Newmarket council on Monday voted unanimously to opt out of allowing retail pot shops to open up in town.
And, in the process, it sent a strong message to the Ontario government regarding its seemingly ham-fisted approach to the issue: Provide adequate funding on the costs associated with legalization and give municipalities greater control about where cannabis stores can be located and how many there will be.
“There’s a considerable effort afoot to put pressure on the province to change some of their approaches,” Mayor John Taylor said. “Let’s get the province to do the right thing and fund the municipalities properly, and give us the proper decision-making tools.”
Taylor echoed comments from a majority of his colleagues on town council and at the region who, he said, share the view that the Ontario government’s arbitrary Jan. 22 deadline on municipalities to make a decision on the sale of recreational cannabis in their communities doesn’t allow enough time to develop a public education campaign or conduct a thorough review of the often-conflicting research on potential local impacts.
“The decision is clear from the province, it’s about opting in forever or opting out for now, and that is a very important nuance,” Taylor said. “With so much unknown, why would we opt in and then be locked in when we can wait and learn more?”
Council rejected its staff recommendation to opt in, and instead put forward a motion that stated Newmarket is not a willing host of a cannabis retail location in the community. It also stipulated it would revisit the issue in one year.
As well, council directed staff to prepare amendments or new bylaws, as required, and make recommendations by March or April about how smoking/vaping cannabis in public places should be regulated.
That responsibility falls to York Region Public Health’s tobacco and electronic cigarettes control officers, who are charged with enforcing the Smoke Free Ontario Act, municipal bylaw enforcers for local rules, and York Regional Police for cannabis-related criminal matters.
Rookie Councillor Grace Simon expressed frustration over the provincial government’s changing policies on its bricks-and-mortar prong of regulating the sale of pot.
“There’s things changing from week to week and month to month, and everything is being thrown at us,” Simon said, referencing the government’s latest move to dole out the first 25 retail pot shop licences in a lottery system based on population due to cannabis supply shortages. “This is certainly a huge decision and to rush into it wouldn’t be in the best interest of Newmarket. I’m standing on my promise to opt out.”
Councillor Kelly Broome said she believes taking one year to learn more and evaluate the impact of retail pot stores in the community is a good one for Newmarket.
“Education is important,” she said. “And what I’m hearing from residents is that we need a little more information at this time.”
Meanwhile, Councillor Jane Twinney said she believes the wait-and-see strategy will lead right back to where the matter is at the present time.
"I don’t believe that in a year or two we’re going to have any more information than we have today," she said. "It’s a very passionate topic and when I look at the feedback, even though nothing is scientific, I’d say it’s down the middle, people want to opt out or opt in. I don’t think anything’s going to change."
All Newmarket's elected leaders acknowledged the high level of engagement demonstrated by residents, who participated in online and telephone surveys, attended public meetings, and organized themselves to make deputations on the subject.
On Monday, about a dozen residents made impassioned pleas to councillors, regardless of which side of the great pot shop divide they came down on.
One family shared their personal tragedy of losing a young adult family member to fentanyl-laced cannabis as support for having the choice to purchase a safe, regulated product, while two other parents who were opposed spoke about their respective children’s journey into addiction that began, they said, with cannabis use.
Another resident shared an informal Facebook poll that garnered more than 600 votes and showed 77 per cent of respondents in favour of local cannabis storefronts, and others still spoke about the health benefits they’ve experienced since using medicinal marijuana.
A couple of local citizens took exception with the report prepared by town staff, in which a strong argument was made for opting in to retail cannabis shops. Where the report offered supporting evidence for such things as public health benefits, economic and branding opportunities, and reducing profits to the illicit pot market, the residents offered research to the contrary.
So far, Newmarket joins neighbouring Markham, Richmond Hill, and King Township in voting ‘no’ to retail cannabis stores in the community. East Gwillimbury is scheduled to make its decision today. Vaughan, Aurora, Whitchurch-Stouffville, and Georgina will make their respective decisions before the provincial Jan. 22 deadline.
Councillors Bob Kwapis and Christina Bisanz were absent. Town council will still have to ratify its decision at a special council meeting scheduled for Jan. 15 at 7 p.m. in council chambers. The public is welcome to attend.To see the complete list of Ontario municipalities that have opted in and opted out, visit here.