By Trevor Busch
Although the door is being left open for a potential cannabis retail business in Taber in a post-legal environment, town council is opting for a level of restriction that will not make the process a simple one for entrepreneurs and will prohibit any use of the substance outside a private residence.
Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act, creates a strict legal framework for controlling production, distribution, and possession of cannabis across Canada, and requires implementing regulations that will require action by provinces and municipalities. The Alberta Cannabis Framework has provided details and outlines what Albertans can expect when cannabis becomes legal in Alberta by mid-2018.
Administration formulated the Direction on Cannabis Report to outline the bylaws which it believes can be amended in order to assist with the regulation of cannabis in the community, including the Land-Use Bylaw, Business License Bylaw, and Community Standards Bylaw.
A low regulation approach would “let the cannabis legislation unroll and allow the provincial regulations and AGLC to be the regulatory framework with a few minor adjustments in local bylaws.” A medium regulation approach “is somewhere in between and would allow cannabis-related uses within the town but with moderately increased regulations in local bylaws”; while a high regulation approach would “implement more drastic changes to make it extremely difficult for any cannabis-related use to operate in town.”
Following discussion at their Jan. 22 regular meeting, council voted 5-1 to accept administration’s Direction on Cannabis Report as information, and directed administration to update the Land-Use Bylaw reflecting a high level of control; update the Business License Bylaw reflecting a medium level of control; and update the Community Standards Bylaw to reflect a medium level of control. Mayor Andrew Prokop opposed the motion, while Coun. Joe Strojwas was absent from the meeting.
“By going this way, we’re not necessarily saying no — no pot shop, or anything — but it comes to council for a final decision,” said Coun. Jack Brewin. “So if someone is really serious about it and wants to go through the steps — we’re definitely limiting it with licensing — you will have to be serious about it.”
Opting for a high regulation approach under the Land-Use Bylaw, this will only permit cannabis-related uses within a direct control district (subject to the exclusive approval of council) and in addition to Alberta government regulations, council will be able to add “additional conditions”, although it wasn’t outlined what those conditions might consist of.
“We did not place any of those uses in any of our land use districts, so the only way currently to have an approval for a cannabis use is through a direct control, which means it’s a decision of council,” said planning director Andrew Malcolm.
Municipalities will play an important role in enforcing local zoning bylaws, and matters related to business licensing and public consumption, to be enforced through municipal bylaws and local law enforcement.
“With what we’ve done with the Land-Use Bylaw, there were people coming in who were wishing to apply for a development permit for retail uses once cannabis was legal through the legislation change,” said CAO Cory Armfelt. “So we really needed to nip that in the bud, so to speak. That’s already in place, so really the intent at this point is to get us ready for the summer season, not knowing when this could become legalized, and knowing that we have families and playgrounds and the park spaces, and wanting to protect family values, and we’ve brought this before council for their consideration now.”
Coun. Garth Bekkering agreed with placing a high level of control under the Land-Use Bylaw subject to a direct control district approval by council.
“I believe that the direct control district option, on the high side, is the only way to go. I believe it’s such a contentious issue — and it’s very political, of course — that the politicians should decide.”
Selecting a medium regulation approach under the Business License Bylaw, this will increase regulations on the business license process, including requiring a unique or specific business license for cannabis-related businesses, and require police checks; and will also increase business license fees to $500 annually for cannabis retail sales, $1,000 annually for cannabis lounges (once legal), and $2,500 annually for production and distribution.
“These values that I’ve put in here are essentially examples, and they would be up to council to determine what the exact value of the business licenses were,” continued Malcolm. “The general gist of it is that in the low category, you have the standard business license process, regardless of whether you’re a shoe store or a cannabis store, you’d go through the same process and you’d pay the same fees. The medium approach would put on increased regulation, where they would probably have to do police checks for the employees that work in the store, and then there would be increased business license fees, so something like $500 instead of $100, in order to make a little bit more profit from it but also to put in a little bit more regulation to deter people that might just be kicking tires.”
According to administration, “the legalization of cannabis will likely have significant financial implications on the municipality.”
“In the business license requirements, on the medium side, we can set different fees,” said Coun. Louie Tams. “How do you think that would stand up to a challenge? Here’s the business license to sell shoes, to use your example. How do you think that would stand up to a challenge? Can we go out and set a different fee structure for that business license?”
Malcolm suggested implementing such a restriction wouldn’t be a problem.
“As far as I know, we do have different fees for different types of businesses, and I know other municipalities do as well.”
The medium regulation approach was also favoured for the Community Standards Bylaw (and potentially the Parks, Sidewalks and Boulevards Bylaw and the Smoking Bylaw) creating additional restrictions on public consumption of cannabis by prohibiting all public consumption outside of private residences and keep existing regulations for public tobacco smoking in place.
“Currently, the Alberta government’s framework outlines that Albertans will be able to consume cannabis in their homes and some public spaces where smoking tobacco is allowed, but will be banned in cars, and consuming cannabis will also be prohibited in hospital properties, school properties, or child care facility properties, and in or within a proscribed distance — five metres — from sports fields, playgrounds, skateboard parks, zoos, outdoor theaters, outdoor pools and parks,” said Malcolm.
Bekkering asked for clarification of whether the restrictions under the Community Standards Bylaw would restrict cannabis use to inside a residence, rather than a property owner’s lot.
“It would mirror the Gaming and Liquor provisions,” said Taber Police Service Chief Graham Abela. “Currently alcohol can be consumed in your yard. Cannabis could also be consumed in your yard.”
“Thank goodness,” replied Bekkering.
Bekkering went on to state his preference for postponing any decision on cannabis controls until the new legislation is actually in place.
“I understand Councillor Bekkering’s sentiments,” said Abela. “From my perspective, I’m concerned that if we don’t have some direction the laws — both provincially and federally — will be in front of us so quickly that your administration will not be in a position to catch up to provisions that may come. As a result, we may be behind the 8-ball. So that concerns me a little bit.”
Coun. Mark Garner advocated for the town to enforce the highest level of restriction on cannabis through all three bylaws.
“My personal feeling is we should act on this sooner than later, because the wheels of government — even our government — grind slowly sometimes. I think we need to act on this and get ahead of this, because I think there’s a tidal wave or a tsunami coming that we don’t even understand. I think it’s incumbent on us to protect our citizens, our children and youth here, from this, is my personal opinion. If it were me, I would go with every recommendation on the high side.”
Tams agreed with Bekkering, suggesting the decision should be put off by council until a later date.
“I happen to agree with Councillor Bekkering, because there’s so many unknowns coming down, I think we need to wait. I think we need to hear what the provincial and federal governments are going to do, because we’re going to make a decision and it will get overruled by the government. I think it’s a Catch-22. The federal government is going to legalize cannabis, and we’re going to have somebody apply to sell that jn this town — I might even open a cannabis store, I might look at it. I think we need to wait until we have some clarity from the federal government on what’s really coming our way.”
Brewin pointed out that in his view, it is incumbent upon council to provide some direction on its plans lest potential business operators be left guessing as to the town’s intentions.
“I agree with Mr. Garner, and of course the police chief, that I think we should have something in place, because come July 2 guys will be lighting up a joint in the park. If we don’t do something, we have people in town now that are thinking about opening a pot shop, or a smoke shop, to sell cannabis, and they’re planning on doing it when it becomes legal. So if they knew that the town wasn’t going to support it now it may change their plans in future as to what they’ll have to meet in order to open up a store in Taber. It’s just my thoughts — nobody may be planning to do it — but if they go through all the work of financing, buying a building, and all that stuff, and council says the day after legalization that nope, we won’t allow it — I think the public needs some idea of the direction that council is going with this.”
Garner requested the input of Abela on the restrictions being considered by town council, but was met with opposition by others on council who suggested this was tantamount to asking a member of the law enforcement community to set policy.
“I think it’s fair. Why is not fair? I think he deals with this every day, and he knows more about cannabis than I ever will. Why wouldn’t we go to somebody that’s an expert? I’m asking his opinion. I’m not saying set it. I want his opinion.”
Abela outlined some concerns regarding vaping and edibles, but steered clear of giving any personal opinions about the town’s level of restriction toward cannabis.
“The police have given their opinion, and we are not the lawmakers.
While expressing opposition to the idea of cannabis legalization itself, Tams suggested that council’s approach of a high-medium-medium level of restriction strikes a fair balance.
“I don’t like it one bit that we have a prime minister of the country that’s telling us what we can do and how we have to do it. But that’s just the country that we live in, that’s just the way it is. But I don’t think we need to be on the high side for everything. I think we need to be very careful where we allow cannabis retailer, I think we need to allow people to make up their own minds, and yet protect it in a public place. I think that allows individuals, but yet allows us to protect what’s important without legislating that you can’t do this, you can’t do that.”
Adopting a scolding air, Garner referenced the Town of Taber’s recent resolution in mid-November calling on the membership of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association to advocate for repealing the Cannabis Act. The resolution was heavily defeated by a margin of 76 to 24 per cent.
“I would also remind council that we were the ones — this community — that took the lead at AUMA and stood there before the whole province, pushing for this. And now when we come back here, we take our foot off the throttle? I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all.”