PCs' cannabis store scheme buys time for city to develop local policy

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The Ontario Progressive Conservative government’s cannabis sales scheme has bought time for the City of Ottawa to develop a local policy, but the municipal government still needs to move fast so the next city council can make a decision shortly after taking office in December.

While the PCs are giving municipalities the choice of not having any pot shops, it’s unlikely that municipal politicians in a major city like Ottawa, sometimes bashed as the “city that fun forgot,” would attempt to block legal cannabis stores from operating inside the municipal boundaries.

Online sales through the Ontario Cannabis Store website begin Oct. 17. Private retail storefronts can begin licensed operations by next April 1 after the province holds consultations on the sales strategy.

That means council likely needs to have a plan in place by early 2019.

The municipal election is on Oct. 22. The new council will take office on Dec. 1.

Jim Watson, who’s running for re-election as mayor, said the city will have to move quickly to set the local policy.

If council allows privately run cannabis stores, it will need to determine where they can be located and how they will be regulated.

Watson said he preferred the now-defunct government-run retail scheme established by the former provincial Liberal government.

“I supported the model that was put forward, that it went through an organized structure like the LCBO. I think that brought greater security (and) greater checks on ID for people’s age,” Watson said on Wednesday.

“We’re going to go the private route, so we’re going to have to make the best of it.”

Watson — who returned from a few days off and was waiting to be briefed on the provincial plan announced this week — said he wants to confirm how much money the province will provide the City of Ottawa to help deal with enforcement and public health programs when cannabis becomes legal.

The PCs are providing $40 million over two years to municipalities, divvied up on a per-household basis.

The city has ballparked the first-year costs of the cannabis legalization at $8 million, but that was when the distribution channel was expected to be completely controlled by government.

“We need to get those costs covered because the lion’s share of the tax revenue of course goes to the provincial and the federal government, but we’re burdened with all the costs and that shouldn’t be borne by property taxpayers,” Watson said.

Watson believes that if legal pot shops are in Ottawa, they need to be located away from schools. The city would have to decide the size of the buffer.

“There are a lot more questions than answers right now and there’s not a lot of time to get this organized,” Watson said.

Watson said his top priority is to close pot dispensaries operating illegally.

Earlier this week, mayoral candidate Clive Doucet also expressed skepticism about the PC government’s approach to cannabis retail.

“It’s not a happy moment for anybody in the province of Ontario,” Doucet said, adding the move by Premier Doug Ford’s government will “eviscerate Mr. Trudeau’s legislation.”

Doucet said he was impressed with the former provincial government’s plan for selling marijuana, which he described as an “intelligent, reasonable, secure way of dealing with recreational use of marijuana.”

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