Hamilton puts off decision to allow cannabis retail stores

Hamilton city council has voted to decide Jan. 14 whether to allow private cannabis retail stores in Hamilton. In the meantime, it'll ask what the public thinks.

The decision came after almost 9 hours of debate and discussion

Cannabis harvested at the CannTrust Niagara Greenhouse Facility in Fenwick, Ont., is photographed on June 26, 2018. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Hamilton city council is delaying a decision on whether to allow private cannabis retail stores in Hamilton to the new year. In the meantime, it'll ask what the public thinks.

Councillors voted 7-6 Tuesday to defer the decision until Jan 14. They have until Jan. 22 to tell the province whether Hamilton will opt in or out legal cannabis stores.

The decision to defer came after a nearly nine-hour general issues committee meeting Tuesday. Council still has to ratify the deferral Wednesday morning, when that narrow vote could flip again.

If the deferral happens, the city will host an online survey on its site to get people's opinions on allowing the shops.

So far, though, a slim majority seems ready to opt out. Their reasons include lack of control over where they're located, and what they say is insufficient provincial funding to pay for costs that come from being a host city.

In the first year of legalization, the province will give Hamilton $574,493 whether it hosts legal cannabis shops or not. It will give the same amount the following year if Hamilton is a host city. 

Being a host city would put Hamilton in line for other money too. The federal government will give the provinces half of any federal excise tax collected from the product over $120 million, and Ontario will give a portion to host cities.

Some of those voting no want a better deal from the higher levels of government.

Sam Merulla, Ward 4 (east end) councillor, says that's not enough. He wants Hamilton to get a bigger share of the revenue, and opting out will get the province's attention.

"You hold off, take a deep breath and call them to the table," Merulla said. "Both the feds and the province are going to say, 'Hamilton has the largest demand and they've opted out. We might want to listen to them.'"

About 30 illegal dispensaries

Those in favour say Hamilton is already paying costs associated to legalization, so it might as well opt in to an industry that will bring jobs and more commercial tax dollars.

"I'd rather be part of the cost-sharing relationship," said Coun. Brad Clark of Ward 9 (upper Stoney Creek).

City staff recommend allowing cannabis stores. So does the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. 

Hamilton already has a proliferation of illegal cannabis dispensaries. At one point this year, there were 85. Today, there are about 30. 

Britney Guerra told councillors she opened the first illegal dispensary in Hamilton, called The Medicine Cabinet. She also opened a Cannabis Culture store in the International Village, which earned as much as $85,000 a day. Guerra pleaded guilty to two criminal charges last year, and as a result, can't operate a dispensary now. 

Cannabis users want to obey the law

"It's already started," she said of cannabis demand in Hamilton. "It's already here. The money is being spent. Let's filter it through legally."

"Please make (cannabis users) everyday citizens who are contributing to society and not criminals, because we don't want to be."

Deputy Chief Dan Kinsella of Hamilton Police Service says illegal dispensaries won't go away right away. He'll compile a report for Jan. 14 around what policing dispensaries has cost until now, and what it might cost after April.

As a first phase, the province will hand out 25 cannabis retail store licences in early 2019. 

The staff report says Toronto and Ottawa have opted in, while staff in Guelph and London have recommended opting in. Burlington is still deciding too, while Brampton, Lincoln, Mississauga, Oakville, Markham, Pickering and Richmond Hill have said they won't be host cities.

How they voted

Who was in favour of opting in:

Maureen Wilson (Ward 1), Jason Farr (2), Brad Clark (9), Arlene VanderBeek (13), Terry Whitehead (14), Mayor Fred Eisenberger.

Who was opposed:

Sam Merulla (4), Chad Collins (5), Tom Jackson (6), Esther Pauls (7), John-Paul Danko (8), Maria Pearson (10), Lloyd Ferguson (12).

Absent: Nrinder Nann (3), Brenda Johnson (11), Judi Partridge (15).


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca


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