Process rejecting Salt Spring cannabis store ruled to be fair

Published on May 3, 2024 by Pat Bulmer

Photo: Contributed
Inside Dragon’s Peak Cannabis, which has stores in Prince George and Quesnel.

A sudden flurry of opposition—after none had existed before—to a proposed cannabis store was merely an example of democracy in action, a BC judge has ruled.

Canna Northwest Enterprise Inc. sued the Salt Spring Island Local Trust Committee for rejecting its bid to open a cannabis store in the village of Ganges.

In a lengthy ruling issued this week, BC Supreme Court judge Anthony Saunders considered many factors before upholding the trust’s decision. At 6,700 words, according to various literary references, the judge’s ruling is the equivalent of a short story. Eight hundred words more and it would have qualified as a novelette.

In October 2022, Canna Northwest applied to the BC Liquor and Cannabis Regulation Branch for a licence to operate a cannabis store. The branch asks local governments for a recommendation and to seek public input before it considers applications.

The trust denied the application in June 2023, saying the strip mall location was not appropriate due to proximity to schools, the library and a public park, even though four years earlier approval was given to another cannabis licence request at the same location.

That store—an unlicensed operator who was trying to go legal—faced no opposition during the public consultation process. The Liquor and Cannabis board rejected the bid, not the local government, the judge explained in his ruling.

In 2020, about a kilometre away, Salt Spring’s first cannabis store, Harvest Moon, was approved and got up and running. No objections were raised in that case either.

Canna’s application also raised no public hackles at first. Because of that, a staff report recommended the trust approve it.

But then “after the June staff report had been prepared and just prior to the LTC (Local Trust Committee) meeting at which the application was voted on, the LTC received a slew of letters and emails respecting the petitioner’s application,” the judge wrote.

“There were two emails from individuals who supported the application, 28 opposed. Of the 28 opposed, it appears that at least two or three were employees of Harvest Moon, or supporters of Harvest Moon having a monopoly.

“Many of the emails simply stated the writers were opposed, without explanation. Many stated that one retail cannabis operation was enough, or raised other concerns related to what could be termed market saturation.

“Some of the emails raised generalized social concerns, e.g., that a retail cannabis operation was not a good fit for the village. Eight of them raised concerns about the proximity of the proposed location to schools, parks, and other public spaces, including a youth centre.”

The director of the local public library wrote: “During the time that there was a previous shop selling cannabis on McPhillips most of the businesses and organizations on McPhillips saw an increase in vandalism, partying, littering, and noise. Most mornings before we opened the library, we were cleaning up cigarettes and cans, and often filling boxes with empty beer cans. Based on this previous experience, I do not think McPhillips is a good location for this business.”

In response, the company’s representative, described as “Mr. Chouinard,” gathered 90 signatures in support.

Esprit Chouinard is the company owner, the Quesnel Cariboo Observer reported when he received that city’s approval to open a store. Dragon’s Peak Cannabis stores are located in Prince George and Quesnel.

A town hall preceded the meeting where the trust would vote on the application.

“The minutes of the meeting record that 25 members of the public spoke during the Town Hall session … Eight persons spoke in opposition to the application or raised concerns; none spoke in favour,” the judge wrote.

“Of those eight, some expressed concern with market saturation, or the impact on the Harvest Moon store. Three raised issues with the location; two of those three specifically mentioned proximity to schools or to the public library. Mr. Chouinard did not attend the Town Hall session.”

While there may have been the appearance of an organized campaign, the judge wrote there was nothing wrong with that.

“It was entirely appropriate for the trustees to have taken that public opposition into account.

“They heard their constituents’ concerns, and acted on them as they saw fit. That decision is deserving of the highest level of deference. While there were more signatures on the petition in favour than emails opposed, there was no legal requirement for the trustees to follow the wishes of the majority of those who had made their opinions known.”

The motion to reject was revised, but the judge wasn’t bothered by that either.

“Trustee (Jamie) Harris had, in his initial remarks, cited location as one of two concerns. Having been advised that competition and market saturation were not appropriate considerations, he then proposed to limit the stated rationale for his motion to location only. This was not unreasonable; it was entirely transparent and intelligible,” the judge ruled.

Even though proximity to schools wasn’t an issue before, it was fair to consider it now, he continued.

In the March court hearing, Canna argued approval of the 2019 application placed the trust under a heightened obligation to explain and justify its position now. But the judge rejected that too.

In his conclusions, Saunders ruled the trust’s rejection of the application was not unreasonable, Canna was not deprived of procedural fairness, and he ordered the company to pay legal costs.