By Chris Pickup

Haldimand council’s ongoing foray into the mysteries of cannabis retail stores led to an inescapable conclusion at Tuesday’s council in committee meeting.

“One thing we do know … there’s a lot we don’t know,” said planner Meagan Ferris, who had prepared a detailed report for council’s perusal. 

There is still information coming down the pike from the province, leaving many unanswered questions hanging in the wind, such as whether the municipality retains any kind of site plan control over new store builds.

The report recommended council opt-in to permit retail stores in Haldimand, and that they investigate the desirability and implications of prohibiting smoking on public property.

The rationale noted cannabis use is now legal in Canada and the stores will be regulated, inspected and enforced by the province. Opting out would send residents to other jurisdictions or the black market to obtain product, limiting residents’ safe, direct access to a legal product. 

The county would also be ineligible for additional revenue while still incurring costs for enforcing the Smoke Free Ontario Act and municipal smoking bylaw. It would also potentially limit economic development.

Public engagement with the county on the issue came down quite heavily on the side of opting in. Some 68% of the total 850 who took part in the survey wished to opt in, for much the same reasons as the staff report. 

24.12% voted to opt out, for reasons such as general disagreement with legalization or concern regarding safety such as crime, impaired driving and policing capabilities. 

A further 7.29% took a wait-and-see attitude.

The Medical Health Officer noted that while there are some significant adverse medical and public health consequences which are particularly challenging to young people, these stores will be in surrounding districts and product available on line anyway, therefore the health unit will focus on minimizing those harms.

Haldimand county needs to decide Monday whether to opt in, the decision to be conveyed to the province by January 22, or face the loss of an extra $51,000 or more in provincial funding to help defray potential municipal costs.

However, Haldimand will not see a store for at least a year. An identified shortage of legal cannabis product has forced a change in provincial regulations, limiting the total number of licences for retail stores in Ontario in the first phase to a maximum of 25. 

Haldimand is part of West Region which will see only seven stores to be spread over its 18 municipalities. A lottery system will determine who gets retail licenses, however these stores must be located in a municipality with a population of 50,000 or more, which effectively takes Haldimand out of the picture for now.

Councillor Metcalfe wondered whether a licence for medical marijuana would allow producers to cross over to the open market. 

Ferris noted it is a complex matter. As-of-right privileges are on these properties. The county still doesn’t know how or if they are going to have that authority.

Councillor Patterson noted the public meeting he held on the subject of cannabis only attracted 16 attendees. “Some information I didn’t have,” he said. However talking to residents, some opinions did change with the information he did put forward.

Now the focus is going to be on a new stronger smoking bylaw, which includes cannabis. 

“We need to align the bylaw with the Smoke-Free Act and go further than we presently do,” such as a complete ban, said staffer Craig Manley.

Bernie Corbett noted the present bylaw only has “one and a partial person”  to look after it, and additional people will be needed which could be paid for by provincial funding.

“The enforcement problem will be exacerbated,” he said. “They’re already smoking and vaping at arenas now.”

Residents will get a last kick at the can on Monday, where a public meeting  at council will allow anyone who wishes to speak, with a limit of five minutes per person, before the vote is taken.