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City Council votes to opt-in to allow retail cannabis stores in Burlington

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Burlington City Council voted 5-2 to opt-in, allowing retail cannabis stores to set up shop in our city during last night’s (Monday, Jan. 14) Special Meeting of Council.

We heard from the 2,718 residents who completed our online survey, between Dec. 4, 2018-Jan. 10, 2019, that 62.8 per cent of you supported having stores located in Burlington

A decision had to be made by the provincially-laid out Jan. 22 deadline and by choosing to opt-in (not opt-out), our city will be eligible to receive potential funding for two years through the Ontario Cannabis Legalization Implementation Fund (OCLIF). The Province has set aside $40 million towards this fund, which is meant to help out municipalities with any costs related to the legalization of cannabis, such as public health, by-law enforcement and policing.

Also, by opting-in, municipalities may receive some of the $10 million in the OCLIF dedicated to “unforeseen circumstances related to the legalization of recreational cannabis. In addition, council and committee heard from city staff that if after the first two years of legalization, there is any revenue in excess of $100 million in Ontario’s portion of the federal excise tax on recreational cannabis, the province will split half of that with the municipalities that opted-in. It is unclear right now what that total would be as there is no way of predicting what the surplus would be right now.

Ward 2 Councillor Lisa Kearns put forward an amendment to the motion to approve staff’s opt-in recommendation that was carried — it included creating a citizen task force that would assist in bylaw recommendations and the creation of guidelines for future retail cannabis stores.

Prior to the Special Meeting of Council, there was a Committee of the Whole meeting on this item where we heard from several delegations expressing their views.

  1. Delegate Jon Csordas, of business Spiritleaf, explained a business that is awarded a licence by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) has that licence for a two-year period and can renew after that for either two or four years. He said businesses cannot sell their licences without the AGCO vetting it. He also said after attending several committee and council meetings discussing this issue, Burlington had taken one of the most guided approaches of gathering information and making a decision. He added that he believed cannabis grown in medical grade facilities that are highly-regulated would unequivocally minimize health risks attributed to buying it from an unregulated market.
  2. Delegate Selina Eckersall, of Yala Group Inc., asked that similar zoning for medical cannabis facilities in the city also be made for micro cultivation businesses — as she had indicated she plans to open a retail cannabis business next to her planned micro cultivation operation.
  3. Delegate Xin Yi Zhang had asked why would Burlington want to allow stores that he said would inspire young people to get their hands on cannabis products, commenting that a person of legal age could potentially purchase cannabis and give it to those not of the legal age. He had advocated that council opt out. Xin said he was also concerned with the potential increased access to cannabis and its increased use, as a result, stating a retail store would be a promotion of these products. When asked by committee what controls he would like to see around retail stores, he responded it would like opening a casino here: if there wasn’t a good place for a casino, there wasn’t one for cannabis retail stores.
  4. Delegate Christine Wei, a member of Burlington’s Chinese community, said she had collected 280 signatures from people in her community who wanted to opt out and expressed concerns over exposure of cannabis to the health of preteens and teens. She also said the 150 m distance from schools regarding smoking was too short a distance and should be greater.
  5. Delegate Mark Upsdell, the CEO of Rapid Dose Therapeutics, a biotech company that looks at alternative forms of medicinal microdosing, said Burlington could be a leader in helping those with chronic illnesses and weaning people off opiates. He commented that opting in was the right thing to do, with regulations including a zoning area of 400 m from schools, hospitals, etc. When it comes to regulations in stores, he said customers should come in through one door with security, go out another and all products should be under glass. He said he believed when you start talking about the quality, dosing, control and traceability that comes with legislation, that would limit and decrease potential cannabis health risks. When he was asked by committee how a retailer would be able to maintain a successful business in an expensive and heavily taxed market, and not fuel the black market as a result, he responded: the barriers of entry in that marketplace were many but he wasn’t going to discount them and thought it would be a single digit statistic of those growing it in their backyard.
  6. Final delegate Stewart Schneider said this council was elected to listen to its constituents and the survey results showed a majority of Burlington respondents wanted retail cannabis, adding Canada also needed to at branding its products in order to protect the Canadian market.

MY TAKE:

I am pleased that council voted to support opting in to allow cannabis retail stores in our community. Council showed courage and leadership to ensure our residents have safe and legal access to this legal product. We will create guidelines for a made-in-Burlington approach to these stores. I appreciate there is a variety of perspectives on this issue, and I also respect the two councillors who voted against opting in, as they did what they believed was right for their constituents. There are diversities in the community on this and that is reflected in the diverse vote we had last night. The majority of our citizens support opting in, and that was reflected in the final vote.

This issue came to the floor during the election campaign. In hindsight, it was a great time to have a city-wide conversation on it. Many people raised it on the campaign trail and they’re not the folks you think are using this product.

We have a large number of seniors who have gotten off of opioids, which are addictive and lethal. They won’t come to the city at the podium and risk that stigma that still comes with pot.

We’re a long way from “reefer madness” and there were reasons why the federal government chose to legalize this product.

Now, we did hear some legitimate concerns from our residents, especially regarding our youth and children. Do we benefit our children if we don’t allow retail cannabis stores in our city? No. We are instead fueling the black market. If you buy cannabis online, you can still smoke it anywhere, apart from public parks, right now — we need to put regulations in place, and that has nothing to do with whether or not we have retail stores.

If we opt out, are we benefitting the police? They are prepared for this and are already dealing with it.

Are we benefitting taxpayers?  We are already enforcing it, so we would not benefit them by opting out because we wouldn’t be eligible for any money, however big or small, to help with enforcement.

Are we benefitting businesses? Certainly not. We’ve heard some businesses are going to employ 10-15 employees in a single store.

At the end of the day, those who will benefit from opting out will be the folks selling it illegally here, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

And to use our residents’ health, safety and money as a bargaining chip, I don’t believe that is good public policy.

The AGCO is the regulator. They currently regulate alcohol and they are doing all the regulating work and oversight for us. They are serious about enforcement. And if there’s anything we’d like to ask of them, let’s do it. I believe they’ll be receptive to it.

We need to lead. We can’t wait and see. And the way forward is to opt in and figure out a made-in Burlington way to protect our residents.

LIVE TWITTER RECAP FROM COW AND SPECIAL MEETING OF COUNCIL

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