Toronto marijuana users will soon be able to buy weed in privately-owned, provincially-regulated pot shops, city council decided Thursday.
The 20-4 vote Thursday night means Ontario’s biggest city has embraced, albeit while expressing some concerns, the ultimatum issued by Premier Doug Ford that municipalities agree to host licensed private pot shops or lose a share of millions of dollars in funding set to flow to towns and cities to cover their marijuana-related costs.
Late Thursday night, the province announced they would only be issuing 25 licences across the province for business to open April 1 due to what they called a national shortage of cannabis supply.
This will severely limit the number of stores that will initially be open in Toronto, or any city, for that matter. Ford’s government said, in a press release, this would be a phased approach to retail sales, and called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address the supply issue. It’s not clear when more licences would be issued.
The province plans to hold a lottery, administered by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, in January, with successful applicants posted online shortly after the Jan. 11 draw.
Mayor John Tory argued Toronto opting out would allow illegal operators to return with a vengeance and cost the city needed funding to manage the effects of the new legalization.
“I think the consequence for us of not opting in … are, first of all, that we will be back to the true wild west where illegal operators will open up in huge numbers all across the city,” Tory said. “If you opt out, then you never re-qualify for the money.”
Council, at Tory’s urging, also unanimously requested the province give the city control to block stores from locating a certain, close to schools, community centres, youth facilities and other cannabis retail stores.
Licensed stores can open legally in April.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, joined city staff in recommending council agree to host the shops. De Villa said the previous Liberal government’s plan to restrict retail pot sales to provincially run LCBO-style shops would have provided the best health safeguards.
But the Ford government elected last June to go with private retailers, to shrink the mandatory buffer between pot shops and schools from 500 metres to 150 metres, and to give municipalities the power to ask the provincial regulator for other restrictions on local shops.
Despite the shortcomings, the city should opt into the new system as opposed to using the provincially provided window, until Jan. 22, to opt out of hosting legal cannabis retailers, de Villa said.
“If we choose to opt out you run into a challenge where a significant portion of the population is using … products from an illicit market with no regulations,” said de Villa, who added that it’s better to watch regulated sales, learn from that experience and lobby the province for any required changes.
“We don’t want to see people being pushed into an illegal market where there is no regulation and absolutely no control. I think that’s a greater harm to health.”
The federal government legalized recreational cannabis on Oct. 17. Ontario residents can buy it now at the Ontario Cannabis Store website.
Mike Colle, a former Liberal MPP elected to Toronto council in October who moved the failed motion to opt-out, was incredulous that de Villa would want Toronto to join a “wild west” system where the city has no controls over how many pot shops open and where they locate. Colle made his comments before the province announced it would be issuing just 25 licenses.
Raising the spectre of cannabis retailers beside mental health outreach centres and methadone clinics, he advised opting out for now as leverage to get provincial agreement for more local control.
The city’s chief planner Gregg Lintern told council he was hard-pressed to think of another example where council had zero control over land use within its own boundaries.
City solicitor Wendy Walberg told council that Toronto is in the retail regime unless it specifically opts out, as communities including Mississauga, Markham and Brampton have already done.
Mississauga city council voted 10-2 this week to say no to retail pot shops. Councillors there said their city was being rushed into a decision without any ability to control or plan the outcome. Markham has also closed the door to pot shops.
On Thursday, Ottawa’s city council also voted to opt in with similar reservations about the lack of controls.
Communities that opt out can opt back in after Jan. 22, but they won’t get the extra funding to cover pot-related costs, provincial officials have told the city.
Toronto will receive about $3 million in January, part of funding going to all municipalities, and expects to get a similar amount in March. Opting out would mean giving up that second payment, said licensing executive director Tracey Cook.
Cook said her department has spent about $2 million since 2016 closing down illegal pot shops, of which there are now 14, down from a high of 92. Opting out of legal retailing could encourage illegal sales, she said, especially with “dry” communities around Toronto.
“I do believe the opting out around us will put additional pressure on and may encourage people to continue to operate illegally in Toronto,” Cook said.
Council nearly decided to explore the possibility of the city exclusively operating retail stores — which would have required the province’s permission — but a motion from Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s) failed on a close 11-13 vote.
A motion from Councillor Cynthia Lai (Ward 23, Scarborough North) asking the province to restrict shops within 500 metres of schools, recreational facilities, community centres and religious centres passes — this would create a lot of areas where shops would be banned — failed on a 12-12 tie.
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags