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Ottawa opts in: Council votes yes to pot shops

Ottawa opts in: Council votes yes to pot shops
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City’s lack of control over where cannabis retailers will go still rankles

After four hours of presentations, pointed questions and a passionate plea from rookie Coun. Carol Anne Meehan to opt out, Ottawa city council has voted to allow retail cannabis stores to open for business starting in April 2019.

Most councillors seemed to hold their noses, and remain concerned that the Ontario government will likely leave cities on the hook for associated policing, bylaw and health costs, but won’t give them a say in where the shops can open.

Municipalities only had one choice to make: to opt in or out.

“This is a bad deal,” said Meehan, as she urged her colleagues to join other big cities such as Markham and Mississauga and work together to try to negotiate more powers over pot shops.

Cities that opt out can always opt back in to cannabis stores. An opt-in, however, is irreversible.

Meehan lost that bid, with only Coun. Rick Chiarelli voting to support her.

“I personally do not think opting out is a realistic option,” said Mayor Jim Watson.

In the end, council unanimously agreed to allow the stores.

Businesses urge council to opt in

Ten public delegations, from a community association to Canopy Growth from Smiths Falls to an Alberta-based retailer, showed up for the special council meeting Thursday.

Almost all recommended allowing the stores.

A lawyer for a firm that’s representing cannabis entrepreneurs urged councillors to picture stores looking nothing like the illegal dispensaries people have seen so far.

“I’ve heard more about reclaimed barn wood and beautiful interior finishings and community involvement in the last two months from these entrepreneurs than I’ve ever heard from any of the other small business clients we’ve worked with,” said Mark Asfar of Momentum Business Law in Kanata.

Eight of the city’s 19 business improvement areas have so far also signed a letter in support of the city allowing the stores.

“To us, it just doesn’t seem logical to opt out. This is a legal product now,” said Christine Leadman, representing an association of the BIAs.

Leadman said the new storefronts will be tidier and the product more controlled than when illegal dispensaries existed. Police Chief Charles Bordeleau told councillors only one such illegal store remains.

Ottawa wants provincial money for cannabis

In a major report released last week, city staff, police, and public health officials all recommended allowing the shops, mostly to curb the illegal drug trade, and prevent residents turning to products that might be less safe to consume.

Two surveys also showed different results for whether residents wanted the shops — research firm EKOS found 48 per cent supported them while an online poll found that number to be closer to 80 per cent.

Staff also didn’t want the city to leave provincial funds on the table, even if they won’t be enough to offset expected costs.

Ottawa could receive up to $1 million annually from the province for hosting the retailers, whereas cities that opt out now would get as little as $5,000 if they decide to opt in later on.

And if after two years the Ontario government earns more than $100 million from cannabis sales, the province would share the surplus with cities.

Cities look for more control

Most municipalities still want more say in where pot shops are located and how many can open in one community. Cities have those powers when it comes to strip clubs and payday loans.

Thursday’s vote directed Watson to continue to lobby the Ontario government for more zoning powers. He said last week he had spoken with four Ontario cabinet ministers, but was not optimistic they would change the rules.

Most of the authority for cannabis licences went to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), the same agency that approves liquor licences for bars and restaurants.

Staff are not even sure the city will get a heads-up when a retailer applies to open a store in Ottawa. If staff do find an application on the AGCO website, they have 15 days to respond, and say they will alert the ward councillor and nearby community associations.

If a shop wants to set up within 150 metres of another, for instance, city staff will automatically tell the AGCO that it opposes that shop.

Sending the AGCO the city’s decision on whether it was opting out is only one piece of the puzzle.

Early in 2019, Ottawa city council will review two bylaws related to cannabis legalization: one deals with where cannabis can be grown and processed, and the other will review its bylaw about where people can smoke.

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