Council committee favours local legal cannabis outlets
NORTHEAST TOWN—Councils across Ontario need to inform the province whether they will allow cannabis retail outlets in their municipalities by January 22, 2019. The newly-minted Northeast Town council wasted no time in getting down to business and, its administration and finance meeting held last Thursday, and after much debate, made a recommendation to support cannabis retail sales in the Northeast Town.
CAO Dave Williamson began the discussion by explaining that in April of 2019, brick and mortar retail outlets can operate at the discretion of the province alongside the already established Ontario Cannabis Store found online. However, municipalities can opt out of having any retail store in their communities.
Should a municipality choose to opt out, the CAO continued, they can opt back in at any time, but if a municipality choose to opt in, they’re in it for good.
Municipalities received a payment of $5,000 this year in conjunction with legalized pot sales and will receive another $5,000 in January. All those municipalities that opt in can receive further provincial funding over the next two years should the province’s profits from cannabis sales top $100 million. Those funds will be divided among the ‘opt-in’ municipalities at 50 percent of the surplus.
“The province is setting aside $10 million of the municipal funding to address costs from unforeseen circumstances related to the legalization of recreational cannabis and priority will be given to municipalities that have not opted out,” a letter to council from Minister of Finance Vic Fideli states.
“The question is, would you permit a retail store in your community?” Mr. Williamson asked council, noting that there will be strict rules governing the impending retail stores, all imposed by the province.
“We have to decide if we want a retail outlet in our community at this time,” said Mayor Al MacNevin. “Who does it is up to the province,” he added, explaining to council that a decision to opt out would have no bearing on the new legalities of smoking in public. “It’s just about the retail store.”
Councillor Jim Ferguson asked whether the municipality can stipulate where in the community the storefront would be located. Mr. Williamson explained the province would determine that, but a retail store must be in an area zoned commercial.
“We can’t enact our own bylaws?” Mr. Ferguson queried.
“No,” Mr. Williamson responded.
Councillor Bill Koehler noted the many “unknowns.”
It was explained that the funding received by the province from the sale of cannabis can only be used to address the costs that directly relate to the legalization of recreational cannabis in five areas: increased enforcement (police, public health, bylaw enforcement, court administration, litigation); increased response to public inquiries; increased paramedic services; increased fire services; and bylaw/policy development.
“And what if the costs are more (in the five areas) than what we’ve been given?” Councillor Koehler asked. “We’re going to get the costs no matter what, in or out.”
Mayor MacNevin agreed.
“So we have no guarantee of money to help us deal with all these problems?” asked Councillor Laurie Cook.
Councillor Michael Erskine clarified that should the municipality opt out, the problems will still be there, but without the added funds.
Councillor Al Boyd asked if conducting a community survey was possible before deciding, such is being done in the City of Greater Sudbury which is conducting a non-binding referendum on the issue. As a former police officer, he said he knows the costs surrounding the illegal distribution of cannabis.
Mr. Williamson said that a survey is possible, but would come with a price tag.
Councillor Ferguson said that while the province spoke of funding for year one and year two, “What about year three, year four?”
“They are silent on that issue,” Mr. Williamson said. “There’s been no commitment beyond year one and year two.”
“The real issue is, do you want a retail store in the community?” the mayor reiterated.
Councillor Ferguson suggested council put the funding side of things aside and look at it through a social lens.
Councillor Barb Baker said that in all likelihood survey results would bring such a mix of reactions that council should make the decision.
Council Erskine agreed, saying “at the end of the day we were elected to make those hard decisions.” He said he believed it made more sense to have cannabis sales controlled than accessible through the black market.
Councillor Bruce Wood said it should be viewed in the same way as alcohol or cigarettes. “We might as well allow some entrepreneur in this community the opportunity to start a business.”
Councillor Koehler said he agreed with Councillor Wood. “The main word in all this is ‘legal.’ It’s good to have a regulated outlet.”
Councillor Cook said she would like to wait and see what other municipalities do. “We can always opt back in later,” she said, calling the $10,000 offering a “cheap bribe.” Councillor Cook said she didn’t think it was a good fit for this “wholesome community” nor the image that they should be portraying.
Councillor Ferguson said that while he was torn on the issue, he would rather see a regulated retail store.
Councillor Baker explained to council that all stores must wholesale from the provincially-run Ontario Cannabis Store.
Councillor Boyd said he was also in agreement with opting in, paralleling it with the sale of alcohol.
Councillor Cook asked for a recorded vote.
All the councillors and Mayor MacNevin, except for Councillor Cook, voted in favour of allowing a cannabis retail store in the municipality. The recommendation will now go forward to council at its December 18 meeting where it will see further debate and a final decision made.