Op-ed: Why council shouldn't opt out of cannabis storefronts in Ottawa: Leiper

cannabis

Cannabis is now legal in Canada, and one of the first issues with which the new Council will be seized very soon is whether or not to allow its sale in retail storefronts. Thanks to the ham-fisted approach taken to weed sales by the Doug Ford government at Queen’s Park, the question is less straightforward than it might seem.

This summer and fall, retail cannabis stores have been a bouncing ball. Under the Liberal government, cannabis would have been sold only in government-controlled retail storefronts. It was a cautious approach that seemed poised to give at least city councillors and likely the public some significant input into their location. Residents still nervous about selling cannabis from retail locations would have the assurance that stores would be staffed with government employees, and their numbers and locations would be controlled.

That changed abruptly under the new Conservative government. The approach proposed today will allow private operators into the market. Municipalities will have no say in where they go nor which operators are licenced. Operators will be licenced by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, and cities may not pass zoning laws to control where they go.

Queen’s Park, though, has given Ontario municipalities the ability to opt out of storefront retail cannabis stores. By a vote of Council, Ottawa could say no to allowing their operation here.

The question before us is: should we?

Local decisions should be made by local representatives

It’s important to say first that my preference would be that the City, not the Province, be responsible for regulating retail cannabis stores. I’m on record during the campaign saying that, given my druthers, I’d prefer an approach that would have seen cannabis stores licenced by the City to operate just as we regulate certain classes of businesses including restaurants, arcades and strip clubs.

My experience of the first term is that, under compelling circumstances, the City can work nimbly to revoke licences at the local level to deal with pressing problems through its Licensing Committee. I had that unfortunate experience when dealing with a problematic bar in the ward this term, and I have the confidence that licensing would have given us the power we need to control bad behaviour.

I would also prefer that Council have the power to zone to control cannabis stores. I would have argued for permissive zoning even while other councillors would have argued for the opposite. That decision, however, should be made by the elected officials who know their communities best and are the most immediately accountable to residents – your city councillors.

However, that’s not an option today. By default, Provincially-licensed retailers will soon start opening up shop unless Council votes to opt out entirely. We don’t have to vote on whether to opt in: unless we choose to opt out, the decision’s been made for us. That’s regrettable, and typical of the disdain with which the Province is treating municipalities under Doug Ford.

To opt out or not

In December, I and other councillors will be faced with a decision as to whether to opt out or not. I have no doubt that that key vote will be accompanied by some sturm und drang as Council seeks to signal to Queen’s Park our opposition to their paternalist approach. But, the key question of opting out is the one that will make the most difference to residents: will we allow storefront cannabis retail or not?

Today, my plan is to vote against any motion that sees the City opt out, despite my misgivings about how we’ve arrived at this point.

Residents know that Kitchissippi was the first ward in which an illegal dispensary opened just about exactly two years ago. We’ve seen multiple others since. While the issue of illegal dispensaries is not a municipal one – they weren’t breaking any by-laws – residents nonetheless expected me to be involved with them.

When the first opened on Carling, the owners spoke with me and I looped in the local community association. I visited several other shops as well, introducing myself to the operators, warning them that they ran afoul of the federal rules and were open to prosecution but that I wouldn’t be following the lead of some of my colleagues who were clamouring for their closure. I emphasized my expectation that they would be good neighbours in return.

I can say that after two years, I’m comfortable that the “dispensaries” have, by and large, not created an overwhelming public interest concern. That’s not to say there have been no problems.

At one dispensary, I received complaints that customers were smoking the product in the parking lot, and I had to bring it to the attention of police concerned about drugging and driving. At one shop recently, a resident expressed concern that staff were smoking on the porch and presenting an unfriendly face to the community. I’ve visited to express the concern, heard that the individuals may have actually contractors in to do some renovations, and have not heard the concern expressed again.

I'm comfortable that the "dispensaries" have, by and large, not created an overwhelming public interest concern. That's not to say there have been no problems.

There have been break-ins, too. However, I can’t say that the illegal dispensaries have been any different from the regular outbreaks of theft that we see on our main street. While I recognize the discomfort that some residents feel about the potential for cannabis retailers to attract crime, I also have to point out that in this term one fashion accessories shop was the subject of a string of break-ins including one instance where thieves used their vehicle to smash through the window to gain entry. No one has asked that they be shut down. Rather, the response by the community and I was to ask for more police help in addressing B&Es, which are the too-frequent scourge of our entire retail community.

Overall, the illegal dispensaries in our ward have not been a strain on my office, the subject of any significant number of complaints, nor contributor that I can tell to greater use of cannabis in our community by those who aren’t already doing so. Speaking personally, as the father of a teenager in very close proximity to a dispensary two easy blocks away, I’ve never felt uncomfortable about it, though I recognize that some parents feel differently.

I know there have been assertions that, lightly regulated, cannabis retailers may cluster – and in particular cluster in vulnerable communities. I have been thinking hard about this, and consider that this perception may be rooted in biases about who uses recreational marijuana. I believe there is as likely a market in Westboro and Hintonburg for cannabis as in any other part of the city.

The same market forces that determine the success of a location for, say, The Wine Shop are likely to come into play for medical and recreational marijuana. Forced to travel too far to buy cannabis, many will simply opt to buy online or revert to sketchier supply chains. In our ward, there's no obvious demographic for those who use marijuana, and I believe there is a very wide spectrum.

A clear choice

Even though the Province has taken local decision-making out of local control on this issue, something about which I feel very strongly, the question before us is a clear one: to opt out or not.

Based on my experience of two years of cannabis retailing in Kitchissippi, the paucity of conversation in this ward about it during the recent election, and the downsides to opting out that I can foresee, I don’t, today, support opting out.

During the election campaign, asked about opting out, Mayor Jim Watson told CBC that:

"I don't think that's realistic. If we were to opt out we'd have this patchwork quilt where you can go over to Gatineau, in another province, you can go to Beckwith Township if they set one up on the border. So, the reality is, whether you like it or not, as of October cannabis is legal."

I agree with the Mayor.

It’s 2018 and you can today purchase a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine from the Superstore steps from Hilson Avenue public school. Cannabis is now a legal product, and forcing you to cross borders to shop in-person for it is anti-consumer and overly Victorian.

Cannabis is now a legal product, and forcing you to cross border to shop in-person for it is anti-consumer and overly Victorian.

When a motion comes before me to opt out, I’m inclined to say no. My experience is that whatever drawbacks we find to private cannabis storefront retailing can be reasonably addressed.

City consultation

It’s important to have your say, whether you agree with me or not on the issue. I’d like to hear from you and promise to consider your perspectives thoughtfully.

The City has posted a consultation site here that I encourage everyone to visit, including following the link to a survey now online asking residents what they think. A word about that survey: it’s self-selected and thus of very limited value. It is a source of frustration to me that the City still posts these when we know that self-selected online polls cannot be used to guide policy decisions.

The City always has the option of doing public opinion research properly, even if it costs a few dollars. Working with an expert pollster would also help avoid leading questions that have the potential to skew the results. I’ll look at the results (who wouldn’t be curious?) but can commit to not making any decision based on them.

Jeff Leiper was recently elected to his second term as councillor of Kitchissippi Ward.