B.C. should jump start pot regulations

B.C. should jump start pot regulations

British Columbia, a province usually anxious to tax anything within its reach, has curiously kept its hands off of a large source of potential revenue: marijuana.

While Washington state, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska inhale multi-millions of dollars of tax revenue by regulating the production, distribution and retail sale of marijuana for medical and recreation use, British Columbia lets this windfall slip away.

British Columbia could help shape the federal legislation expected next year by putting a regulatory system in place now, and jumpstart its revenue stream.

This wouldn’t take as long or be as difficult as it might seem. Our neighbors to the south in Washington state have an excellent model for a system that could be more or less copied and pasted into B.C. law.

Washington state collected $67.5 million in 2015, its first full year of operation. This year, it expects to collect $154.6 million. The state’s Office of Financial Management predicts a whopping $1 billion of new revenue over the next four years.

Imagine if B.C. injected that much new money — taken away, in part, from gangs and outlaw drug dealers — into early childhood education, better access to services for people suffering from mental illness and support for affordable housing projects.

And a windfall revenue isn’t the only benefit of a fully regulated system.

Right now, marijuana growers and sellers are running loose in the province. It’s a wild west environment. Nobody can verify who’s growing the pot sold in stores, who they are selling it to or what’s in it.

From Sidney to Vancouver to Toronto, marijuana retail stores are popping up as fast as the RCMP can raid them. The Liberal government says it’s committed to legalization, but while it dithers over the details of national legislation, the market is spinning out of control.

Instead of rushing into a national marijuana legalization program, the federal government should look the other way while British Columbia develops a regulated market that includes rules pertaining to DUI, banking, public consumption and retail store locations. A smaller provincial experiment can expose weaknesses and oversights and enact quicker corrections.

Those real life test results can lead to a better-written federal law.

For example, let’s not go down the road of simple legalization. Without provincial control over who’s growing and selling marijuana, gangs and Mexican cartels will continue to siphon off money that could be used to improve the quality of life in British Columbia.

Smoking pot outside the old Lorne Hotel, circa 1975

Smoking pot outside the old Lorne Hotel, circa 1975

We must merge the recreational and medical markets. Let’s shake off the nudge-nudge, wink-wink reality of medical marijuana. Yes, it’s been a help for people with certain medical conditions, but it’s also been a false front for people who just want to get high.

In Washington state, it was estimated that 90 percent of cannabis sold for ostensibly medical purposes was, in fact, consumed recreationally. Interestingly, the medical market ballooned in 2011 when naturopathic physicians were added to the list of providers who could write pot prescriptions.

A regulated system should include a patient registry to differentiate bona fide medicinal users, who could qualify for tax exemptions, from recreational users.

If there is sufficient legitimate demand for the low-hallucinogenic, high-analgesic cannabis preferred by medical users, retail stores will provide it. And medical users would have the option of growing their own.

The province will also need to use some of the new tax revenue to fund substance abuse awareness programs, primarily aimed at children. Of course, parents must play an important role in educating their children about marijuana, and that includes keeping any edibles at home securely out of their reach. Colorado experienced a surge of hospital visits by children who accidentally ate pot-laced treats.

Marijuana legalization advocates have successfully argued that smoking marijuana poses no greater threat to society than drinking alcohol, and that prohibition will not work. Both are true. Like alcohol, marijuana is not risk-free, which argues for a government-regulated system of production, distribution and retail sales.

The federal government has recognized the historical transformation of social values during the early years of the 21st century. Whenever communal morals shift so significantly, governments must eventually conform their laws to reflect the public’s will.

British Columbia could and should generate millions of dollars in revenue and lead the nation in clearing up the current tangled mess of conflicting laws and regulations.

A Little Change, but Big Consequences for cape lazo

A Little Change, but Big Consequences for cape lazo

During the latest Comox Official Community Plan process hundreds of Valley residents made it abundantly clear they wanted Point Holmes maintained as it was: large, single family lots and plenty of green space. To their credit, most of the Comox Town Council agreed and  the plan was adopted.

But that may now be threatened.

Ever wonder how Comox town boundaries developed in such an odd fashion out here? Back in the day, Kye Bay, then in the Comox Strathcona Regional District,  had a real problem with their water and septic systems. Annexation by Comox solved those problems but others saw that as an opportunity to do something the RD zoning bylaws had not permitted.

Between Claddagh Estates on the bluffs at Cape Lazo and the property south of the Lazo Campground there are some quite large properties. Claddagh was in the planning stages, and both the Campground and another property were slated to be multi-story condo complexes. A number of smaller properties were also being considered for multi-home development. But zoning under RD rules did not permit that.

Owners of these properties then applied to Comox for annexation. They claimed they too had water and septic problems. Problem was, a septic study clearly showed septic systems were not a problem, so they doubled down on the water issue.

But many of those who complained of inadequate or tainted water had very shallow wells.  Experts felt strongly, digging deeper wells was the solution. Most who did had excellent water.

Annexation became a divisive issue but the proposed area had a bare majority of people who wanted it. Had Simon Crescent, Wireless Road, even properties on the north side of Lazo as it leaves the oceanfront been included, the referendum would have failed. But it was craftily managed and it passed. That’s why the Town boundaries out there are so crazy.

A cynic would say it was never about water or sewer, it was always about development.

Enter-Comox

Fortunately, at this time, Comox was developing its Official Community Plan. Two very different visions evolved. The developers saw Point Holmes with hundreds of new “doors”.

But in meeting after meeting,  the vast majority of Valley people said they valued Point Holmes as it was: large single family lots with plenty of green spaces. That vision prevailed in the OCP.

It didn’t take long for the Claddagh Estate developers and others to apply for variances. Only Claddagh was successful. They were allowed to develop several slightly smaller lots in return for opening up their gated community and dedicating land to parkland. Many of us thought that was a good trade.

Forward to today. Once again the Claddagh Estates developers are looking for a variance to permit subdivision into smaller lots. I won’t go into how some of those who built homes there feel betrayed by this and are concerned the value of their homes will decline. That fight is theirs. But I am concerned for other reasons.

This new variance application threatens the OCP. If approved, the owners of several other  large lots in the Cape Lazo area could also apply to subdivide. Once that variance is in place, it will be difficult for Council to deny other variances.

Developers will chop up Cape Lazo against every intention of the community plan.

Spit-Road-Hill

I’m also concerned about traffic on Lazo Road. It is unsafe now. There are no shoulders on the road for the many cyclists, walkers and joggers that use it every day. In fact, there is barely enough room for cars.

Problem is, there’s no hope of widening the road. First Nations consider the foot of the hill going up to Kye Bay a burial ground and the whole area of cultural significance. When the road was widened a number of skeletons were unearthed. Another skull was found recently. With the new walking path in place along the water, traffic could be a nightmare. The Claddagh variance will only make that worse.

Comox Council will consider this variance soon. If you share my concerns and want to see Point Holmes remain the gem that it now is, send a message to the mayor and council and attend that meeting. This little change could have very big consequences.

How the notion of proximity affects how we see the world

How the notion of proximity affects how we see the world

The noon-hour talk radio show host on CFAX 1070, Pamela McColl, invited me on her show last week to talk about a recent article of mine, “NIMBY is not a 4-letter word,” that appeared on the editorial pages of the Times-Colonist newspaper.

(I also published the article on this website — subscribe today!)

The key point of the article is that the people closest to something are usually the first to examine it, ask questions about it and for whom it has the most meaning. This enquiry, born out of self-interest, often leads to important policy debates throughout a broader community.

During the interview, McColl asked what had inspired this idea.

I recalled that it was my father, a small-town Minnesota newspaperman, who taught me the concept of news. It was the early 1960s. I was a freshman in high school and eager to write for the school newspaper.

For something to be newsworthy, he told me, it had to have what he called “proximity,” which he defined in both geographic and personal terms.

“If it happens here,” he said, “it’s news. If it happens in Iowa, it’s not.” That’s geographic. But he added, “If it happens in Iowa to somebody from here, it’s still news.” That’s personal.

I gained experiential knowledge of my father’s wisdom as time went on. Like most people, I never gave too much thought to tragedies in other parts of the state. When somebody’s ice fishing house fell through the ice up north, I thought it was funny. Wintertime car accidents on Minnesota’s icy two-way roads didn’t bother me much.

But when a family of four from our small town all died in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer truck somewhere near North Dakota, I felt the impact. We lived in a town of less than 1,000 people, and everybody knew everybody. The oldest daughter in that family had been my babysitter.

I’ve come to understand that the notion of “proximity” plays a critical role in how each of us understands and relates to the world. Proximity also influences ideology.

Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisy pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.

It’s the underlying concept at work when an elected official opposes same-sex marriage, until one of his own children announces he or she is gay. Then they change their position. Former vice president Dick Cheney had this revelation many years ago when he learned his daughter was lesbian, making him aware of her struggle for sexual identity and how federal policies affected her.

I suspect the Comox Valley parents of a transgender child feel more strongly about the national debate over whether to allow people to use public bathrooms of the sex with which they most identify.

Parents who lost children and other loved ones in mass shootings at La Loche, Sask., Newton, Conn. or Colorado may or may not have changed their minds about specific gun control proposals or schools’ mental illness awareness policies. But their thinking is undoubtedly more complex and emotionally rooted now.

Without my father’s idea of proximity, it’s easy not to care about some other guy who got cancer, or the child shot at school, whose life never got started, or the LGBTQ people who just want a normal life.

Or, how the building of a potentially stinky and noisey pump station in a rural residential neighborhood might affect those residents’ enjoyment of their homes.

Without a personal stake, we’re mostly immune to the tragedy and hardships endured by others. It’s a natural defense mechanism, because it’s simply too overwhelming to assume everyone else’s burdens.

But as compassionate human beings we must try. We must listen to these voices.

My father had a terrific insight when he observed that people are most moved by events that impact them personally.

But I can’t help thinking of a world where all people naturally sought to see how the world looks from behind the other person’s eyes. Imagine a world where everyone attempted to understand each other, and where we all accepted those differences without feeling threatened or the need to “fix” the other person.

Is the CVRD poised to make another sewerage mistake?

Is the CVRD poised to make another sewerage mistake?

In its current rush to patch its sewerage system, the Comox Valley Regional District has stumbled toward yet another unwise decision that could negatively impact our community’s coastlines.

It’s not well known, but a 55-year-old sewer pipe runs beneath Comox Bay, to move sewage from HCMS Quadra to the Comox pump station, located at Jane Place. The pipe is actually the old Comox outfall, which was repurposed for HCMS Quadra in the mid-1980s when the new treatment plant and outfall were constructed at Point Holmes.

There’s a risk this pipe could leak effluent into the bay.

To mitigate that danger, CVRD engineers proposed a new pipe across a shorter stretch of the bay where it would connect with a new large pump station in the Croteau Beach area. But the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said, not so fast.

Before the DFO would approve a new pipe, they asked the CVRD to conduct comprehensive environmental studies to determine the impact of construction on fish habitat and coastal vegetation, such as eel grass.

Rather than take the time to do these studies, the CVRD and the Department of National Defence have chosen to repeat the regional district’s 1980s mistake of placing sewer pipes along the foreshore of our recovering estuary. They plan to build a new pipeline — paid for by the DND — and bury it on the estuary’s foreshore, along Goose Spit road.

This is a mistake for several reasons.

First, pipelines are not 100 percent infallible. Even new pipelines can leak. Putting critical infrastructure on or near the marine foreshore creates the potential for pollution to foul coastlines, or an estuary.

The K’omoks estuary has just begun recovering from acid rock drainage that scorched the once bountiful Tsolum River into a dead river, barren of aquatic life. The Mt. Washington Copper Mining Co. only operated for a couple of years in the mid-1960s, but it left decades of toxins and heavy metals leaching into the Tsolum River’s tributaries, down the river and eventually polluting the K’omoks estuary.

Thanks to the Tsolum River Restoration Society and the the K’omoks First Nation, the river and the estuary have started to recover. The K’omoks have worked hard to establish a successful shellfish harvesting enterprise, partly in Comox Bay, shipping more than 2 million oysters annually worldwide.
The plan to put a new sewer pipe in Comox Bay poses a threat to the K’omoks shellfish harvesting.

Second, pipeline construction in the foreshore in several sections will disrupt coastal vegetation and possibly also fish habitat. But the CVRD doesn’t know for sure, because it has not done any environmental studies of the new sewer pipe route.

Third, the CVRD has not taken into account the impacts on Goose Spit from climate change, sea level rise and the increasing frequency and intensity of winter storms. Sea levels could rise so swiftly within the next 20-30 years that Goose Spit road might become treacherous to navigate, or even impassable.

A recent climate change study led by a retired NASA climate scientist focused on a period about 120,000 years ago when the Earth last warmed naturally, to average temperatures estimated at only slightly higher than today. During that period, sea levels rose by up to 30 feet. The study, published recently in the European journal, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, predicts today’s warming will occur more rapidly, within decades.

But a sea level rise of just a few feet, combined with more frequent and severe winter storms, will have a devastating impact on Goose Spit. Higher sea levels could wash the road out completely.

This past winter, several storms sent waves crashing across the Spit road, washing up large logs and a sea lion, and weakening the Spit’s protections. The damage required repairs.

Before building new infrastructure in a marine environment, the DND and CFB Comox must consider the future of HCMS Quarda in light of how the effects of climate change might reshape the Goose Spit shoreline.

The Comox Valley Regional District should also think about these long-term possibilities.

At the April sewage commission meeting, Courtenay councilor Erik Erikksson asked why the DND couldn’t build a self-contained, small treatment plant at HMCS Quarda, eliminating the need for a new pipe. CVRD senior Engineer Marc Rutten responded, “We haven’t investigated” that option, and that he had “no good answer.”

It’s unacceptable that the CVRD hasn’t taken the time to examine every possible option. How can elected officials make good decisions when all the information isn’t on the table?

A decade ago, the CVRD recognized that its sewer pipe on the beach below Willemar Bluffs was vulnerable to winter storms. But it has yet to follow through on its own Sewer Master Plan recommendation to engage a coastal engineer to determine the remaining safe life of the pipeline. Yet, it’s now in an inexplicable hurry to make multi-million dollar changes to its sewerage system, without complete due diligence or exploration of all options.

This tunnel vision has resulted in planning inconsistencies. For example, the CVRD has focussed on the Willemar Bluff section of pipe, but has not yet discussed an equally vulnerable section of sewer pipe from the treatment plant, along the popular Point Homes beach enroute to the outfall into the Strait of Georgia.

At its May sewer commission meeting, the CVRD offered no explanation why replacing the Willemar Bluff section was any more urgent than replacing the Point Holmes section.

Voters and taxpayers in the Comox Valley should call on the CVRD to step back, take a breath and make room for a more environmentally secure plan to evolve, one based on new and emerging scientific data.

Other communities have built leading-edge wastewater management systems that recover and reuse resources, such as reclaimed water and energy to heat and operate treatment plants. Some cities, such as Campbell River, have taken serious notice of how climate change will reshape shorelines and made the wise decision to remove critical infrastructure from the foreshore.

The Comox Valley deserves that kind of thoughtful, calm leadership.

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should UBC divest from fossil fuel companies?

Should the University of British Columbia buy shares in and take profits from fossil fuel companies or invest in funds and projects directly linked to controversial energy projects?

The UBC Board of Governor’s considered that question after some faculty and staff urged the university to divest its endowment fund stakes in fossil fuel projects.

On the surface, the answer is simple. The Board of Governor’s mandate is to make money for the endowment fund. Its fiduciary duty is simply to get the best return possible to support the school’s academic mission.

But setting investment policy is more complex than that. UBC is responsible for examining the short- and long-term risks of its investments. And that requires assessing both internal and external factors that might influence an investment’s return.

A large institutional investor such as UBC can use its leverage to change company policies.

When evaluating any individual investment, the university must consider whether climate change poses any financial risk to its expected returns.

In regards to its positions in projects related to fossil fuels, UBC’s investment committee waffled. It decided not to divest from fossil fuels at this time, but directed its lawyers to review legal questions arising out of any possible future divestment.

That certainly is a cautionary approach. Given the speed at which climate change is occurring and the global pressure to reduce carbon emissions now required by the Paris Agreement, the university should have already answered its legal questions and been prepared to update its investment policies.

If divestment exposes the board to potential legal action over its failure to produce as much value as possible, then it will have no choice but to continue investing in lucrative but controversial energy projects. And it should work quickly to change whatever mandate or legislation impedes them from divesting.

In the meantime, however, UBC should develop a strategy for showing greater sensitivity to environmental issues. The university’s Board of Governor’s should press companies for greater transparency about the risk from climate change, and how they are mitigating that risk.

A large institutional investor such as UBC can use its leverage to change company policies.

And, by the way, let’s put to rest the notion that the UBC investment committee is handling only “public” money. Private individuals and group donations account for 75 percent of the endowment funds. It’s more difficult to classify the balance, which comes from housing developments on UBC’s land.

It’s important for UBC to move quicker than it has. If Canada is going to meet its obligations in the Paris Agreement to keep emissions below the 1.5 to 2.0 degree target, every institution and every individual has to start today planning for a world that does not depend on oil or gas.

The UBC Board of Governor’s has done the prudent thing, for now. But that action is woefully lagging.

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