Toronto council will debate on Thursday whether to opt out of provincial legislation permitting private cannabis stores to operate in the city beginning April 1.
“It’s not that we want to ban cannabis sales, but we want some sort of mechanism that gives us local control,” said Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale—High Park) comparing what’s happened in Toronto so far to the lawless Wild West, with illegal pot stores operating openly.
On Oct. 16, the day prior to legalization this year, there were 92 illegal storefronts reportedly operating in Toronto, according to a report by city staff. Despite a crackdown, 11 stores continued to operate illegally as of Nov. 27.
“It’s left a bad taste in the mouth of Torontonians. They want to make sure they have access to a process to control how this happens,” said Perks.
Under provincial legislation, private cannabis stores can open in Ontario beginning April 1, but municipalities are allowed to vote to opt out. They have until Jan. 22 to decide. Richmond Hill and Markham are considering motions to opt out, after banning recreational smoking or vaping of cannabis in public.
A staff report for council recommends Toronto not opt out of allowing retail cannabis stores to operate. It points out that the licensed system operated by the province provides an alternative to the illegal market and includes controls designed to minimize social harms and address safety issues.
It also points out that prohibiting cannabis retail stores in Toronto would limit Toronto residents’ access to legal and government-regulated recreational cannabis. The only other ways to legally purchase recreational cannabis would be online, through the Ontario Cannabis store, or in other municipalities with legal cannabis retailers.
According to the report, between March 16, 2016 and Nov. 23, approximately 1,260 charges were laid against storefront owners, operators, employees and landlords involved in the illegal sale of cannabis products in Toronto. The charges have so far resulted in 548 convictions and total fines imposed of $724,200.
“Based on staff’s experience with the illegal market since 2016, it is anticipated that banning legal retailers would have the unintended consequence of encouraging the illegal market, including through the operation of illegal storefronts,” according to the report.
The province has agreed to provide funding to help municipalities with the implementation costs of cannabis legalization. Cities that permit stores to operate would be eligible to receive a portion of the federal excise duty if there is a surplus.
Mayor John Tory said Monday he will ask council to approve a push for more powers for municipalities to control the locations of private cannabis retail stores.
“I continue to be concerned about safety for children, public health, and the proximity of cannabis stores to places like schools,” said Tory in a statement issued Monday. “While I don’t believe saying ‘no’ to cannabis retail stores in our city is a practical position, we should be maximizing safety and the protection of children and neighbourhoods from any negative effects that may come about as a result of these stores.”
Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 11, University-Rosedale) said he is concerned that a concentration of cannabis shops in one area, for example, in a neighbourhood like Kensington Market, could drive up rents for other businesses.
“If we were to look at Kensington Market, you sadly might end up pricing out the retail grocery stores that can’t pay the same rents as nightclubs and pot shops,” said Layton.
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF