City staff recommend council allow pot shops in Ottawa

Ottawa city staff are recommending that council approve the opening of pot shops in the national capital. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Staff at Ottawa City Hall are recommending that city council permit private stores selling recreational cannabis to set up shop in the national capital.

Retail pot shops will be allowed to operate in Ontario as of April 1, 2019, but the provincial government is leaving it up to individual municipalities to decide whether they want to opt in or out of having those stores in their jurisdictions.

Recreational cannabis has been legal in Canada since Oct. 17.

Anthony Di Monte, the city’s general manager of emergency and protective services, said staff are arguing private pot shops should be allowed in Ottawa because doing so would “deter” residents from purchasing weed through the black market. Acquiring cannabis from “a source that’s guaranteed” is also “a better option” from a public health perspective, he said.

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Money also factored into staff’s recommendation, according to Di Monte. The stores present economic development opportunities because they will create jobs, he said, adding it’s possible more customers might flock to Ottawa from across the river if Quebec hikes the minimum age to consume cannabis to 21.

On top of that, if it opts in to the stores, the municipality will get access to provincial funding to help with related costs like policing, with the possibility of sharing profits with the province down the road, the city manager said.

The staff recommendation also pointed to public opinion. While the input the city received from residents showed a split in how people feel about the private stores, Di Monte said a closer look at the comments revealed a wider consensus among consumers of marijuana, many of whom reportedly said they would prefer to purchase cannabis from a retail store, rather than through an online store.

The staff recommendation was included in a larger report on federal and provincial cannabis laws tabled at city council on Wednesday, the first meeting of council’s 2018-2022 term.

Councillors will debate the staff report at a special council meeting scheduled for next Thursday, Dec. 13. Members of the public can register to speak on the issue at next week’s meeting.

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Ottawa City Council has to decide whether to opt in or out of retail cannabis stores by Jan. 22, 2019. If a municipality chooses to opts out, it can only reverse that decision one time – but it can’t backtrack once it opts in.

During the recent municipal election campaign, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson committed to supporting private cannabis stores in the city. He told reporters he thinks the reasons Di Monte presented to council to back staff’s pro-pot store stance are “legitimate.”

“At the end of the day, I think we can argue until the cows come home about whether it’s the right thing to do or not,” Watson told reporters after council’s meeting. “It is legal to possess cannabis and we should be in the business of providing storefronts for that.”

As it stands now, the municipality would have very limited involvement in the retail cannabis store system, which Watson hopes to change. The province has given responsibility for licensing and regulating the pot stores to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO); the provincial Crown agency will decide who gets to operate the stores and where the shops would be located.

The Ontario government hasn’t set any limits on the number of licences the AGCO can award, but it has said stores must be located at least 150 metres away from schools. After the commission receives an application for a shop in Ottawa, the city will get a 15-day period to comment on the request.

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Watson has said he’s been writing and speaking to provincial ministers and MPPs in an effort to convince them that municipalities should be given more authority to control the pot stores’ location and increase their minimum distance from schools. While he said those efforts haven’t yet borne fruit, Watson said he’ll “continue to work on that.”

EKOS poll finds split among residents on pot stores, city survey finds strong majority in favour

The staff report to council suggested a significant number of residents in Ottawa support the city opening its doors to retail cannabis stories but that a divide still exists.

The city commissioned EKOS Research to survey Ottawa residents for their opinions on whether there should be private pot shops in the national capital.

The poll — which surveyed 803 residents, according to the EKOS report — found that 48 per cent said they supported having retail brick-and-mortar stores in the city, while 43 per cent reported they were opposed to the idea and seven per cent said they were undecided.

Among supporters of legalization, however, support for pot shops climbed to 78 per cent. The EKOS report said the poll’s margin of error was within 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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The City of Ottawa also conducted an online survey as part of its public consultation process on cannabis stores. The survey received nearly 24,000 responses, according to the city’s report; just under 16,000 of those were tied to people or IP addresses within Ottawa.

Of those 15,888 respondents, about 78 per cent said they strongly or somewhat support having private pot shops in Ottawa. Meanwhile, approximately 20 per cent of the online survey respondents said they are opposed to the stores.

While Di Monte said the response prompted by the online survey was the “largest” the city had ever seen, he warned that “pressure groups” could affect the results.

“The disadvantage of an online [survey] is anybody can get online,” he said. “The EKOS survey’s perhaps a bit more scientific.”

Until April, Ontarians 19 years of age and older can only purchase legal weed through the online Ontario Cannabis Store.

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