Municipalities face decision about business, not morality with retail cannabis opt-in

Much has been made about the impending Jan. 22 decision day for Ontario municipalities to opt in or opt out of legal cannabis sales within their borders. Ultimately, in most municipalities, it likely won’t be a difficult decision.

While one would expect most municipal politicians to be respectful of warnings from public health units that marijuana exposure can cause lasting detriment to brain development and while there are legitimate concerns about more exposure for youth at this point, it’s simply a business decision that must be made. The debate over legalization has been waged. Even if the federal Liberals do not retain power this fall, it’s difficult to see anyone successfully imposing another prohibition in the future.

Councillors may choose to object to the sale on moral grounds or they might express dissatisfaction with the deal the province is offering them to come on board. It might not be unreasonable, for example, for municipalities to wish to further regulate setbacks from schools, daycares, churches or recreational areas. It also may seem prudent to limit hours of operation. Under the present equation, they cannot do that unless they wish to propose the same regulation for all retail businesses.

They might also think there’s merit for holding out for a better deal in the form of transfer payments to pay for any increased policing or emergency medical costs they can envision as a result of opting in. That’d be great if it was an all-in or all-out proposition, but on a one-by-one basis, it’s a difficult gamble to take. With a provincial government that has made it no secret it wishes to find financial efficiencies, there also might not be a lot of faith that more money will be available to opt in down the road.

Those factors considered, coupled with the notion that residents already have access to marijuana products via the online Ontario Cannabis Store or from an illicit market that is already well established, the question becomes whether a municipality can afford to thumb its nose at a business that can bring employment opportunity and tax revenues when a competing jurisdiction is ready and willing. Most will likely not be able to.

Municipal councillors legislating the morality of retail business head down a slippery slope in defining standards within their communities. If, instead of marijuana, one chose to declare itself a dry community that doesn’t allow for the regulated retail sale of alcohol or one that wouldn’t licence its convenience stores to sell tobacco products, they likely wouldn’t have a leg to stand on — and probably wouldn’t even attempt the ban. Just because this product is new doesn’t mean it should be treated differently.

If council members have concerns about the effects of the sale of cannabis within their borders, they should be pushing the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario for better regulations, encouraging health units to be proactive in education campaigns and efforts to limit sales to minors, and looking at its regulatory powers to control the actual use of the product in public areas.

Once the questions of supply are addressed, the free market should decide where shops locate and those who offer the best business models within the parameters of regulation should get franchises. That’s the only fair and equitable way to roll out a distribution system.

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