ONTARIO CITIES NEED TO SHAPE THEIR OWN DESTINY IN THE CANNABIS CONVERSATION

(Originally written for Lift Cannabis on 29 August 2016)

Examples from other jurisdictions show that municipalities need to move now to ensure they have a say in what legalization looks like in the future

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On June 27th, 2016, in the lead up to their annual general meeting, the Board of Director’s for the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) called for the creation of a taskforce to “further investigate marijuana legalization and to engage immediately with federal and provincial governments about roles and responsibilities and implementation questions around the pending new marijuana legalized regime.”

Following the AGM August, at which Denver, Colorado’s Marijuana Czar Ashley Kilroy spoke on Denver’s experience with the recent legalization and commercialization of cannabis in the state, local officials voiced concerns that Ontario municipalities and the province were not prepared for the upcoming changes in cannabis laws. Similar sentiments have been expressed at City Hall in Toronto as well – municipalities and the province seem caught up in waiting on the federal government to provide direction before taking any action beyond an environmental scan.

With the prohibition-era laws on their way out, public opinion clearly swinging in favour of legalization, and dispensaries stepping in to meet an existing demand despite the continued illegality of cannabis, there is a clear leadership vacuum in Ontario. Looking to other markets where cannabis has made the transition from black market to main street, one thing becomes clear: leadership at the local level plays a critical role in the success of the initiative. Rather than stall and wait for direction from the federal governments, if municipalities in Ontario truly want a say in the future of cannabis legalization, now is the time to speak up.

Denver & Seattle

The roll outs of legalization in Denver and Seattle looked dramatically different. Denver, with its existing network of well-managed and regulated legal medical dispensaries, had the supply and infrastructure in place for the official legalisation on January 1st, 2014. 40 storefronts were licensed and well-stocked, as ready as they could be for the wave of eager of recreational users excited to purchase cannabis legally for the first time.

Seattle on the other hand, had just one storefront dispensary approved to sell cannabis commercially by July 8th, 2014 when the laws finally changed. Unlike Denver, prior to the full legalisation of cannabis, most medical dispensaries had been operating illegally, meaning businesses eager to take advantage of the new laws had to start from scratch – production, infrastructure, staffing, licensing, etc.

While there are many factors that led to these discrepancies in roll outs, local leadership undoubtedly played a significant role. In speaking with Ashley Kilroy following her talk with the AMO on August 16th, her respect and appreciation for the leadership shown by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock was clear. When asked what advice she had for municipalities on the verge of legalization, she listed the importance of working with local stakeholders: police, fire, education, health, airports, tourism, etc. When asked if it was a challenge to get any of these stakeholders on board, she noted that was one of the biggest differences between her experience and her counterparts in Washington State –  “Having the full support of the Mayor’s office made all the difference,” she explained.

BC & Ontario

It is great to see task forces emerging at the local and provincial level in Ontario – though one has to wonder what has taken so long. Mayors in British Columbia have been calling for the legalization of cannabis for years. “Stop the Violence BC,” a coalition of local government officials in BC led by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, issued a public letter calling for the decriminalization of marijuana for public health and safety reasons in April of 2012. Since then, municipalities across the province have worked with local compassion clubs and dispensaries – even bakeries in some cases – to develop the regulatory structure needed for the distribution of cannabis under a public health framework.

Since the establishment of the federal taskforce to legalise cannabis, BC municipalities have continued to lobby the government in Ottawa on issues from public health to taxation. Whether or not the feds will take their advice remains to be seen. But given that municipalities will be at the forefront for the delivery of the inevitable legal regime, who better to have a say in the design?

If municipalities and their elected officials here in Ontario are eager to better understand what the future of cannabis policy might look like in Canada, they need not sit around passively awaiting more clarity from Ottawa in the spring of 2017. Leaders in Colorado helped to ensure there was strong infrastructure in place prior to legalization, and they experienced a far smoother transition than their counterparts in Washington State. Leaders in BC continue to work together to build a plan for what comes next – it would be great to see municipal leaders in Ontario step up too.

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