Fines are quadrupling for businesses operating without a licence in Vancouver as city staff struggle to shut down unlicensed pot shops.
City councillors voted Wednesday to increase fines to $1,000 a day, from $250 a day, for unlicensed businesses and licensed operators who fail to comply with their licence conditions. That’s the biggest fine the city can issue under the Vancouver Charter, and it’s something that could also be issued to problem short-term rental hosts among others.
While staff made no connection between the proposal to increase fines and the city’s continuing push to shutter pot shops, Non-Partisan Association Coun. Melissa De Genova did.
De Genova has pressed staff for several weeks over how much the city has spent on enforcement after it ordered most marijuana shops in the city to close. She has been so aggressive on the issue that Vision Vancouver Coun. Andrea Reimer, acting as chair, said Wednesday she would step in if De Genova even mentioned the word “marijuana” out of context. (The councillor later ducked that threat by cheekily using the word “cannabis” instead.)
De Genova’s diligence paid off Wednesday when she received some hard numbers on municipal costs. The city has 21 property-use inspectors who are able to issue bylaw tickets to pot shops, De Genova said in an interview, and two temporary employees are devoted exclusively to oversight of pot shops, but not just for the purpose of issuing tickets. Those two employees earn roughly $79,000 annually, including benefits. And of the $315,900 the city had budgeted for enforcement, more than $148,000 has been spent to date, she said. Those figures don’t include overtime.
As of Tuesday, and since the city ordered all unlicensed pot shops to close April 29, staff have issued 1,001 $250 tickets. Just 250 of those tickets have been paid, for a total of $62,500 — the equivalent of less than half the city’s enforcement costs to date. While 32 stores have shut down since the city’s order, 61 others are fair game for enforcement officers, according to the city.
De Genova supported the increased fines, but said she’d like to see the $1,000 penalty get even stiffer. Part of the reason for that is to bring fairness to a system that requires city-sanctioned, for-profit dispensaries to pay $30,000 a year for their business licences.
“I want to make it very clear. I’m not against marijuana. I think it should be legalized, regulated, think it has great medical benefits,” De Genova said. “At the end of the day, I think it’s unfair to the people who jumped through the hoops and went through the process. Perhaps they could have picked a location and opened up illegally and had a more prosperous business, but they followed the rules set out by the city.”
Andreea Toma, the city’s chief licensing inspector, explained the fine-enforcement process for non-compliant pot shops: If a violation is spotted, a ticket can be issued. If there’s no payment on the ticket, a reminder goes out to the recipient before the due date. If there is still no payment after the due date, it gets sent to a third-party collection agency and raises the possibility of prosecution.
But if the city takes legal action against a pot shop (and it has filed 27 injunctions to date), “it is highly unlikely” staff would continue issuing additional tickets while the matter is before the courts, Toma said. Doing so would be in bad faith while awaiting a decision, she said.
It takes about an hour for staff to visit an unlicensed pot shop and issue a ticket, De Genova said, citing information provided to her by staff. That takes time away from competing priorities like problem short-term rentals and single-room-occupancy hotels, she said.
“My fellow councillors may heckle me in council and say it’s not always about marijuana … but if you’re taking resources from one area and moving them to another, yes it is about that. It’s 100 per cent about that. Because in a sense, we’re spending less time ticketing the slumlords in the Downtown Eastside.”
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