Hamilton says yes to legal retail cannabis stores after vote to opt out fails

The decision came after hours of debate Monday afternoon and following a failed motion by Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla to opt out of the retail option ended in a tie.

Council votes 10-6 in favour of allowing retail cannabis stores in Hamilton

Hamilton City Council will decide today whether or not to allow legal cannabis retail within the city limits. In this file photo a vendor displays marijuana for sale during the 4-20 annual marijuana celebration in Vancouver on Friday, April 20, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Hamilton will allow private cannabis retail stores inside city limits.

The decision came after hours of debate Monday afternoon and followed a failed attempt by Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla to have the city opt out of the retail option. His motion was defeated when the vote ended in a tie. 

A question from councillor Chad Collins seems to have played a role in turning the tide.

After Merulla's losing motion, the Ward 5 representative asked the City Clerk to clarify what a non-decision from Hamilton would mean. He was told that without a specific decision to opt out, the province considers the city to have opted in.

That answer got an audible reaction from councillors, with someone uttering "wow."

Then Ward 8 Coun. John-Paul Danko and Ward 10's Maria Pearson, who had previously voted in favour of Merulla's motion to opt out, spoke up in support of Mayor Fred Eisenberger's motion to permit retail stores in the city, swinging the vote to 10-6 in favour.

During the meeting, Eisenberger argued for allowing retail stores saying cannabis is a popular product people in Hamilton are already consuming — but with legal dispensaries they'll have the added benefit of knowing what they're using is safe.

He added it was his belief that opting in and working with other municipalities would give the city "much stronger leverage" when it comes to fighting for different regulations.

That position was at odds with the beliefs of some on council, including Merulla who said he wanted to band together with other municipalities that have opted out to lobby the provincial government for better terms.

"This is about a business deal that at present is not in the best interest of this city," he stated.

Council critics of opting in also raised worries about pot shops and their proximity to schools — an argument made in a letter to council from the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board which said the province's 150-metre limit between retail sites and schools could "negatively impact" them.

What's the rush?

Several councillors also said there was no reason for Hamilton to rush into offering legal stores because the city could always opt in at a later date.

"Once we're in, we're in," said Ward 11 Coun. Brenda Johnson, adding she wanted to wait and see if there would be any "horror stories" associated with the stores. 

"This is the one time I really don't want to be the ambitious city. I don't want to be the leader or the pioneer."

An economic opportunity

The question of cannabis as an economic opportunity also divided council.

In the first year of legalization, the province committed to giving the city $574,493 whether it hosted legal cannabis shops or not. But city staff estimated Hamilton will receive approximately $600,000 the following year by opting in.

Being a host city will 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.

If you want to make a difference you have to be on the inside.-Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark

Judi Partridge, representing Ward 15, said she believes the city was being "blinded by dollar signs" and voted against opting in.

"I'm not on for Hamilton to be a guinea pig as a municipality," she added.

Hamilton Police Deputy Chief Dan Kinsella was on hand to answer council questions and said whether the decision was made to opt in or out was irrelevant to the service's plans to continue having "zero tolerance" for illegal cannabis stores.

"Nothing has changed," he said in response to councillor questions about why 34 illegal stores are currently operating around the city. "My sense is people would like this to happen faster but we still have to go by the law."

The police will be presenting their budget Tuesday, but Kinsella said it will not include any direct funding for cannabis enforcement.

Meanwhile, supporters of offering retails stores echoed Eisenberger's arguments about gaining leverage by partnering with the province and ensuring the safety of cannabis consumers in Hamilton by offering a legal, regulated option.

Ward 3 Coun. Nrinder ​Nann said "public harm and public safety" were her two focuses in supporting the mayor's motion, along with the "economic uplift" cannabis will offer to workers in the city.

While Ward 9's Brad Clark said in his experience "standing on the outside with out arms crossed, raising our voices or thumping our chests" doesn't make a difference to any level of government. "If you want to make a difference you have to be on the inside."

Hopeful city can fight for changes

After the vote Eisenberger said he's hopeful opting in will mean Hamilton will have a voice when it comes to fighting for changes raised by some of his council colleagues.

"I think we're in a better position to do that with the folks that have opted in and saying we're going to partner with you province, but we still have issues we want to deal with," he explained. "Being contrary to the whole process when I think the majority of municipalities are likely to opt in anyway is just not helpful."

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

A staff report says Toronto and Ottawa have opted in, while staff in Guelph and London have recommended opting in. While Brampton, Lincoln, Mississauga, Markham, Pickering and Richmond Hill have said they won't be host cities.


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