WATERLOO REGION—It’s a burning question local politicians will have to deal with not long after next month’s municipal election. Do legal, privately run cannabis stores belong on Main Street?
This week, councillors in Norfolk County held a surprise vote — with a 7-1 decision to ban law-abiding marijuana shops from their community.
Norfolk became one of the first municipalities in the province to block storefront cannabis sales. Ontario has given communities until Jan. 22 to opt out of having retail stores in their communities.
The Doug Ford government, meanwhile, is introducing legislation Thursday that will see the sale of marijuana regulated by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario. It will have the power to grant and potentially revoke licences for pot shops that will be legal starting next April.
It all means the seven municipalities that comprise Waterloo Region have just a few months to decide whether they want storefront cannabis sales or not.
“I think it’s a huge decision,” said Ben Tucci, a city councillor and candidate for mayor in Cambridge.
“In terms of your society and the social fabric of your community, this is a big one … We’re not putting the criminal element out of business by doing it. I think we’re in trouble.”
While he’s concerned about pot shops, Tucci says he’d let residents decide whether their city should have them. If they’re allowed, there needs to be bylaws against opening up near things like nursing homes or schools, he said.
“If we’re going to go with it, and the community wants it, I don’t want it in prime shopping areas,” he said. “If you’re going to have it, you have to protect your community.”
Not all mayoral candidates agree that legalized, regulated pot shops will be a threat to their community.
“Let’s be honest. Most of our young people have already experimented or tried it. So if we can provide an environment where it’s safe and legal … it can actually help with some of the things we’re dealing with around drugs and addictions,” said Berry Vrbanovic, running for re-election as Kitchener’s mayor.
Dave Jaworsky, the incumbent Waterloo mayor, said it’s too early for municipalities to make an informed decision about cannabis shops.
There’s too much that’s not known — including where they’ll be allowed to locate and whether opting out means municipalities lose out on their share of tax revenues.
Stopping marijuana isn’t an option, Jaworsky said. There’s already pot equipment shops all over main streets in Ontario, and legal, mail-order cannabis will soon be flowing into every municipality.
“The cat’s already out of the bag,” Jaworsky said. “For me, it’s about accessibility for youth. That’s key … And I’d hate to have delivery of cannabis in my community and not get to have some of the tax revenue from shops for bylaw and policing.”
Even if a municipality bans cannabis shops, it will still be easy for residents to buy marijuana after it’s legalized Oct. 17, Vrabanovic said. They can have it delivered or just drive to a neighbouring community where pot shops are allowed.
Banning cannabis stores could also create a vacuum for illegal storefronts and drug dealers, he said.
“It’s not like you’re opting out of legalization,” Vrbanovic said. “If we do opt out, that’s one concern. Do we just allow the black market to thrive longer?”
In the rural townships that surround Waterloo Region’s three cities, some are viewing opting out as a way to buy time to see how pot shops affect other communities. There’s just too much that’s unclear right now, they say.
“I’m leaning toward opt-out to see what other communities around us are doing,” said Sue Foxton, the incumbent mayor in North Dumfries Township.
“Some are concerned, but some are excited. I feel like we’re back in the 1930s, when Prohibition ended … But society is moving forward, and my job as a politician is to move forward with it.”
Joe Nowak, the incumbent mayor of Wellesley Township, said his council will have to gauge the public before making any decisions. But he predicts there would be pushback from his largely rural constituents if someone tried to open a pot shop in the community.
“I think we would have to find out from the folks who live out here exactly what their sentiments are,” Nowak said. “I can’t speak for the larger population, but my sense is it wouldn’t be well-received.”
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