Billings council votes to opt in to allow for cannabis retail sales

KAGAWONG—It was a very close vote, and concerns were raised, but Billings council has decided to opt in and allow for potential cannabis retail sales in township.

“The whole cannabis question has been in the forefront of media, especially in the last few weeks,” Billings Mayor Ian Anderson said at a council meeting Tuesday. “Everyone on council has read a lot of material and have received a lot of advice.” 

He pointed out the township extended an online survey of local residents’ opinions on the issue. “For the record, we received a total of 17 emailed and phoned-in comments. The comments skewed to the pro-side of the question, with 11 respondents in favour of opting in, four against and two unclear,” said Mayor Anderson. While it was a small sample he noted, “I’ve asked a lot of folks their opinion on the issue and the results are pretty much the same as the survey.”

“For me personally this is an extremely difficult question,” said Mayor Anderson. “I’m leaning one way and my heart is going the other way.” He mentioned that there are some financial ramifications involved: the township would receive $10,000 (in two payments) if it opts in before January 22, and that the funding has to be related to cannabis education, enforcement and the like. And then there is the unknown, as the province has indicated that if there is a surplus of $100 million, Ontario municipalities who opt in would share in this. “We would have a share of this. But after two years there is no guarantee of this.”

“I honestly thought people who were asked would say no to opting in,” said Councillor Sharon Alkenbrack, “although many people might not necessarily agree but feel it is legal anyway.”

“I was watching on TV the other night the first legalized cannabis shop just having been opened (in Vancouver),” said Councillor Alkenbrack. “I was amazed how well the shop was put together and organized. There were crowds, but everything was very well organized and run. I was very impressed.”

It was pointed out that only two of the first 25 retail stores to be opened will be located in Northern Ontario and that these stores have to be cannabis sales only, not be part of another type of retail outlet.

“My vote is to opt in,” stated Councillor Alkenbrack.

Councillor Sharon Jackson also indicated she would be voting in favour of opting in. “My heart is telling me one thing, but this is no different under the law than tobacco or alcohol. I as well asked quite a few people between the ages of 22-65 their opinion and they all said yes to opting in. And it’s legal regardless.” 

Councillor Bryan Barker and Michael Hunt both indicated they would be voting no to opting in. 

Councillor Barker explained, “I have done a lot of research on this issue. It is legal, I accept that. However, I think we should opt out.” By doing this, “it would give us the opportunity to learn from other municipalities if there are any negatives attached to this. The Colorado report on five years of cannabis legalization has shown there was nothing positive that came out of this.”

“And we don’t know what the long term affects of legalization on a permanent basis will be,” said Councillor Barker. “We also have the option of opting in later. I feel as municipalities we have been rushed into this with a carrot dangled in front of our nose.”

Councillor Barker also expressed concern the township would not have any control on where these retail outlets would be located, except basically that they would not be within 150 metres of a school, which he said is still way too close.”

“And by opting out it doesn’t stop people from getting cannabis and bringing it to Billings,” said Councillor Barker. He provided another concern that if the township wants controls on where cannabis can be used they would have to put in more bylaws and there would be a cost attached to that in terms of enforcement-policing. He said it has also been shown in other areas that petty crimes increase in a community that a legal cannabis retail outlet is located. “And on Sharon’s comment that it is no different than alcohol or tobacco, it is different; you can’t walk up a street with a bottle of beer in your hand, for instance. To me there is just too much unknown for little gain. My vote will be no.”

“I agree we shouldn’t opt in,” stated Councillor Michael Hunt. He said there are already problems as demand is higher than supply. He also voiced concerns that retail outlets would have to be cannabis only sales and not be part of another retail outlet. “And my experience with government institutions is that they take a huge share of the profits and a business owner would only get a small percentage, so it might not be worth it for someone to put in a security system and other costs involved with this. I would vote to opt out.”

“If the funds for opting in and surplus revenues were put into the general coffers to be used as municipalities want, this whole thing would be a no brainer,” said Councillor Barker. “But the funds can only be used for cannabis related initiatives.”

“The money provided would at least give us a chance to establish bylaws and things that we would need to do,” said Councillor Alkenbrack.

“The reality is that on the short term having a retail outlet here is pretty remote,” said Mayor Anderson, who said that with all the costs involved for a person to open a retail outlet they would need to be well off to handle these costs. “And whether Billings has a retail outlet in a year, or 10 years, there will be costs involved with having to deal with this in the short term, regardless.”

The majority of council, Councillors Alkenbrack and Jackson, along with Mayor Anderson voted in favour of opting in, with Councillors Barker and Hunt opposed, meaning the township is in favour of allowing for potential cannabis sales in the township.