OPINION BY ROBERT KOUMARELAS
It’s been three weeks since the Oakville Council voted 14-1 to opt out of allowing a cannabis retail store in town. The issue has been a much-debated topic since its announcement, with approximately two thirds of residents urging rejection of the federal government’s offer. But when looking at how the rest of Ontario voted, it seems clear that they made the wrong decision.
Though cannabis has become legalized, it is clear that the stigma of its recreational use remains. Councillors such as Natasha Lishchyna were concerned that with such stores in Oakville, it would increase the number of cannabis users, which is considered unlikely to happen, especially in the case of youths as those below the age of 19 are not even allowed inside such stores.
Some councillors also reasoned that a recreational cannabis store wouldn’t bring enough business to make the expenditures worth it, given Oakville’s small population compared to neighbouring cities in the GTA. But they fail to realize that their customer base would be from cities across the GTA that had decided to opt out before Oakville made its decision.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean Oakville residents will have to rely on online stores or the black market. Out of the 414 municipalities in Ontario, 337 have opted in, recognising the potential of recreational retail stores. This includes the cities of Toronto, Brampton and Hamilton.
Drew Redden, president of the Oakville Chamber of Commerce was among the few voices of the approximately 60 in attendance, that already saw the benefits of the cannabis market. He noted that the cannabis market potential across Canada could be over $7 billion.
“Some municipalities across Canada have seen significant new business investment in their communities. Provinces, such as New Brunswick, have embraced the sector as an economic development tool that is creating hundreds of new jobs. In many communities, local businesses are anticipating higher foot traffic because of cannabis stores, which will help revitalize economic centres and main streets. Additionally, it has been noted that communities can expect better public safety and public health outcomes by having legally regulated businesses serving cannabis consumers instead of the illegal market,” said Redden, as quoted on Inside Halton.
Fire & Flower, one of the largest independent cannabis retailers in Canada, also urged Oakville to opt in, offering to open a retail store. Representing the cannabis retail seller, Brent Bell said that Fire & Flower would abide by any conditions that the council requests, including not opening a store anywhere near school grounds. The company recently reached a milestone of $10 million in revenue and is continuing to grow.
However, Mayor Rob Burton and the rest of the councillors should be given credit for not closing the door on this completely, as they voted to look into the prospects of a store later in the year. “We are supporting a wait and watch approach at this time. Municipalities just don’t have enough input into cannabis retail stores when it comes to notice, location, zoning and licensing. We have asked staff to report back to us by December 2019 to reconsider our decision once more detailed information on cannabis retail stores becomes available.”
Hopefully with more information available from cities in the province that opted in, Mayor Burton and the rest of the council will realize the benefits will outweigh the suspected risks.
“No deal can get better until you say ‘no.’ So this is Oakville saying no,” said Mayor Burton.
Onlookers in the council chamber seemed mostly supportive of the council decision, even those opposed accepted the vote results, almost as if they expected it to happen, no matter how disappointed by it. Perhaps it was considered a wise decision by the council, but sometimes caution can lead to missing golden opportunities.