Cannabis meeting much ado about puffing

PASS IT ALONG- Members of the County of Prince Edward's Committee of the whole indicate their position on the retail sales of recreational cannabis inside the municipality at a meeting at Rotary Club of Picton Hall Wednesday night. (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

JASON PARKS

STAFF WRITER

While travelling conditions were less than ideal, the concept there might be some massive public argument over the retail sale of cannabis in Prince Edward County at the Committee of the whole meeting at Rotary Club of Picton Hall Wednesday evening went up in smoke.

A special session to discuss and make a motion for council to chart a course on retail sales of cannabis in the municipality was held at the community centre in anticipation of a gaggle of Mary Janes and Joes facing of against those who would rather not see the devil’s lettuce not sold in Picton storefronts.

But no more than two dozen citizens turned up for Wednesday’s meeting and, with only three people making comments from the audience, perhaps councillor Jamie Forrester is correct in his assessment that the Municipality’s position and path forward were not of such vital importance.

Judging by commentary from the public Wednesday, there’s more concern about the municipality becoming ensnared as a potential provincial puffer pawn in the great green game of legalized recreational marijuana sales.

In the end, the Committee voted to permit retail cannabis locations as licensed and regulated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario within Prince Edward County and the decision to opt in be reported to the province prior to the Jan. 22 deadline.

In order to proceed further and indicate to the Government of Ontario that Prince Edward County would be a willing host of head shops, the decision will still need to vetted at a special council meeting scheduled for Jan. 15.

The committee and the public heard first hand Wednesday night about the findings of a recent survey undertaken collaboratively by the municipality and a third party research firm.

According to both random phone surveys conducted by Logit and an online survey organized by the municipality, the majority of citizens support a tightly regulated and controlled bricks and mortar retail cannabis store in Prince Edward County.

Director of Community Development and Strategic Initiatives Neil Carbone offered some insight into the survey results and reasoning why staff was recommending the municipality cement an opt in position prior to the provincial deadline.

In terms of the random dial telephone surveys, over 700 were completed and results indicated a bricks and mortar retail store had the support of 63 respondents while 65 per cent of those individuals said their primary concern was the potential proximity of such an establishment to a sensitive area containing a school or daycare.

Over 70 per cent of purchasers which was slightly over half (32 per cent) of agreeable respondents indicated they wished to purchase cannabis in a local retail establishment over other options.

Online, the numbers nearly mirrored the phone survey as 65 per cent of the over 760 people that partook in survey agreed with a bricks and mortar retail out let that was tightly regulated by a provincial agencies.

In terms of concerns, 86 per cent of respondents had unifying concerns over local retail sales and pointed to common issues such as concerns over crime, safety and security but Carbone added that less than half of total survey takers (253 respondents) indicated those concerns.

In terms of related agencies and groups, The County of Prince Edward invited feedback from a number of parties.

The OPP provided no official position while Hastings and Prince Edward Public Health indicated they had concerns about the density of such establishments as wells as proximity to sensitive areas as well as hours of operation.

“But it should be noted Public Health also had concerns about the implication on the public about the lack of licensed controlled retail availabilities and the perpetuating of (sales of cannabis on the) black market,” Carbone added.

Because of the municipality’s experiences with the processes and procedures of AGCO and the fact that a number of concerns that some respondents had in the online survey could be addressed through that regulatory body and  that cannabis could be legally purchased and consumed locally regardless of a retail store and that funding form the province could potentially flow from the province in the form of excise tax transfers, Carbone said staff was recommending the municipality opt in.

In other, not to let the opportunity go to pot.

“As the report states, there is a guarantee of some one time funding ($34,000) but subsequent funding, a second payment the government will be making to municipalities to assist in transition to legalized cannabis may be increased,” Cabone said. “We are uncertain of the amount but further payments may not be available if municipalities opt out of having retail stores in their jurisdiction.”

It’s the uncertainty that seems be the cause of trepidation in the community if Wednesday’s session is any indication.

The province has alluded to a number of directions they might go including pledges of turning back funding to the municipalities after they’ve collected $100 million in excise taxes.

Theoretically, municipalities that don’t opt in wouldn’t be seeing any of the provincial green as sales grow.

But with it being so early in a new game none of the players have experience in, at least one resident was voicing caution and pointing to other instances where provincial direction caused local headaches.

On Wednesday, South Marysburgh resident Richard Jones said the wrong questions were being asked.

Jones said there was some day dream of great pools of money involved in retail cannabis business and that people were living in a world that has a never-never character to it.

“The issue that is before council is whether you want to be a willing host and make that election permanently before Jan. 22 before you have any knowledge of how on-street retail of cannabis can work in Ontario,” Jones said.

Without clear and defined directions from a number of organizations including AGCO and an unclear landscape as to the issues that will stem from local retail sales, Jones warned councillors to avoid the carrot and stick scenario the provincial government was placing before them.

“We see the sliding standards already where the federal government said no retail stores could be allowed within 450 m of a school and now the province has set the threshold at 150 m,” Jones said. “None of us know what kind of a difference that might make because nobody in Canada has had any experience at all with on street retail sales of marijuana but here we are apparently signing on this evening to opt in.”

South Marysburgh resident Richard Jones (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

Jones said his read on the provincial legislation was that if the municipality did not opt out, the provincial agency would control the process and the County of Prince Edward would be prohibited from making any reference to cannabis retail in any zoning, building or other regulatory powers.

“My suggestion is to opt out and learn something about the business,” Jones said. “Find out in a years time what the landscape is. If anyone wanted to pursue a retail cannabis store here, they would have to come to you and and ask you to exercise your desecration to opt in and you could negotiate such terms that you would find reasonable.”

Jones added the lack of supply of recreational marijuana and that only 25 licenses were being granted by the Province in the first 12 months as other secondary issues that helped make the case for Prince Edward County not to fall in line with the province’s deadline

As well, with the plethora of retail storefronts just a short car ride away down County. Rd 49, the neighbouring competition seems to have the market cornered on both price and availability should a retail cannabis store ever set up shop in Prince Edward County.

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson said he wouldn’t be supporting the motion as tabled on Wednesday due to the manner in which the province was laying the issue at the feet of Ontario’s municipalities.

“The province has given is a carrot or stick option,” Ferguson said, agreeing with Jones’ assertion after he confirmed the funding could only be used for cannabis-related implementation functions.

Staff explained after the guaranteed initial payment of $34,000 and a second payment of $5,000, municipalities could be eligible for funding from an excise tax account once that envelope had collected $100 million.

“I think there are an awful lot of unknown questions out there concerning locations- who can be in the store, who can run them and who can apply for them and that really indicates to me that we are going to be at a loss of control if we opt in,” Ferguson said. “We also don’t have any experience in this arena as is the case with other municipalities and we don’t know what they are planning for the most part.”

Given the amount of funding the province could be making available and given there were no hard and fast figures, the Mayor asked council to take a more cautious approach and see where the chips fell in other municipalities before committing.

Councillor Jamie Forrester (Jason Parks/Gazette Staff)

“I don’t anybody in Prince Edward County is suffering from a lack of ability to find cannabis if they need it,” Ferguson said.

Councillor Brad Nieman confirmed with staff that should a cannabis-related issue arise that required fire and rescue, policing or paramedic response, the county would not have access to provincially allocations if they had not opted in.

Councillor Forrester said the funding wasn’t the most vital aspect for opting in, it was about regulation and cutting off the criminal element.

“Taking the criminal element out of it is the most important factor. I’m almost 60 years old, there’s been retail stores out there since I was 15, They weren’t legal but they were there 24 hours a day,” Forrester said. “It’s always been there, it’s alway been for sale, it’s always been available for children. This isn’t going to be this big, booming business people think it is and I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of people take it up now that it’s deemed to be legal. I think we are making a big deal out of something that’s been available 24 hours a day, seven days a week as long as I can remember.”

In terms of signage and location, Forrester said it would be nice for the municipality to have some degree of control over what appears, especially in the downtown heritage district however there was a time a century ago when medicinal cocaine and hemp would have been advertised for in downtown Picton.

Councillor Mike Harper said the choice to move ahead with allowing retail sales of Cannabis in Prince Edward County was clear given that a majority of local residents supported is, staff had researched the issue fully, AGCO was a regulatory body with a track record of governance and there was provincial funding to cover the costs associated with opting in.

“Let’s take the money,” he said.

UPDATE: With no discussion around the horseshoe at Shire Hall Tuesday evening, Council voted to accepet the motion passed at last week’s Committee of the whole meeting and opt in as a community willing to permit bricks and mortar cannabis retail establishments in Prince Edward County.

Mayor Steve Ferguson spoke to the media after Tuesday’s special council meeting and said that while he was hoping council would take a more cautious approach, the municipal body had charted a course.

“There are still things about this matter that haven’t been divulged and I’m not comfortable making decisions without all the facts but council has decided to opt in, that’s the will of council and that’s what we are going to do,” Ferguson told the Gazette.

While the option to opt in could lead to a retail cannabis store, it certainly won’t be soon as the Province is slowly doling out licences and has a population threshold for communities opting in.

“It doesn’t look hopeful,” Ferguson said. “From what we know currently, in the first year  there will be five locations situated in Eastern Ontario which ranges from Cobourg to the Quebec boarder and there’s a population qualification of 50,000 which we don’t have in Prince Edward County.”

While the majority of respondents that regularly use cannabis indicated in the recent surveys they would prefer to purchase their products locally, Ferguson figures that residents that partake aren’t without sources.

“There’s other retail means out there and certainly the online store is one of them,” Ferguson said.