Ottawa school boards to weigh in on pot shop locations — somehow

Making the Ontario Cannabis Store consult with school boards on locations for marijuana stores might sound reasonable. Only one problem: some school boards have no idea what "consultation" means.

Additional layer of consultation raises questions of whether stores open in time

Ontario Cannabis Stores must now consult with school boards before finalizing locations for retail outlets. (CBC)

When the first four cannabis store locations for Ontario were announced earlier this month, the single Toronto site caused a ruckus because it was walking distance from an elementary school, ensconced in a strip mall that houses a McDonald's and Tim Hortons the students frequent at lunch time.

Both the Toronto School Board and Premier Kathleen Wynne appeared caught off guard by the store's proximity to the school, about 450 metres away. Wynne subsequently ordered school boards be consulted before any more locations are announced.

That might sound reasonable, but there's only one problem: some Ottawa school boards have no idea what "consultation" means.

"We're really not sure," said Brett Reynolds, associate director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, when asked how the board would proceed.

He said media reports that the premier called for school boards to be consulted on marijuana retail locations was the first the board heard of the issue. It hasn't been officially contacted by Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS), the LCBO-run organization in charge of selling marijuana in Ontario once the federal government legalizes it. 
Recreational marijuana is expected to be legalized in late summer. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Reynolds said the OCS might be looking for "assistance in speaking with our community, perhaps they are just going to ask our board for an opinion. I don't know, they haven't contacted us yet to discuss what that consultation might look like."

The Ottawa Catholic School Board also hasn't heard from the province, but wrote in a statement to CBC that the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Association has "reached out to provincial legislators on matters related to the location of stores." 

In a 2017 submission to the province, the association has asked cannabis stores be at least three kilometres from schools.

Are pot shops on schedule?

Depending on what form the consultation from school boards takes, the extra layer of discussion could add more time to an already-lengthy process, where provincial officials are searching for available leases in appropriate locations in municipalities across the city.

The federal laws legalizing recreational marijuana use are expected to be in force by late summer. The province has committed to opening 40 stores in 14 municipalities — including Ottawa — by the time pot is legal.

So far, only four have been announced. The OSC is receiving feedback from the public on those choices, as well has having to consult the school boards.

And it seems there's a possibility that a prospective location could be changed once it's been announced. In an emailed statement, the OCS wrote: "We will ensure we have considered local considerations before finalizing store locations."
Could this store logo be coming to a neighbourhood near you? OCS says it's on track to open stores in time for pot legalization. (LCBO)

Mayor Jim Watson said he was told "there was going to be some announcement a couple of weeks ago, and it never came to fruition. I don't know what happened. They assured us that they would give us a head's up at least by a day, but I haven't gotten any word on that."

The OCS says it's "committed to preparing for the proposed federal deadline for legalization."

No formal outcry from parents — yet

The school boards and the mayor say they are not aware of any formal communications from parents about possible locations of marijuana retailers. 
Mayor Jim Watson says he heard there was supposed to be an announcement for Ottawa a couple weeks ago, but so far there's been none. (CBC News)

"I haven't gotten any mail on it," said Watson. "But certainly when I've run into parents and this issue has come up, they don't want it anywhere near schools where their kids are going, and I respect that."

General concerns about the stores being close to schools range from kids being tempted to go into the stores, or possible smoking outside the premises. The stores will be checking identification in a marijuana-free reception area in the stores, and the province has made it illegal to smoke or vape marijuana in any public area.

It is very possible that parents will be more vocal once a specific site is announced.

"When people have a better understanding of what the impact for them and their family and their children and their community will be, then certainly we do tend to see a greater degree of engagement," said Reynolds.

OCDSB to host open house on cannabis

The OCS says it takes proximity to a school into consideration when deciding where to put a new cannabis store. But nowhere does OCS specify how close is too close.

Consider that there are no official regulations where LCBO retail locations are located, although there are restrictions on how close liquor advertising can be to schools. But the stores themselves? The LCBO voluntarily tries to locate its outlets at least 200 metres from schools.

Although the boards aren't yet involved in the consultations, the subject is likely to come up at an information session on cannabis use for parents.

The OCDSB will host the first of two public information sessions with Ottawa Public Health on Thursday at Gloucester High School, starting at 6:30 p.m.