespread criticism, and not only from the dispensary lobby. National Post columnist Andrew Coyne wrote this week: “The combination of increased demand and limits on supply is a sure way to sustain a flourishing black market, notwithstanding the government’s vows to suppress it. Ontario will get few of the promised benefits of legalization, but all of the costs of a state monopoly.”

Similarly, Jacob said: “What Ontario’s done is ensure that there will be a thriving black market. … They picked the worst of the American models to follow.”

Jacob said he’s still optimistic B.C. will take a different approach, noting the province’s “history of supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs.” He said he was encouraged by John Horgan’s comments earlier this week in an interview on CKNW, where the B.C. premier said he’d like to see a system “that benefits those who want to participate as entrepreneurs.”

Jacob said: “We need a made-in-B. C. solution, because we have a very unique situation here.”

On CKNW, Horgan alluded to B.C.’s unique situation too, when he chuckled as he said: “B.C. is a mature jurisdiction, I’d like to say, when it comes to marijuana, as everyone knows.”

B.C.’s dispensaries, Jacob said, provide a wide range of products and a “level of care, compassion and service that you don’t see in pharmacies or liquor stores.”

Dobbs, Jacob’s wife and partner, is hopeful B.C. will find a place for mom-and-pop boutique cannabis retailers in the age of commercialized, legal pot.

“If I’m going to be corny, this is where the heart is,” she said. “I would be sad to see it become very sterile and basically to take the heart out of it. B.C. has had this history of 20 years of compassion clubs, but maybe that’s not an experience that resonates with other provinces.”

Dobbs wasn’t sure how long the provincial justice ministers would stick around Vancouver, but she wanted to extend to them an open invitation to visit The Village if they have a free moment before leaving town — especially those from provinces without a long history of cannabis culture and dispensaries, such as Manitoba and Saskatchewan, whose leaders have appealed to Ottawa to delay legalization.

“I really wish they would put boots to the ground and come and see it for themselves,” Dobbs said in the shop. “And this is a fantasy, but I wish they would try a product.”

dfumano@postmedia.com

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