In or out? City of Ottawa surveying residents on private cannabis retail


The City of Ottawa is surveying residents about whether to allow private cannabis retailers to set up shop in the capital, an all-or-nothing choice that puts decisions about local pot shop locations solely in the hands of the province.

The city sent out a survey this week for residents to submit their opinions on private retail in Ottawa until Nov. 7. Questions range from respondents’ personal comfort levels with the substance and plans to purchase pot to their concerns about health effects and criminal activity associated with cannabis.

Ottawa Public Health is also holding two “parent information nights” about cannabis on Oct. 30 and Nov. 1.

Municipalities in Ontario have until Jan. 22, 2019 to opt in or out of the province’s scheme to allow retailers to sell recreational cannabis beginning in April. Cities can opt in later if they initially choose not to allow private retail, but they can’t opt out in the future if council changes its mind.

The decision isn’t as simple as yes or no on recreational cannabis retailers. The Progressive Conservative government’s amended cannabis legislation, Bill 36, does not give municipalities the ability to control the location or number of cannabis stores in the city. Instead, it’ll be in the hands of the province’s appointed pot regulator, the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.

The bill, which became law before the Oct. 17 federal legalization date, restricts municipal councils from passing any zoning bylaws to dictate where private retail licences can be awarded. Municipalities will be given a 15-day period to submit feedback on particular licences and locations, though comments will not be legally binding.

“It's going to be completely controlled by the province,” says Trina Fraser, a partner at Ottawa’s Brazeau Seller Law.

Fraser says it’s an “unusual” step from the provincial government to take away zoning bylaw powers granted under the Municipal Act. She adds that it’s unclear whether Ontario municipalities would have had any legal challenge to the restrictions, though the time for opposition would’ve been before the bill passed earlier this month.

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario, which represents cities across the province, submitted its feedback to the province a week before the bill received royal assent and requested in a letter for “the committee to make respect for municipal zoning explicit.” Apart from that, Fraser hasn’t heard of any significant movement against the lack of zoning bylaw powers.

Though she recognizes that the all-or-nothing deal puts cities in a tight spot, Fraser believes it would be a mistake to opt out of allowing private cannabis retail in Ottawa, as towns such as Markham and Richmond Hill have signalled they’ll do.

“It's a very regressive, prohibitionist attitude,” she says.

A clearly delineated retail framework that boxes out the black market will assuage concerns about crime and harm that residents associate with cannabis, Fraser argues.

“If anything, legal stores would enhance public health and safety, because it would help to displace the illicit cannabis sales that are going on in your community.”