Joining other municipalities in the region, Woolwich is opting in to the province’s marijuana plan, allowing the option of retail cannabis sales in the township.
Meeting this week, councillors determined the benefits of having some control over the process outweigh the potential downside. Municipalities have until January 22 to decide whether they’re in or out on the new provincial guidelines adopted by the Ford government following the federal legalization of cannabis that went into effect in October.
“Permitting provincially-licensed retail stores would provide a safer alternative to the illegal market. As well, with retail occurring online regardless of any municipal decision, staff believe that allowing the retail cannabis stores would help achieve the objectives of protecting youth, protecting health and safety, and preventing illicit activity,” said chief administrative officer David Brenneman in a report presented to council Tuesday night.
By opting in, the township will get a share of some $40 million the province has earmarked for municipalities to help with the transition to retail cannabis stores. Based on the per-capita formula, Woolwich expects $11,463 in the first installment.
Given that the product is now legal, most councillors seemed resigned to the new reality, despite some reservations about the health and social impacts.
“I’m not sure stores are a good fit for our community and the values we uphold in Woolwich,” said Coun. Murray Martin, noting Brenneman’s report didn’t mention the downside to the new order of things.
A key issue will be keeping cannabis out of the hands of underage users and working to educate residents about appropriate use, councillors said.
Coun. Larry Shantz suggested money received from the province should be earmarked for public education and dealing with addiction, adding this was no longer a moral issue.
“As for the ethical stuff, that horse has left the stable – that’s beyond us.”
“We’re not here to judge,” agreed Coun. Patrick Merlihan.
In that vein, police officials who spent years treating the sale and use of marijuana as a criminal activity have had to adjust to new circumstances. That’s not been easy, Waterloo Regional Police chief Bryan Larkin told councillors.
Nonetheless, police are supportive of municipal plans to allow cannabis stores, the better to have a handle on sales in a safe, secure manner, he said.
“Safe supply is an extremely important piece,” he said.
Responding to a question from Merlihan about enforcement in the new cannabis age, Larkin said police would be working to shut down illegal dispensaries, counter impaired driving and help ensure public safety.
Just because the product is legal doesn’t mean things are wide open, particularly where young people are concerned, he said, noting the country has one of the highest rates of marijuana uses by those 12 to 24 years of age.
“We want to promote healthy lifestyles. We have to change the narrative,” said Larkin, noting an important goal is to counter the large number of young people who use the drug and deal with substance abuse problems, particularly in the cities.
In the quick lead-up to a decision, Woolwich councillors had little feedback from the public on what they thought would be a contentious issue. Even Tuesday night’s public meeting drew only a couple of people.
Attending to speak on another matter, Elmira resident Bob Jonkman said the upsides of controlled sales and the potential business opportunities, particularly for the agricultural sector, were enough to support opting in.
“I’m in favour of expanding retail cannabis,” he said.
Countering that was Elmira resident Jonathan Brubacher, who counselled opting out now and re-evaluating later after investigating real-world experience in other municipalities.
“Let it play out elsewhere and see what happens,” he suggested.
In passing a resolution opting in, the township did request the province to allow municipalities to use zoning to differentiate between regular retail and cannabis retail to ensure appropriate locations are selected.
Light on details at this point, the province’s cannabis retail plan will limit to just a handful the number of outlets in southwestern Ontario. Woolwich, like Wellesley that last week opted in, is unlikely to see a retail store in the foreseeable future.