Centre Wellington rejects cannabis retail stores

ELORA – The future of cannabis retail stores in Centre Wellington has gone up in smoke following a 4-3 recorded vote here on Dec. 18.

After a lengthy discussion, council decided to opt out of pot shops in the township.

Voting in favour of the motion to opt out of cannabis sales were councillors Steven VanLeeuwen, Bob Foster and Stephen Kitras and Mayor Kelly Linton.

Opposed were councillors  Kirk McElwain, Ian MacRae and Neil Dunsmore.

Other options contained in a report from CAO Andy Goldie were opting in and advising the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) of the decision, and opting out of cannabis stores but revisiting the decision within a year.

The vote followed presentations by the Wellington County OPP Inspector Scott Lawson, Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health and citizen delegations from Silvana Sangiuliano, Michael Lee and John McVicker.

Council’s vote was not supported by the results of the township’s online survey conducted between Nov. 21 and Dec. 9.

Over 1,603 residents participated in the survey and the final results indicated:

– 64.1 per cent support cannabis stores in Centre Wellington;

– 33.4% of do not support cannabis stores in the township; and

– 2.4% are undecided

The survey also indicated 49.3% of respondents prefer to purchase cannabis in a legal private store,  38.1% do not use cannabis, 7.1% prefer to use the provincial government website and 5.6% prefer to grow their own.

Councillor Kirk McElwain asked about timelines for potential bylaws.

CAO Andy Goldie said township officials will monitor the issue over a number of months, working with the OPP and public health, and report back to council before the end of 2019.

“It all depends what we see in the community,” said Goldie.

Lawson said police will continue to do what they have been doing all along.

Linton said if Centre Wellington enacts additional bylaws, the township would be required to enforce them.

Goldie added the province has updated the Smoke-Free Ontario Act, clearly defining where people are allowed to smoke. He said municipalities that have passed additional bylaws are finding it a challenge to  enforce them.

Foster asked Lawson’s opinion on whether opting in could eliminate black market sales.

Lawson said the concern with legalization of marijuana in general “is the potential of the black market infiltrating the legal market – that is probably the greater challenge for us.”

Foster then asked whether opting in would “cleanse” the supply chain of cannabis laced with other drugs or materials.

Lawson said “with greater access it is easier to get safe legal cannabis,” but he remains concerned with “laced” drugs within the community.

MacRae said some residents are concerned about  using the online store for cannabis purchases via credit card.

“Their fear is the information would become available to U.S. border services, which would result in being banned entry into the United States,” MacRae said.

Lawson said he is unaware of information the border services could access.

Dr. Tenenbaum was asked whether it is possible to overdose on cannabis. He responded, “If you consume enough there would be negative health effects.”

Tenenbaum also stated overdoses could potentially look quite different depending on the drug.

He agreed cannabis overdoses may not be on the same scale as opioids, but would still present a substantial problem.

When asked about the impact on teenagers, Tenenbaum said a person’s brain does not stop developing until age 25.

“Even though they may be considered an adult by society, their brain is still under significant biological change,” he said.

“Even though it is legal in Ontario, it is still a high risk for anyone between 19 and 25.”

McElwain said during an all candidates meeting this fall he was the only councillor who supported retail cannabis sales and, “I haven’t discovered anything presented tonight which would make me change my mind.”

He said the majority of issues discussed were about the legalization of cannabis, not about opting in to storefront sales.

“The horse is out of the barn as far as legalization is concerned,” McElwain said.

“It is our responsibility to corral it and control it.”

He said the most vulnerable citizens of society are still going to have access – whether it is legal or not.

“By not having legal access locally, we are making the job easier for those in the black market. As such, I am very much in favour of opting in.”

MacRae questioned whether the online survey is subject to bias, compared to a true random survey, and said he is concerned the province is still working on the rules, regulations and retail model for sales.

“It is difficult to agree to something without knowing what you are agreeing to – or committing yourself to,” he said.

MacRae, who noted he favoured opting out but revisiting the matter in a year, said he is concerned  the province’s “open for business” mandate could result in several stores in the same community.

He added the current provincial retail model denies municipalities the ability to regulate operational hours or locations for stores – “Instead we must rely on outsiders from Queen’s Park to decide what is best for our community, without knowing the local challenges.”

Foster also questioned the “viability” of the township survey – “it does have bias, in my view,” he said – and pointed to evidence from the police and medical community that cannabis is harmful.

He favoured simply opting out.

Councillor VanLeeuwen said he’s had parents tell him “you have no idea what cannabis is doing to our young people.”

He too was concerned about the business plan.

“The idea you would want to sell more is what this is all about. It is a huge concern to me,” said VanLeeuwen, who also favoured opting out and requested a recorded vote.

Kitras said the dangers of allowing cannabis sales are  substantial and noted surveys only capture specific needs and wants.

“We have to decide what is good over the long-term. It is not just about how well it will get distributed,” he said.

Dunsmore said after speaking to a number of people in his ward, “I was shocked at the number of people who actually want this and who want to see at least a local store.”

Dunsmore said his problem is the provincial government’s distribution model.

He stressed he empathizes to people with medical issues and their need for access to cannabis, “But I think we need to protect the local community and I think this model has too many holes in it, and potential rewards are not enough to offset the cost to the community.”

Dunsmore favoured revisiting the matter in a year, noting cannabis sales could enhance the area’s tourism.

“Quite frankly, ‘come for the culture, stay for the cannabis’ is not a tourism line I want to hear,” Dunsmore said.

Linton said the purpose of using the CW Connect survey tool is not to replace the work done by council members who went door to door or talked to local people in the community.

“We are not going to survey everything to death – but it does give a temperature reading and we have to take the results with a grain of salt,” Linton said.

“I don’t want to make it any easier for people to access cannabis in Centre Wellington, especially younger people.” He added setting up storefront operations would require more bylaw enforcement.

An email from Linton following the meeting stated six of seven council members wanted to opt out of cannabis stores.

“Two of those councillors wanted to review this decision in one year, while four of us wanted to opt out without a one-year review,” Linton wrote.

“I just didn’t want it to come across that the 4-3 decision meant that three were in favour of opting in. They were not.”

Private cannabis stores will be legal in Ontario as of April 1, for those municipalities that choose to opt in.