Opting in to pot sales

Next week Hamilton City Council will vote to opt in or out of legal cannabis sales in the city. So far it looks like councillors are set to make a mistake.

The reasons for opposing licensed cannabis retailing in Hamiton depend on the councillor. Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla thinks Hamilton should thumb its nose and hold out for a bigger cut of the revenues.

“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.'” CBC, Hamilton

No one should need to explain to Councillor Merulla the advantage of a bird in the hand. The good people of Hamilton will find their own means to obtain cannabis. By refusing licensed retail establishments, Hamilton relinquishes what could be substantial revenue — 50 percent of provincial revenues from legal cannabis sales go to municipalities that have opted into the retail program — but retains the higher cost of policing an illegal market. Police say it requires 130 hours to shut down a dispensary in Hamilton.

Additionally, as the online system improves and gains trust, and as Hamiltonians find ways to supply cannabis without a local option, the incentive for the province to negotiate a better revenue-sharing agreement declines.  In short, Hamilton bears the cost of enforcing an illegal market without a share in the revenues that flow from our residents’ contribution to sales. How does that make sense?

Other councillors express concern about building distances and setbacks, in particular to schools. The provincial law mandates 150 metres. Ward 6 Councillor Tom Jackson, for example, wants to double that, calling the 150-metre rule “ridiculous“. This is a valid concern. But, again, how is no control better than some control? The Hamilton market is big. According to Britney Guerra, a dispensary owner delegating to council, her store earned $85,000 in a day. There is substantial demand for what is now a legal product and it isn’t going away. The New York Times, in a report on a Hamilton pop-up cannabis market, reports that by next year “Market analysts expect the industry to reach $5 billion (6.5 billion Canadian dollars).”

By restricting legal access to a legal product, councillors would instead promote the atmosphere described as a “Wild West” for cannabis retail in Hamilton. If a 150-metre setback is insufficient how is the current lack of any regulation a better alternative?

” … nowhere in Ontario is the black market scene more booming and brazen than in Hamilton.” Lift&co

Councillors need to get over themselves. Their neighbours (and possibly they themselves) have been getting high forever. Whether we’re combatting ailments or getting a buzz, it is happening. The National Cannabis Survey, third quarter 2018 reports that in the previous three months 4.6 million, or 16 percent of Canadians, used cannabis. That number represents 88,000 Hamiltonians and they’re not all newbies.

Cannabis was made legal in October, but Canadians have been treating it as though it were a legal product for much longer. The sky has not fallen. Hamilton Police Services reported one driver charged with impairment by cannabis during the annual RIDE program.

HPS tweet

Councillors should accept that cannabis is now a legal product. They should navigate the waters with provincial support and shared revenues instead of opting out and going it alone. It makes no sense to continue using scarce tax dollars to criminalize otherwise productive members of society for obtaining what they’re legally permitted to consume.

Hamilton is a member of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, an umbrella group that lobbies senior levels of government. By working with other municipalities that have opted in, Hamilton is better placed to negotiate improved revenue sharing and greater controls over zoning and locations of licensed cannabis retail stores.

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