Health unit and police could play big roles in council’s decision on cannabis stores

Recommendations from Ottawa Public Health and the Ottawa Police Service could be big factors in council’s decision on the future of cannabis retail in Ottawa.

When the city’s emergency and protective services department tables its report at council in early December, politicians will be eager to see what health officials and police think about the private sector opening legal pot stores.

Several councillors have indicated that they’re waiting to hear back from the city’s consultation program before deciding if the council should block cannabis storefronts. Ontario municipal councils must tell the province by Jan. 22 if they’re opting out of cannabis stores.

Public feedback will provide guidance to council members, but so will city hall agencies and departments. Health officials and police will make recommendations with a goal of keeping people safe, but in different ways.

Two years ago, Ottawa Public Health advocated for a minimum purchasing age of 25 and government-run storefronts.

In the new era of cannabis legalization, the minimum age for purchasing pot is 19 years old in Ontario, and starting next April, legal pot stores run by private businesses will begin popping up in the province.

The health unit’s advice to council will provide important insight on whether or not having legal storefronts, with a government-controlled cannabis supply, is better than having no storefronts and allowing black-market weed to continue having a monopoly on street sales, outside of direct online ordering through the Ontario Cannabis Store.

“Regarding OPH informing the city on whether or not to opt out, I can confirm that at this time, we are reviewing the evidence from a public health perspective,” health unit spokesman Eric Leclair said in an email Tuesday.

The city has a working group on cannabis legalization that includes staff from across the corporation.

For the police force, it will assess how storefronts would impact community safety and criminal behaviour. Would Ottawa streets be safer with provincially licensed pot stores?

Insp. Murray Knowles said Ottawa police are putting together its advice for council.

“The Ottawa police is currently working on its recommendations to the city in relation to cannabis stores,” Knowles said in an email. “We are working closely with the city regarding cannabis matters including at the working group level. We will continue to work with our partners in a coordinated and cooperative fashion as the legislation evolves.”

Another key internal advisor will likely be the economic development branch, which could ballpark how many people would be employed by cannabis stores. The department could also weigh in on cannabis stores’ impacts to commercial areas, for better or for worse.

In the lead up to legalization, there was some relief at city hall that the municipality could enforce where cannabis stores are located through land-use regulations. When the Progressive Conservative provincial government unveiled its plans for private pot stores, municipalities learned they would have no power to regulate the location of stores or the concentration of stores in a certain area.

The province says the city can’t making specific zoning rules for cannabis retail different from general retail. The province, however, can set a distance buffer between pot shops and schools.

Having no powers to restrict locations of cannabis stores irks several councillors, including Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, who’s concerned about not having the authority to set distance requirements and avoid clusters of pot shops on main streets.

Still, McKenney said she wouldn’t support council opting out of having cannabis stores.


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jwilling@postmedia.com

twitter.com/JonathanWilling

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