The cannabis conundrum; town council talks it over

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

A lot of people across Canada these days are having conversations they never imagined they would: about a world in which possession and sale of small amounts and sale of cannabis is not illegal.
This is expected to happen on July 1 of this year (although there are indications it may be delayed).
Among those having these discussions are municipal councils and employees. Because although the legalization is a federal matter, and much about the sale of the product is up to the provinces to regulate, some aspects are left up to municipalities.
Slave Lake Mayor Tyler Warman had stated at a meeting a few weeks ago that council needed to talk about it and make some decisions. From what he’d heard at a recent urban municipalities conference, towns have a lot of leeway.
“We can say we’re a cannabis-free community,” he said, offering an example of one of the extreme options. “Or we can go the other way and say, ‘Let’s have a dispensary on every corner.’”
At that meeting in March, Warman speculated that council probably didn’t want to come down at either of those extremes.
So with the decks cleared at the April 3 meeting for what was anticipated to be a lengthy discussion, Warman set the stage;
“Two issues,” he said. “Growing and retail.”
On the second of those two, “we’ve seen a lot of interest locally. But we actually have nothing built into our land-use framework. We’re looking for direction.”
The planning department had put together a set of questions for council to consider. It included everything from ‘Do we want cannabis at all?’ to what zones of town sale of it should be allowed in, hours of operation, where it can be ‘consumed’ and questions about enforcement.
Council’s discussion ranged all over the place, only occasionally relating to the question at hand. On most of the technically regulatory questions, however, council came back to one idea; let the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission decide, and then go with that. In other words, the town doesn’t want to get into deciding who gets to sell it, in what form and during what hours.
“I don’t think we should limit the number of dispensaries,” said Warman. “We should say where they can go and let the market decide how many there should be. That’s what we do with every other kind of business.”

Where cannabis dispensaries would be allowed to operate would be a matter for the Land-use Bylaw, which typically sets out what sort of businesses are allowed in the various land-use zones. One of the questions on the questionnaire was whether the regulations should be similar to those the town has for where liquor stores are allowed to be located. The discussion on this point ranged all over the place.
“I’d max it at a certain number,” said councillor Darin Busk. “I don’t want them all over the place.”
Busk was for seeing what the public wants, or is willing to tolerate, before making any decisions.
“I don’t want people doing it in parks,” he added. “I don’t care what you do in your own homes.”
Councillor Brice Ferguson was for slowing the process down.
“We should wait and see what the impacts are in other communities,”’ he said. “What works and what doesn’t, and adopt best practices.” He suggested waiting for a year.
Busk disagreed. The planning department needs direction, he said.
“We don’t want to put our heads in the sand and hope it goes away.”
Councillor Rebecca King said she thinks there’s “quite an appetite for it in town,” and that “we’d be going in the wrong direction if we don’t look at it now.”
So who gets the right to sell the stuff, said Busk. First come, first served?
The town doesn’t have to make those decisions, Warman said. The AGLC does, same as with booze, through its licensing process. That’s when he made his remarks, noted above, about letting the market decide.
At this, planning and development director Laurie Skrynyk said she understood the province had already set a limit on the number of cannabis dispensaries it would allow for the whole province.
“Entrepreneurs are looking for direction from us,” Warman reminded his colleagues.
One of the questions posed for council had to do with enforcement. Warman speculated that the smell of burning cannabis might spark complaints from neighbours.
“We don’t have a scent bylaw,” he said.
That sent councillor Busk off on a speculative journey, imagining somebody smoking a joint on his back deck and the neighbour complaining to the town about it.
“I don’t want our officers chasing down every….”
That was when councillor Shawn Gramlich spoke up for the first time.
“I think we’re overthinking some of this stuff,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get any more people smoking on their back deck than we did last summer.”
“Some of you people have no idea what you’re talking about!” exclaimed councillor Joy McGregor, apparently exasperated, but for reasons that weren’t exactly clear. She went on to suggest that her colleagues would benefit from some education from people who do know what they’re talking about.
Warman said he was willing to consider such an education session.
As for where smoking cannabis should be allowed and not allowed, Warman said, “For me, schools and parks are no brainers. As for other rules, he said, “I don’t think we should treat it much differently than liquor stores.”
Another question for council: ‘How should the town approach the use of cannabis during festivals and concerts?’
“Leave them be,” suggested councillor Gramlich. “See what the province says.”
“You could have an event that is strictly music and marijuana,” said McGregor.
Getting back to the initial question of whether the town wants to get into the business of regulating cannabis sale and use in public, council agreed the process should begin with a public survey. Skrynyk said she’d get right on it.
“We’ll come back with some questions,” she said.
Warman thanked his colleagues and town staff for their contributions, calling it “a good start.”

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