Where is Brampton on the cannabis issue now? Looking to its neighbours
Photos by Mansoor Tanweer and from Flickr

Where is Brampton on the cannabis issue now? Looking to its neighbours

A move to ban cannabis consumption in public throughout Peel Region got kicked down the road by regional council at its final meeting of the year on Thursday. Council chose to refer a motion to staff for more study rather than make a firm decision as public pressure mounts on both sides of the legalization issue.

Municipalities have the right, under the Municipal Act, to put extra restrictions on issues that involve public nuisances and health and safety concerns, such as the use of legal cannabis. Ontario’s rules on legal cannabis also state that municipalities can establish their own bylaws to govern the sale and use of cannabis to align with community values, which can differ from city to city.

After Mississauga Councillor Sue McFadden brought forward a motion to ban the use of cannabis in public spaces throughout Peel Region, council decided to have staff examine the potential issues that might arise from such a move and report back with recommendations in the new year.

“Obviously, we don’t want someone smoking pot at a local park where there’s kids around. So we’re looking at the ways to have a common framework in Peel Region,” Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown told The Pointer.

Mayor Patrick Brown during the summer election campaign at a community meeting.

Regarding the decision in Brampton on whether to allow retail cannabis stores to operate, Brown said the province should have provided proper funding to cities if it wanted buy-in.

“I think one of the reasons why they’re struggling to get municipal buy-in is, [the province is] telling municipalities, ‘We’re going to get all the revenue, but you’re going to pay all the costs,’” Brown said. He wants to hold out for more funding before he throws his support behind any concrete policy on the issue of cannabis stores in Brampton.

Meanwhile, if McFadden’s motion at the region eventually passes, it would reflect Mississauga’s efforts to restrict cannabis in a post-legalization environment. The day before the regional meeting, the council of the province’s third-largest city voted to opt out of allowing cannabis retail stores within its borders.

“Many of our residents are uneasy about us proceeding because they do not fully understand the implications of retail stores and what it will mean for public safety and the character of their community,” Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie told The Pointer.

Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie

The same day Mississauga made its move, ahead of the Jan. 22 deadline for cities to make a decision on retail outlets, Toronto council voted to opt-in to allowing cannabis stores within the city. Mayor John Tory said he felt “the risk of opting out, the risk of ending up with an uncontrolled spread of these illegal and pop-up dispensaries, which I think caused us grave problems and cost us huge amounts of money in terms of enforcement … was greater than adopting the approach we’ve taken.”

Residents are now looking to Brampton City Hall to see which municipality’s example councillors will follow and whether cannabis will be the latest plant to become a fixture in the Flower City. At last week’s committee of council meeting in Brampton, Joe Pittari (now the acting CAO, after Harry Schlange was let go by council this week) presented the findings of a phone survey showing that a slim majority of Bramptonians favour allowing retail stores in Brampton. The results of the survey prompted city staff to recommend opting-in as the best choice, however city council was not convinced.

Although 54 percent of survey respondents said they favoured allowing private cannabis shops, councillors deferred a vote to the new year to give them time to ruminate on which direction they would like to take the city. It is not clear at this stage which way Brampton council as a whole is leaning, however one councillor has made her position quite clear.

Councillor Charmaine Williams has been a vocal critic of opting in. “We have kids who are going to use it (cannabis) more often and think it’s okay to use it more often, and we have our communities who just don’t want it,” she told reporters. One of the stated goals of legalization is to better control and prevent its use by teenagers, but the question isn’t clear-cut for many residents.

Brampton Councillor Charmaine Williams

Williams questioned the methodology of the phone survey used by staff to make its recommendation. The city did not confirm that it sampled an accurate demographic representation of Brampton to make sure age, gender, race and ethnicity were properly reflected. Among many immigrant groups in the city’s incredibly diverse population, cannabis consumption is unpopular and often associated with religious beliefs not aligned with its use. Age can also be a factor when trying to determine support for the legal substance.

Williams has said that during the recent municipal election campaign the vast majority of residents told her they did not want the city to allow retail cannabis stores.

Opting out could present a challenge to municipalities bordering Toronto. There are fears that enterprising cannabis sellers could set up shops along municipal borders, making it easier for cannabis to make its way into Peel away from the watchful eyes of city regulators and properly resourced police officers.

Brown says he is mindful of the likelihood border shops would proliferate to fulfill demand in Brampton, if the city opts out of allowing the stores. “One of the benefits of waiting to mid-January is it gives us the time to see what everyone else is doing,” he said. “The fact that Mississauga has opted out, we’ll have a better indication of what all our border municipalities are doing.”

A significant problem that could arise is the lack of funding to deal with legal cannabis issues. If Brampton opts out, it will not get nearly as much money from the province for extra policing resources, healthcare services and other community needs that will surely arise now that legalization is a reality. With cannabis entering into the city regardless of whether it chooses to allow retail stores, Brampton and other cities next to markets that do allow the outlets could face a double-edged problem: dealing with potential negative outcomes; while not having enough money to do so properly.

The province has set aside $40 million for a Cannabis Legalization Implementation Fund, to be distributed proportionately across all municipalities that opt-in to help pay for the impact of allowing cannabis shops within their borders. While Brown and Williams have both criticized that amount as being too little, opting-out means losing whatever amount the city would otherwise be entitled to under the province’s legalization fund. Cities that opt-out will get a much smaller amount, regardless of the costs they face as a result of province-wide cannabis legalization.

Crombie told The Pointer she has “no issue, should a retailer choose to legally open a store in one of our neighbouring communities, such as Toronto, [which] has made the decision to opt-in to hosting retail stores.”

She is open to revisiting the issue at a later date, adding “I am not opposed in principle to retail stores, but we only have one chance to get this right. We are not saying no forever, we’re just saying not right now. We need more time to get this right.”

The provincial deadline to opt-in is Jan. 22. Brampton City Council has requested that staff report back with recommendations based on public feedback, on a date to be determined during the second week of January. Residents will be looking to see during that meeting whether council has come to a decision.

Residents will also find out in the new year if the use of cannabis in public spaces across Peel will be allowed.

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Twitter: @mansoortanweer

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