Politicians who live nowhere near UBC will decide whether UBC gets a cannabis dispensary

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The largest population centre in Canada without a local government has different processes for decision-making

Should a cannabis dispensary be allowed a couple of blocks from British Columbia's biggest university? 

In any other densely populated area in the province, a decision would be made by local politicians, chosen by people who live in the area to represent them on democratic issues. 

Because the dispensary is proposed for lands around the University of British Columbia, local voters have little say. 

On Thursday, a Metro Vancouver committee for Electoral Area A, comprised of politicians from Langley to Bowen Island, will vote on whether to support the cannabis retail store. 

The issue has been divisive for some time, with thousands of signatures on duelling online petitions. 

The student union is in favour, but the majority of permanent residents in the area are opposed, including area MLA and Attorney General David Eby, with many citing potential health concerns. 

But due to the hodgepodge of legislation governing the area, the decision will fall almost solely to regional politicians. 

"This is not about the legalization of cannabis, not about the supply of cannabis," said Electoral Area A Director Jen McCutcheon, the only directly elected politician chosen by all area residents.

"This really is an example of the lack of governance."


Huge growth

For many decades, the area in and around UBC contained very few permanent residents and very little development. 

But in the last three decades, the population has grown exponentially, mostly due to the rapid growth of UBC's planned community, with funds from 99-year leases to developers going toward the university's endowment fund. 

However, the area east of Blanca is technically divided into different areas administered by either UBC, the Musqueam First Nation or the University Endowment Lands, each with its own system of governance.

Since the cannabis proposal is on UEL land — in the University Village shopping centre, which also includes a Staples, liquor store and many fast food outlets — the decision falls to Metro Vancouver. 

McCutcheon says she will lobby her fellow Metro Vancouver directors to reject the application, due to the opposition shown by nearby residents. 

But she says it's a system that doesn't allow for accountability. 

"The decision is being made by people that they cannot vote in or out in an election," she said. 

"I don't have a problem with cannabis being legalized. But what I'm hearing here is the community is very much against it."


Basketball no, cannabis maybe? 

It's the second time in as many months that a debate over amenities has happened around the university where university students are shut out of the process. 

An outdoor basketball court was proposed for a space next to an existing soccer field in Wesbrook Place, UBC's largest neighbourhood centre.

But after an outpouring of opposition from permanent residents in the area — with complaints centring around noise and a full court promoting "more aggressive competitive players" — it was rejected by the University Neighbourhoods Association, which has strata-type oversight of the non-academic lands owned by UBC. 

"The people [in opposition] are mostly faculty and staff around this area," said Charles Menzies, a UBC professor and longtime advocate for governance reform in the area. 

"I [wish] we had better procedures in the first place," he added, saying he felt the UNA felt obliged to reject the basketball due to the immense backlash. 

Whether the cannabis outlet goes the same way as the basketball court remains to be seen. The only guarantee is that the next land-use debate around UBC will have complaints about a democratic deficit.

"For the most part … good decisions are made that most people support, even though they don't have a sort of democratic vote," said McCutcheon. 

But she added: "Certainly, it's a frustrating governance structure." 

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