The City of Ottawa will allow private businesses licensed to sell legal recreational marijuana to open their doors in Ottawa starting this spring, city council decided unanimously after nearly five hours of discussion on Thursday.
The much-anticipated decision came after councillors debated the pros and cons of opting into Ontario’s retail pot store model and heard from 10 public speakers during a rare, special meeting at city hall.
Generally speaking, most councillors agreed that banning cannabis stores in Ottawa wouldn’t make sense at a time when recreational weed is now legal in Canada. But many councillors, including Gloucester-South Nepean Coun. Carol Anne Meehan, remain unhappy with the fact that the city will have no control over how many stores will pop up in Ottawa and where they will be located.
Meehan implored councillors to opt out for the time being and wait to see how other municipalities handle the rollout before opting in. She argued Ottawa could also use the opportunity to join forces with other cities to fight for more provincial funding and municipal control over store locations.
Her motion to opt out of the cannabis store model, seconded by College Coun. Rick Chiarelli, was defeated 2-22.
“I think we’re getting a really bad deal here,” Meehan told reporters after the meeting.
Mayor Jim Watson said Meehan’s concern was a “legitimate” one, but that opting into the current regime was the “right decision.”
“At the end of the day, we’re a border community with Gatineau, and if people are not going to be able to get the product here, they’re going to cross the bridge and we have the worst of both worlds,” Watson told reporters. “They’re going across the bridge, the revenue stays there but the problems arrive on our doorstep and there’s no provincial money to help us with those.”
Because Ottawa has chosen to opt in, it will be eligible for funding from the province – at least $2 million to start in early 2019 – to help cover costs arising from the legalization of marijuana. Watson has said the city is looking at approximately $8 million in implementation and enforcement costs per year.
Ottawa City Council cannot reverse its decision to allow pot stores, nor can a future council.
Cannabis storefronts in Ontario are set to open on April 1, 2019; they will be required to bar entry to anyone under 19 years old.
In a report tabled last week, city staff argued that permitting licensed storefronts would help crack down on the black market, limit youth access to cannabis, and generate economic development in the national capital.
No city control over shop locations; concerns over store clusters
The only limit on pot store locations established by provincial regulations is that the outlets must be set back at least 150 metres from schools. The province isn’t giving municipalities any power to implement zoning restrictions of their own.
That doesn’t sit well with some councillors and Ottawa residents, including Richard Bergman, a retired RCMP sergeant and parent.
“A buffer zone of 150 metres from schools is ridiculous. I think you know that,” Bergman told councillors. “Let’s get larger buffer zones.”
Others said they’re concerned that an inevitable consequence of the minimal restrictions on location will be that clusters of stores will crop in certain areas of town.
“We do not have the control we need to prevent this type of thing,” Chiarelli said.
Referencing past issues with payday loan outlets, Vanier Community Association board member Chris Greenshield told councillors the association is especially worried about high concentrations of stores in “vulnerable communities” like Vanier.
The Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), a provincial Crown agency, will be responsible for licensing and regulating cannabis shops across the province. The Ontario government did not set a cap on the number of licences the commission can award but did set a limit of 75 stores per operator.
Municipalities will get 15 calendar days to comment on applications for stores in their jurisdictions once they are received by the AGCO.
Stephen Willis, the city’s head of planning and economic development, told councillors the city doesn’t yet know whether the AGCO will notify the city when an application is submitted or if the onus will be on the city to monitor the commission’s website for new applications.
The set-up, as is, creates “an incredibly compressed timeframe” for the city, Willis said.
As a result of council’s decision on Thursday, the city will automatically oppose any proposed stores that would be located within 150 metres of another pot shop or within 150 metres of “any identified publicly-owned and/or operated community facility analogous to a school,” including recreational facilities, community centres, libraries and public parks.
Megan Cornell, CEO of Kanata-based Momentum Business Law, challenged the plan to automatically object applications on those grounds, arguing staff should only object to an application if they identify legitimate health and safety concerns with that proposal.
The boutique firm has experience working with licensed cannabis producers and is working with “dozens” of individuals with small-business experience who are interested in opening pot shops in Ottawa, Momentum lawyer Mark Asfar told councillors.
Council also unanimously passed a motion demanding the mayor continue to lobby the provincial government for more municipal controls over the density and location of legal pot storefronts. In the meantime, pot shops will be permitted in areas zoned for retail purposes.
Municipalities across Ontario have until Jan. 22, 2019, to decide whether they want in or out of the retail store system.
Unless it tells the AGCO otherwise, a municipality is automatically opted in. Municipalities have the option to opt out and then opt in at a later date – but they can’t change their mind a second time.