DURHAM — A provincial move to allow private cannabis stores has proven to be a game changer for Durham municipalities and local businesses with links to the cannabis industry.
The new Progressive Conservative government in Queen’s Park announced last week that private cannabis stores would be allowed in Ontario after all and they are set to open by the beginning of April, a few months after marijuana is legalized in October. The previous government had planned to operate LCBO-type stores.
Tiara Sillet is the owner of Natural Budz, a vape lounge, patient intake clinic and cannabis education centre located in Pickering.
She welcomed the news and said she would love to apply for a licence for her business.
“In all honesty I was excited but I’m holding back because we’ve had our hopes up quite a few times now but then things are constantly changing,” said Sillet.
She said she believes private businesses like hers are well-positioned to educate recreational cannabis users.
“I have been studying cannabis for nine years, I’m a cannabis course developer, I’ve written cannabis courses for private colleges,” she said, adding that although her business doesn’t sell cannabis people turn to her for advice. “People are now able to come to a safe consumption site where they can not only consume cannabis but get an educated view on what they’re consuming and how it will affect them.
“We have a lot of people who are cancer patients, MS patients, people asking what kind of strain will help me, what method of consuming will help me and these are the questions where you need someone educated in the field to answer them.”
Sillet said she planned to meet with Pickering city officials about the issue but while she waits for more information about private sales, her business would continue to be in compliance with current laws.
Ryan Mallough is a senior policy analyst for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and said his organization was pleased about the move toward private stores, however he pointed out that in Manitoba four big-box stores received all the licenses and he’s hoping that doesn’t happen in Ontario.
“We don’t want to see a similar roll out to beer in grocery stores where Walmart and Loblaws ended up with all the licenses,” he said.
He believes the sale of cannabis through independent retailers will ultimately benefit consumers.
“We feel those people offer a higher level of customer service, they’re more likely to offer the experience cannabis consumers are more familiar with and more likely to draw those consumers that are active in the illicit market into the legal market,” said Mallough.
The province has indicated municipalities will have the option of opting out of allowing private cannabis stores within their borders leaving local councils to make an important decision.
Under the previous plan with LCBO-type stores, Ajax, Whitby and Oshawa were on the province’s list of cannabis stores though no specific locations had been announced.
Provincial officials, at the time, said they were open to feedback about location and as a result Oshawa launched a public consultation about where the stores should be located. That consultation included a public meeting and a survey that drew more than 300 responses. It wrapped up in July.
Warren Munro, director of planning services for Oshawa, said he has not reviewed the results of the survey yet. Staff was due to present a report to council on the issue in the fall.
The province plans to consult municipalities about private cannabis stores and Munro said if the result requires zoning changes, it would trigger another public meeting on the issue.
He points out the timing is awkward because there is a municipal election in October and the last meeting for the current council is scheduled for September. The new council will hold its first meeting in December.
“If you took the election out of the equation I probably don’t have enough time to report in September,” said Munro, who added he believes there is time to make the necessary decisions before April.
Other municipalities in Durham shared similar sentiments about the timing, indicating that the decision on opting out will rest with new councils. Several also indicated that they had questions they were looking to have addressed at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference scheduled for this week in Ottawa.
In Clarington there is the potential for outlet stores as there are three cannabis production facilities operating in the municipality, another under construction and several more in the planning stages.
“Clarington obviously has a large medical cannabis industry and we’re seeing that as an important part of our local economy,” said David Crome, director of planning services for Clarington. “I think the retail cannabis industry opens new doors for those businesses that are already established.”
He said one grower, Canopy, has already expressed interest in a factory store.
There are questions about what the zoning requirements will be for cannabis stores and whether zoning changes at the local level will be required.
“We don’t know what criteria they’re going to use, we may be totally satisfied with their criteria and not feel that we have to do anything further,” said Crome.
For now, all eyes remain on the province to set down the rules for retail stores.
How your municipality is handling the issue of private cannabis stores:
Ajax: Rachael Matheson, senior communications officer for the town, said Ajax officials are expecting more information about cannabis sales by the end of the month.
“We are awaiting specific details from the province regarding what municipal consultation will look like, who will be involved, and what timelines will be,” she said.
Brock: Brock chief administrative officer Thomas Gettinby said he is aware that the issue will be discussed at the AMO conference.
“Until such time as more information is provided by the province, it would be premature for our council to take any position on the recent announcement made by the province,” he said.
Clarington: David Crome, director of planning services in Clarington, pointed out his municipality has a large medical cannabis industry.
Under the old plan, the municipality was expecting perhaps one store but that has now changed. Crome said Clarington is waiting to see the results of provincial consultation with the municipalities.
“We were going to provide information to council in September on the legislation,” he said. “The whole question of opting out will be something that will be mentioned, we’re going to be recommending council do some community consultation and then the new council can make that decision.”
Pickering: Mark Guinto, manager of public affairs and corporate communications for the city, said the introduction of a private retail model has shifted the landscape.
He said Pickering has not had an opportunity for public consultations or to pass any motions on the issue.
“We look forward to having a meaningful dialogue with MPP (Peter) Bethlenfalvy and the province to gain a better understanding of the private retail model for cannabis sales and its impact on municipalities,” said Guinto. “With the municipal election taking place in October, we don’t expect to make any decisions on whether or not Pickering should opt out of cannabis sales until after the new council is sworn in.”
Oshawa: Oshawa was the only municipality in Durham to conduct lengthy public consultations on cannabis sales prior to the announcement of private sales.
Staff were in the process of preparing a report on the public consultations which included eight people attending a public meeting and 335 survey responses, mainly online.
Warren Munro, director of planning services in Oshawa, said staff will be reporting back to council by the end of the year.
“We’ll take our time to make sure we get it right, if we reported in December that’s still sufficient time to get a zoning process through by April,” he said.
Meanwhile, Munro said that although the official public consultation period concluded in July, it’s not too late for residents to contact the city with feedback given the changes by the province.
Scugog: The municipality has not conducted public consultation on the subject of cannabis and council has not discussed or made any decisions regarding cannabis stores in Scugog.
“We are still in summer recess,” said Lori Bowers, manager communications and strategic initiatives for Scugog. “This may be a topic that will come forward in the fall.”
Uxbridge: Uxbridge has not held public consultations about cannabis and council has not passed any motions on the issue. CAO Ingrid Svelnis said the issue will be brought to council in September.
“I would imagine community consultation will be part of the process and given timing, the new council will be involved,” she said.
Whitby: Whitby Mayor Don Mitchell points out the issue will be addressed at the AMO conference in Ottawa this week where more information on the sales program and opt-out option is expected.
“The decision of whether to allow private cannabis establishments to operate in Whitby will be a council decision, which will only be made after we know we have all of the information and our staff have been able to consider any impacts and report to us with a recommendation,” said Mitchell. “All of our deliberations will be public.”
By Reka Szekely