A POT­TED DILEMMA BUDS OUT

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties across On­tario have 10 days left to de­cide whether or not to al­low le­gal mar­i­juana stores. We look at the ar­gu­ments for and against.

The London Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - DALE CARRUTHERS

It’s a de­ci­sion D-Day for hun­dreds of On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, the first big ques­tion many of their new coun­cils elected last fall will face this year.

Within 10 days, ev­ery place in the prov­ince with its own gov­ern­ment must de­cide whether or not it will al­low le­gal pot stores within its bound­aries.

In some ways, it’s not yet a huge deal. Af­ter all, On­tario is al­low­ing only 25 mar­i­juana stores for the en­tire prov­ince — that’s 444 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties — in the first roll­out of le­gal pot shops this spring.

But with recre­ational and medic­i­nal mar­i­juana use in Canada here to stay, and a huge in­dus­try tak­ing shape to cater to it, sit­ting out what’s ex­pected to be­come a much larger mar­ket — likely ex­tend­ing to pot-in­fused food and drink and myr­iad life­style op­tions — brings its own risks.

Turn your nose up at pot, and some­one else — down the road, or across the prov­ince — will lap up the spoils.

That’s a par­tic­u­lar con­cern in South­west­ern On­tario, which is emerg­ing as a ma­jor pot-grow­ing belt.

With just 10 days to go un­til the Jan. 22 dead­line, more than two dozen cities and towns, in­clud­ing at least 10 in South­west­ern On­tario, al­ready have opted out, cit­ing con­cerns about drug abuse, crime and their in­abil­ity to con­trol store lo­ca­tions — the prov­ince sets the rules — through zon­ing.

Many other places are play­ing the 11th-hour wait­ing game, watch­ing what neigh­bours are do­ing, try­ing to get their hands on more in­for­ma­tion and putting off de­cid­ing un­til next week be­fore the dead­line or right up to it.

They might be for­given for hold­ing out.

Af­ter all, On­tar­i­ans have seen the land­scape for the sale of le­gal weed change dra­mat­i­cally be­tween two provin­cial gov­ern­ments in only seven months, from the mo­nop­oly ap­proach of the for­mer Lib­eral gov­ern­ment that wanted to sell pot at a spe­cific num­ber of stores linked to the LCBO, to Doug Ford’s 360 on the file. His Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives first de­cided to let the pri­vate sec­tor sell cannabis with no lim­its on store num­bers, but now are re­strict­ing tightly the num­ber of stores be­cause of a short­age of prod­uct they blame on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, which li­censes le­gal pot pro­duc­ers.

Opt­ing out — com­mu­ni­ties that say no can change their minds later, but not the re­verse — and ban­ning le­gal pot shops is a short-sighted move that only will fuel de­mand for black mar­ket mar­i­juana and cost places that say no lost provin­cial fund­ing , some crit­ics warn.

But even as On­tario fi­nally re­veals which would-be sell­ers will get the first 25 lo­ca­tions in the prov­ince, un­der a lot­tery draw whose re­sults were ex­pected by to­day, some civic politi­cians re­main skep­ti­cal of openly al­low­ing sale of drug that was banned for 95 years in Canada un­til the fed­eral Lib­er­als le­gal­ized its recre­ational use last fall.

The case for opt­ing in

One corner­stone of Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau’s 2015 elec­tion vow to le­gal­ize recre­ational pot was to cut the flow of money to crim­i­nals from il­le­gal sales of the drug.

Crit­ics cau­tioned that only a re­tail sys­tem mak­ing mar­i­juana eas­ily avail­able to Cana­di­ans, at a com­pet­i­tive price, would mus­cle out drug deal­ers and black mar­ket op­er­a­tors.

Opt­ing out of al­low­ing mar­i­juana dis­pen­saries doesn’t make that pos­si­ble, says Trina Fraser, a lead­ing cannabis lawyer based in Ot­tawa.

“So long as you’re not pro­vid­ing a con­ve­nient, com­pa­ra­ble, le­gal al­ter­na­tive, the il­le­gal mar­ket will con­tinue to flour­ish,” said Fraser, who ad­vises the mar­i­juana in­dus­try.

Snuff­ing out the black mar­ket was a driv­ing force be­hind Lon­don coun­cil’s de­ci­sion to ap­prove al­low­ing mar­i­juana dis­pen­saries in the city when the bricks-and-mor­tar busi­nesses are al­lowed to open in April.

“Tak­ing it out of the hands of or­ga­nized crime and putting it in re­tail stores is . . . a huge step for­ward,” Coun. Mau­reen Cas­sidy said of the de­ci­sion to em­brace dis­pen­saries.

Cities and towns op­posed to al­low­ing pot stores also lose out on their slice of $40 mil­lion be­ing doled out by the prov­ince over the next two years, in part to deal with law en­force­ment and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is­sues.

Lon­don al­ready has re­ceived $450,000 to deal with the in­tro­duc­tion of recre­ational cannabis, its city man­ager re­ported last month.

“Some (mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties) have as­sessed the amount of money from the prov­ince as be­ing a fairly nom­i­nal sum and not re­ally a rea­son to opt in,” Fraser said.

Sar­nia Mayor Mike Bradley com­pares to­day’s sit­u­a­tion with pot, with mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties forced to de­cide whether or not to al­low le­gal stores, to the era when On­tario was at odds over al­co­hol sales.

“It’s go­ing to cre­ate this checker­board On­tario of com­mu­ni­ties — it’s the old dry and wet thing we had with liquor,” Bradley said, re­fer­ring to places that did not al­low liquor sales and those that did.

“If it’s le­gal, and it’s avail­able through the in­ter­net (through the gov­ern­ment’s on­line sales mo­nop­oly), then it should be avail­able for peo­ple to prop­erly ac­cess it in ev­ery com­mu­nity,” he said of cannabis, adding a gov­ern­ment-reg­u­lated in­dus­try ul­ti­mately will be much safer than the il­licit mar­ket.

Crit­ics con­tend mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties that have opted out of host­ing dis­pen­saries made the de­ci­sion based on fear, not facts.

“I hope that we can get to the point where there are no opt-out mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, but I think that’s go­ing to take some time,” Fraser said.

The case for opt­ing out

Not long af­ter Canada be­came the sec­ond coun­try to le­gal­ize recre­ational cannabis use, some politi­cians started vow­ing to ban le­gal pot shops.

Al­ready, more than 24 On­tario mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties have no­ti­fied the Al­co­hol and Gam­ing Com­mis­sion of On­tario (AGCO), the prov­ince’s pot reg­u­la­tor, that they’re bar­ring mar­i­juana re­tail­ers af­ter their civic coun­cils ap­proved do­ing so.

The move by those mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, which rep­re­sent just a frac­tion of On­tario’s more than 400, can be re­versed at any time.

In Bland­ford-Blen­heim, a town­ship north­east of Wood­stock with fewer than 8,000 res­i­dents, politi­cians unan­i­mously sup­ported opt­ing out of host­ing dis­pen­saries.

“We thought we’d let the big cities and the other ar­eas go through the grow­ing pains,” Mayor Mark Peter­son said, adding res­i­dents can drive else­where — pos­si­bly to nearby Wood­stock or Kitch­ener-Water­loo, depend­ing where the first stores roll out — to visit a pot re­tailer.

Coun­cil is un­likely to re­verse its de­ci­sion to opt out, a move that cost the town­ship $5,000 in provin­cial fund­ing, Peter­son said.

“It’s not worth it for us, for that kind of money,” he said of the un­cer­tain­ties cannabis re­tail­ing may bring.

A key con­cerns raised by com­mu­ni­ties in favour of opt­ing out is the lack of con­trol they have over zon­ing of dis­pen­saries. The AGCO will ul­ti­mately ap­prove where dis­pen­saries open and only re­quire the stores be at least 150 me­tres from schools and meet phys­i­cal se­cu­rity re­quire­ments.

Wind­sor Mayor Drew Dilkens wants his city to say no to pot shops, at least for now.

“Frankly, I don’t believe the reg­u­la­tions go far enough to pro­tect ex­ist­ing busi­nesses and other agen­cies that are op­er­at­ing in the city,” Dilkens said, not­ing the 150-me­tre buf­fer rule for schools also should ap­ply to day cares and men­tal health treat­ment fa­cil­i­ties.

“Now that we’re only go­ing to have 25 stores in the prov­ince . . . there’s re­ally no risk to opt out,” he said.

There’s es­pe­cially strong op­po­si­tion to mar­i­juana re­tail­ers in Es­sex County, where Te­cum­seh, Lakeshore and LaSalle have banned the busi­nesses.

Wind­sor politi­cians will vote on the is­sue Jan. 21. If the bor­der city does opt out, it would be the largest mu­nic­i­pal­ity out­side the Greater Toronto Area to do so.

Dilkens high­lighted prob­lems he saw dur­ing a 2016 trip to Den­ver, Colo., where pot shops have op­er­ated since the state be­came the first in the United States to le­gal­ize recre­ational cannabis in 2014.

“The trou­bling part was the type of ac­tiv­ity that hap­pened out­side (dis­pen­saries),” he said, cit­ing be­hav­iour such as loi­ter­ing and pan­han­dling. “Stuff that would make many peo­ple un­com­fort­able.”

“I know there will be some is­sues depend­ing on where a cannabis re­tail shop is placed, cer­tain ones will have more is­sues than oth­ers,” Dilkens said.

The As­so­ci­a­tion of Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of On­tario, an um­brella group for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, says it’s stay­ing neu­tral on the is­sue, urg­ing its mem­bers to voice their con­cerns about zon­ing is­sues to the AGCO by draft­ing pol­icy state­ments.

Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties opt­ing out

Among South­west­ern On­tario cen­tres that have de­cided not to al­low le­gal pot sales:

• Bland­ford-Blen­heim Town­ship

• Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Blue­wa­ter

• East Zorra-Tav­i­s­tock Town­ship

• Town of Inger­soll

• Town of Te­cum­seh

• Town of Plymp­ton-Wyoming

• St. Clair Town­ship

• Town of Lakeshore

• Town of LaSalle

• Vil­lage of Point Ed­ward

About the lot­tery to sell pot

• Op­er­ated by Al­co­hol and Gam­ing Com­mis­sion of On­tario; over­seen by au­dit­ing gi­ant KPMG

• 25 li­cences to be given out

• $75 fee to en­ter

• Win­ners to be an­nounced by to­day

• Stores lim­ited to mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of more than 50,000 res­i­dents

• Seven li­cences to be granted in On­tario’s west re­gion, a vast area stretch­ing from Wind­sor to Ni­a­gara to Water­loo

• Win­ners have five busi­ness days to turn in their ap­pli­ca­tion, with a $6,000 non-re­fund­able fee and a $50,000 let­ter of credit

For­mer Lib­eral gov­ern­ment’s pot plan

• The provin­cially owned On­tario Cannabis Store (OCS) would con­trol on­line and store­front sales

• 40 OCS stores would open by Oct. 17, 2018, the date recre­ational pot be­came le­gal

• 80 OCS lo­ca­tions would open by 2019

• Cannabis re­tail­ers had to be at least 450 me­tres away from schools

Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s pot plan

• OCS will con­trol on­line sales and whole­sale to store­front re­tail­ers

• Al­co­hol and Gam­ing Com­mis­sion of On­tario will grant 25 re­tail li­cences for stores to open April 1

• An un­lim­ited num­ber of re­tail li­cences – what the Tories first planned – even­tu­ally will be granted, they say.

• Cannabis re­tail­ers must be at least 150 me­tres from schools

MIKE HENSEN/THE LON­DON FREE PRESS

MIKE HENSEN/THE LON­DON FREE PRESS

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