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.
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