Ontario says cities will have ‘short window’ to opt out of cannabis shops – but can’t say how short

Municipal elections are to be held Oct. 22 in Ontario -- five days after the federal Liberal government's cannabis legalization measures go into effect.
Municipal elections are to be held Oct. 22 in Ontario -- five days after the federal Liberal government's cannabis legalization measures go into effect. File / Getty Images

Ontario government officials signalled on Wednesday that local councils elected this fall will have to make a speedy decision on whether to allow private retail pot shops in their cities and towns – but they weren’t able to tell municipalities exactly how much time they’ll get to make the call.

The Ford government has said it will launch a private retail store system for selling legal recreational marijuana on April 1, 2019, and it will give Ontario municipalities a one-time chance to opt out of having those physical shops within their boundaries.

READ MORE: Marijuana to be sold through private retailers, online in Ontario

At a conference of Ontario municipalities hosted in Ottawa, Nicole Stewart of the provincial finance ministry told delegates the government hasn’t yet determined the start and end dates for that “opt out” period – but those dates will “certainly be communicated prior to the end of the municipal elections” on Oct. 22.

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“It will likely be quite a short window to meet those timelines that we’re trying to achieve for April, and so for that reason, municipalities should plan to consider this question as a first order of business when they return after the municipal elections are completed,” said Stewart, who is an executive lead on the government’s implementation of cannabis retail stores.

WATCH: Cannabis retailers getting ready as recreational pot set to be legal in 2 months

Click to play video 'Cannabis retailers getting ready as recreational pot set to be legal in 2 months' Cannabis retailers getting ready as recreational pot set to be legal in 2 months
Cannabis retailers getting ready as recreational pot set to be legal in 2 months – Aug 17, 2018

The Progressive Conservatives announced last week that they were abandoning the former Liberal government’s plans to sell legal recreational cannabis through government-run stores and instead pivoting to online and private retail sales.

Recreational marijuana will become legal on Oct. 17 – only five days before municipal election day. Until private sales kick off next spring, legal weed will only be available in the province to individuals 19 and older through the online Ontario Cannabis Store.

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READ MORE: Ontario Cannabis Store says 26 licensed producers will supply online retail platform

Stewart was one of six panellists on Wednesday discussing the legalization and regulation of cannabis at the annual conference of the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO).

While she couldn’t say exactly when the provincial government will table legislation that would govern the private retail model – a bill which will likely significantly inform councils’ decisions to opt in or out of private shops – Stewart said it will come “over the fall.”

She did clarify that a municipality that chooses to opt out would be allowed to opt in down the road. But what’s still unclear is if municipalities that opt in to private retailers late in the game would still be eligible for a slice of the $40 million the province says it has set aside over two years to help cities and towns cover costs related to the legalization of cannabis.

Timing of ‘opt out’ window ‘problematic’ for new councils: Ottawa deputy mayor

This move to a private retail system and the “very short timeframe” to implement it presents a whole new set of challenges for municipalities, which weren’t going to have much to do with the original government-run store model, Joy Hulton, York Region’s head of legal and court services, told reporters after the panel.

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Hulton said the opt in or opt out question is an “awfully substantial issue” for local councillors, both old and new, to have to grapple with right away in December.

“To be asked to make a decision at potentially their very first meeting could be very onerous for them,” she said.

READ MORE: Ottawa deputy mayor ‘encouraged’ by Ford’s comments, minister turnout at municipalities event

Ottawa city councillor and deputy mayor Mark Taylor agreed the timing of the decision is “problematic” and a council’s preparedness to make that call will depend on election day results.

“If you get a high turnover of council, or if you’re onboarding a lot of newly elected officials who have perhaps never been in the elected world before, there is this very steep learning curve,” Taylor said. “And moving into a decision like this, I think, is really challenging.”

Although he said the question of whether to allow private cannabis stores in town “really hasn’t been an election issue to date,” Taylor said he predicts that will now change.

“I think what we’re going to quickly see is a question being asked to candidates all across Ontario as they knock on doors: ‘Are you in or are you out?'” said Taylor, who moderated Wednesday’s panel.

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Still more questions than answers on cannabis

A handful of municipal leaders conceded there are still a lot more questions than there are answers on the marijuana file. In particular, much uncertainty remains about what each level of government will be responsible for.

The panellists touched on a number of gaps at the municipal level that still need to be addressed – from planning and zoning to police enforcement, and from the regulation of homegrown plants to how to properly compost residential and industrial marijuana plants.

READ MORE: No plans to cut other local councils in Ontario, Ford tells municipal leaders

Hulton said she believes the lack of information has left many municipalities “unnerved.”

“The world’s not going to end on Oct. 17, but I think we all have to consider that even in the delay of retail, cannabis will be available in our communities come Oct. 17,” she said.

Waterloo Regional Police chief Bryan Larkin listed off a number of issues police departments still have to sort out – including the impact on their budgets, training, road safety and illegal dispensaries – but he insisted “Ontario police leaders are ready.”

“I want to assure you … stay calm,” said Larkin, who is also past president of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. “On Oct. 17, there will not be reefer madness in Ontario or in any of your communities.

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“We feel very well-aligned on that Oct. 17, when legalization comes into play … that we’ll be in a good place.”

Ray Callery, chief administrative officer of Greater Napanee, urged municipal leaders to ensure they are asking the “right questions” and to have patience if provincial staff can’t provide immediate answers.

Wednesday marked the last day of the AMO conference, which draws mayors, councillors and other representatives from almost all of the province’s 444 municipalities.