Canada: Local Governments Will Take The Hit On Marijuana Legalization

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Canada Day is one of the most festive occasions in our country, and in Barrie, we celebrate it as well or better than anyone.

This year’s celebrations may feel a little different. The federal government has chosen July 1 as the date to officially legalize recreational marijuana (although some are questioning whether the legislation that will make this happen will receive royal assent in time for the Canada Day target). The decision has been fraught with controversy and uncertainty.

The coming legalization of marijuana will raise questions for municipalities across Ontario, as we are now seeing in Barrie. It was one of the first 14 municipalities selected for the first wave of openings of the Ontario Cannabis Store, the new branch of the LCBO that will sell marijuana to the public.

First, let’s acknowledge that it takes a lot of political capital and boldness to tackle this subject; for decades, people discussed legalization, but no government would act on it. Canada will become one of the first countries in the world to officially legalize recreational marijuana. (Some countries, including the Netherlands, have a policy of ignoring the sale and distribution of pot, and recreational marijuana is legal in several U.S. jurisdictions. But country-wide, across-the-board legalization, as we are soon to undertake in Canada, largely breaks new ground.)

Legalization is the right thing to do. Making cannabis possession a crime has diverted resources from more important issues such as health care, community safety, and education. It created a dangerous black market, with no standards or regulations (for example, against selling to youth). We have been criminalizing something that millions of citizens were doing anyway, a situation that has had a negative effect on our social and legal apparatus — and yet zero impact on the level of use. Statistics Canada released a study last December that found nearly five million Canadians aged 15 years and older said they used marijuana in 2015 — that’s about 16 per cent of Canadians. These numbers are rather high (no pun intended).

Barrie was the site of one of the more unusual moments in Ontario’s history of marijuana prohibition. In 2004, the OPP made one of the largest-ever grow-op busts in the building that had once housed Molson’s Barrie brewery. This resulted in legal battles that continued for more than a decade after the bust.

That incident serves as a reminder that when legalization happens, its impact will be felt as a series of local events. Municipalities have responsibility over zoning, business licensing, building codes and municipal workplace safety, and they share in the enforcement of regulations around public consumption and impaired driving. It seems that just almost everything involving the day-to-day governance of marijuana legalization will fall upon our municipal governments!

To implement the new regulations under the Cannabis Act smoothly, it is critical for municipalities to co-ordinate themselves to avoid some of the potential pitfalls that they may be facing. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has outlined some issues that our local governments need to tackle before the summer of pot approaches. The consequences of legalization will likely happen fast. Our local councils, school boards, law enforcement agencies and health care services need to be ready. Are they?

Take designated smoking areas, for example. Currently, Ontario’s legalization legislation states that marijuana can only be consumed in private residences, but how will city councils manage future deregulation that allows people to smoke cannabis in coffee shops and bars (a change that many cannabis advocates are pushing for)? Provincial legislation makes all Ontario bars free of cigarette smoke; will the same rules apply to pot smokers as cigarette smokers? In Barrie it is illegal to smoke tobacco within a certain distance of public property, but when vaping started to become popular, this bylaw started to be questioned. Will pot fall into the same category as tobacco for this purpose?

Then there’s zoning to consider. Where, geographically, will marijuana be grown and sold? What zoning will be put in place, if any, to control concentration of the marijuana industry in a given area?

The newly created Ontario Cannabis Store will have monopoly control of the commercial sale of recreational marijuana, and presumably won’t cluster its locations together any more than the LCBO does with liquor stores. But there are other kinds of businesses associated with cannabis. Last September, Barrie city councilors signed off on a company’s plan to open a 65,000-square-foot facility for growing medical marijuana. Will this plant be a one-off, or will more marijuana companies want to set up around it? How will they be zoned? The City of Barrie has a bylaw that prevents tattoo parlors or strip clubs from locating within a certain proximity of one another, so that certain clusters of businesses don’t develop in one area. Will the production and sale of weed fall be controlled in a similar manner? Some municipalities may be prepared for this, while others likely haven’t considered it.

It is unclear, meanwhile, whether cities and towns will be required to regulate the home cultivation of marijuana. The federal legislation will allow residents to grow small amounts of cannabis for personal use. Local governments may want to determine if there is a need to regulate and enforce regulations on home growers. This is a potential biggie when we start talking about personal consumption.

Local law enforcement will also be responsible for detecting and preventing high drivers. This will require new equipment and more training, all at a cost to local authorities. Barrie Police Chief Kimberly Greenwood has already raised concerns about the training and equipment challenges that legalization will create for her force.

It is critical for municipalities to prepare for the coming legalization of Mary Jane. We now know that the province will be sharing its revenue from the sale of pot to the tune of $40 million. This will be distributed among Ontario municipalities according to their population. This is a good start to addressing local costs and awareness, but councils across Ontario will need to prepare proper cost estimates, and make financial and political plans to be properly braced for the new era about to be foisted upon us.