ELORA – Centre Wellington council is punting the cannabis question to the newly formed economic prosperity and growth advisory committee.
Faced with a staff report at its Nov. 14 committee of the whole meeting explaining that once the municipality allows cannabis retail stores there’s no turning back, council was reticent to pull the trigger.
In 2018 when marijuana was legalized, council of the day decided to opt out and not allow cannabis retail stores in the township.
Local resident John Mifsud approached council in February hoping the new faces around the horseshoe would reconsider that decision.
At that meeting, council asked staff to report back on how cannabis stores operate and the ramifications for the township.
Manager of economic development George Borovilos presented that report on Nov. 14.
He explained the province, through the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), sets the rules and regulations for cannabis retail stores.
The stores are not allowed within 150m of public and private schools and there are rules around what can and can’t be sold in the stores, who can enter, and how much of the interior of a store can be visible from the street, which is basically none.
Municipalities can and have passed bylaws that further limit where the stores can operate, “but the AGCO can overrule municipalities,” Borovilos said.
“The role of the municipality is very limited” once it opts in, he continued.
“You can’t impose a licensing system, you can’t restrict the number of stores, and if council opts in, the decision is final.”
A 2018 township survey indicated 64% of some 1,600 respondents were in favour of allowing the stores in the township.
A more recent survey in 2023 shows approval has grown. Of the 700 respondents, 74.3% are now in favour.
The survey also indicates that currently township residents go to Mount Forest, Arthur or Guelph to buy their weed.
As well, the township will receive no revenue because it did not opt-in in 2018 when there was a revenue-sharing arrangement.
Some councillors were concerned that if they give the green light, cannabis stores could set up shop near daycare centres, churches and libraries.
They wondered if they could set policies to further restrict where cannabis stores can operate.
Borovilos said while the AGCO can override municipal policies like that, in the five years since pot has been legalized, it hasn’t yet done so.
Councillor Denis Craddock said although he is a recreational marijuana smoker and might appear to be the poster-boy for such an initiative, he is against having retail stores in the township.
He’s concerned with an “oversaturated market,” he said, and that occupied storefronts could become unoccupied in short order.
Craddock added that because of the oversaturated market, prices have dropped and he doesn’t think it’s a viable business anymore.
“I don’t think the cannabis business is really great right now. It seems like they’re in a tough spot,” he said, adding he orders from Guelph and gets same-day delivery – an option that’s open to anyone in Centre Wellington.
“So I’ll be voting no, which may be surprising for a list of reasons. And I think primarily that it just, at this time, isn’t good business.”
Mayor Shawn Watters said he’s concerned about the “street presentation.”
“What I’ve seen in other communities, and we’ve had the opportunity to see it throughout the last four years, they are loaded into the downtown areas,” Watters said.
Given that tourists come to Elora and Fergus for the beauty and charm, cannabis stores are not a good fit in the downtowns, he said.
Councillor Lisa MacDonald put forward a motion to send the matter to the newly-formed economic prosperity and growth advisory committee for its input before making a decision.
The majority of council agreed, with only councillors Bronwynne Wilton and Kim Jefferson opposed.
Outside the meeting, Mifsud called council’s decision “overreach,” noting it’s not council’s role to offer advice on whether a business will succeed or not.
He also said the people have spoken and it is council’s role to listen to them.
“We did our own unofficial survey, and we got a tremendous response,” Mifsud said.
“And then the township survey came back with an even greater response than their official 2018 survey.
“So I am disappointed that is getting punted down to committee. But you know, at the end of the day, it’s not a no; it’s ‘we will look at the info and we will make a decision later.’”
County councillor Diane Ballantyne delegated with Mifsud in February and was at the Nov. 14 meeting as well.
“I’m happy that it didn’t come to a ‘no’ vote tonight and I’m disappointed that it’s been delayed,” Ballantyne said.
“But I’m optimistic that with patience and discussion, we in the community will be able to help them better understand that stopping a legal substance that’s regulated by the government, because of comments regarding whether it’s a successful business practice, is a paternalistic view that flies in the face of capitalism.”