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A year ago, the marijuana boss for the city of Denver laid out for Ontario municipalities just how deep an impact the legalization of the drug could have on their cities and towns.
She should know. Recreational pot use was legalized in Colorado in 2014.
Youth programs, zoning near schools and day cares, odour control, electricity usage, licensing, inspection, policing, public health — the long list of things to think about took Ashley Kilroy, the executive director of marijuana policy, about 45 minutes just to outline to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) at its annual conference last August.
“It’s been a lot of work. It’s been a challenge,” Kilroy said.
A year later, and that much closer to the federal government’s planned legalization of pot for recreational use, the challenges in Ontario loom that much closer, the questions even more pressing:
— What will the impact on Ontario municipalities be?
— Will they be ready?
— Who’s going to pay for all the extra work that has to be done?
“Like I like to say, we’re the Rodney Dangerfields of government, we get no respect,” Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said.
“We weren’t consulted and now we have to make it work. We’re in the basement dealing with the practical realities.”
Bradley is one of a handful of mayors, including Toronto’s John Tory, going public with concerns about the impact and costs of the marijuana legislation.
If the federal Liberals stick to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s election vow, recreational pot use will be legal come July 1 next year.
In a July 17 letter to Premier Kathleen Wynne, Tory expressed “significant concerns” about the distribution and regulation of marijuana sales.
“I am also certain that a big part of the enforcement of these regulations will be on the shoulders of municipalities whether through licensing, zoning by-law enforcement or municipal policing” Tory wrote.
Those shoulders need some muscle, in the form of money from the province, Tory suggested.
Spurred by Bradley, Lambton County council recently voted to ask the province for a share of tax revenue from marijuana sales to deal with the impact of the legislation.
Despite some major differences between how Denver and Ontario municipalities operate, that city’s annual report on marijuana sales and Kilroy’s remarks outline many of the impacts on civic operations, public health and policing from legalizing marijuana.
Denver’s marijuana office — staffed by five — works with 13 agencies and departments each day to handle all the different ways the drug affects operations, Kilroy said.
Over two years, the city has hired 55 people to handle the work and has asked for another nine, Kilroy said.
All of the city’s marijuana-related revenue from taxes and licensing, about $12 million to $14 million a year, goes into regulation, education, enforcement and public health.
Marijuana has had an impact on almost every city department. A few examples:
— Planning: Deciding where can dispensaries go (1,000 feet from schools, rehabilitation centres and other dispensaries, and only after public hearings).
— Fire department: Ensuring grow and extraction operations are safe from fire and other hazards
— Police: Enforcing compliance with the rules, handling potential increased crime, such as impaired-driving charges
— City attorneys office: Creating and updating policies
— Parks and recreation: Dealing with complaints about people smoking in public spaces
— Technical services: Maintaining a data base on licenses, dispensaries, and health and social impacts.
— Children’s services and public health: Education, especially to protect youth.
“It has been definitely labour-intensive,” Kilroy said.
Ontario municipalities know a lot of work is coming their way.
“Whenever there is major legislation, there is a trickle-down effect. It always ends on the lap of municipal government,” said AMO president Lynn Dollin, deputy mayor of the town of Innisfil.
“We need first of all for them (the province) to listen to us, so we don’t end up with unintended consequences. As far as sitting down with the provincial government, we’ve just started that process. I don’t think there is a lot of time, but we can learn from other municipalities,” Dollin said.
Sarnia’s mayor doesn’t have a lot of confidence in AMO getting things done on time.
“I’m not a big fan of the AMO doing anything. They are like the Titanic, they are hard to turn around,” Bradley said.
“We are going to struggle to deal with all the issues in the time frame.”
He hopes Lambton and Toronto’s call for answers on revenue-sharing and regulations will spread across Ontario and spur its government to action.
The debate over how to push things along is just surfacing in London.
In an interview, Mayor Matt Brown said he’d prefer municipalities approach the province as one, and plans to raise the issue again at the Mayors of Southwestern Ontario meeting at this year’s AMO conference.
“It is important we develop a single voice and something be established that is provincewide,” Brown said.
He pointed to the patchwork of pesticide and smoking bylaws that once dotted Ontario before provincewide rules were established.
But two London council members, Jared Zaifman and Jesse Helmer, want city staff to begin working on zoning rules and consultations with police and the health unit now in order to be ready for legislation next summer.
If there’s one thing everyone at the municipal level agrees on, it’s that they’re going to need more money.
“In terms of impact, I think it is entirely reasonable for all of us to expect some sort of revenue-sharing plan to cover the costs,” Brown said.
Municipalities can be forgiven for being wary of getting all the dollars needed to do their jobs, Joseph Lyons, director of local government at Western University, said.
The downloading onto municipalities of provincial services under former premier Mike Harris left a hangover that remains, despite efforts since to ease the strain. But municipalities still get left out of the conversations that matter most to them, Lyons said.
“With a lot of these things, municipalities feel like they’re not being consulted. They feel ignored.”
At the same time, “they have a lot of work to do to get things in place. It’s a pretty tight deadline. Municipalities will be scrambling if that deadline is to be met,” Lyons said.
Hardy anyone knows what to expect.
“There are a lot of unknowns right now. There could be a huge amount of work put on us,” London police deputy chief Daryl Longworth said.
He can already foresee needing more drug recognition experts, police officers trained to recognize signs of non-alcohol drug impairment and often being required to testify in court.
But it’s not clear what the impact will be on frontline staff levels, Longworth said.
In Denver, police enforce the regulations. But how far does that go? Longworth wonders.
Will police be expected to take on the onerous task of checking every backyard for the correct number of plants allowed by legislation?
That seems unlikely, but police forces will expect more funding to enforce the legislation, Longworth said.
But he’s quick to turn the conversation to the need for funding for education and other measures to protect youth.
Take a look at how illegal storefront pot stores are marketing marijuana products, Longworth said.
It’s gummy bears and lollipops.
“Obviously, it is geared toward the youth market.”
The science has shown that early and frequent use of marijuana can delay development and change the brain, said Vaughan Dowie, chief executive officer of the Pine River Institute, an addiction treatment facility in Toronto.
“Governments will be making money. Some of that money needs to be invested in aggressive and sustained public education.”
Cannabis is the No. 1 drug identified by youths at the facility, and they think it’s relatively harmless, Dowie said.
What happens when marijuana becomes more pervasive?
“How do we counter-attack that to make sure kids understand there is some risk in this?” he asked.
More money also has go into treatment, Dowie said.
There already are 200 children and families on a year-and-a-half waiting list for treatment of addiction at Pine River, he said.
Pam Hill, director of clinical services for Thames Valley Addiction Services, agreed.
“Inevitably there will be a portion of the community whose use becomes problematic or addictive and creates similar impacts as alcohol and other substances that people use, often with the intent of being recreational,” she said.
But if the funding follows the same path as proceeds from gambling, it may not be enough for local agencies, Hill said.
The government directs two per cent of gross revenue from slot machines to fund problem-gambling services.
But that’s a small portion of overall gambling activities, Hill said, and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has pushed for one per cent from all gambling revenues in Ontario to cover the costs of education, prevention and addiction to gambling.
Sarnia’s Bradley can remember leading the negotiations for the municipal share of slot machines when Ontario moved into gambling.
“It took us a year-and-a-half to get the five per cent. The province’s original position was zero.”
As usual, the money from marijuana may become the stickiest point.
There’s general agreement municipalities have to get some, but how much and in what form, are still uncertain.
Municipalities would likely prefer annual grants without any strings, Lyons said.
But that leads to the temptation to use the money for purposes other than marijuana-related efforts, he said.
“That blurs the line of accountability.”
Municipal leaders argue they know their communities the best, and need to be flexible in how they spend dollars.
“Municipal levels of government are the most nimble of any level of government,” Dillon said.
Taxpayers let municipal politicians know when they don’t like how they’re spending money, Bradley said.
“If using money improperly, the public is going to call us out on that.”
How much money legal pot will bring to Canada, the provinces and municipalities remains unknown, but it’s estimated tax revenues could reach $5 billion a year.
With all the challenges legal marijuana brings, Pine River’s Dowie knows exactly what to expect.
“Everybody will have their hand out in some form or another.”
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