On Jan. 22, we got a step closer to knowing where cannabis stores will—and won’t—be located in Ontario. This is because Jan. 22 was the deadline for municipalities in Canada’s most populous province to decide whether they wanted to opt in or out of allowing marijuana retail stores in their communities.
The good news is that the vast majority of Ontario municipalities voted to allow cannabis stores. The bad news is that the handful that opted out included some very big towns and cities.
Let’s take a look at how Ontario’s municipalities decided and what the results mean for cannabis sales in the province moving forward.
Which Ontario Municipalities Opted In or Out of Cannabis Stores?
Out of the 414 municipalities in Ontario eligible to opt in or out of legal cannabis stores, 337 opted in, amounting to over 81% of the total. These municipalities include most of Ontario’s major population centres, such as:
The decision to opt in is permanent, meaning they can’t opt out later on.
On the other hand, 77 municipalities opted out of allowing legal marijuana stores. While many of these municipalities are located in conservative rural regions, a number of them are suburban districts of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). The biggest surprise was Mississauga—Ontario’s third-largest city—which was one of the first municipalities in the GTA to opt out.
Mississauga’s decision led other municipalities in the GTA, including Markham and Vaughan (Ontario’s seventh and eighth largest cities, respectively) to also opt out.
Other notable towns and cities that opted out of having marijuana stores include:
- Richmond Hill
Residents of opt-out municipalities can still purchase cannabis legally online and, unlike opt-in communities, they can also change their decision later on.
Opt-Out Communities Say No to More Than Just Cannabis Stores
The decision of these 77 communities to opt out came in for criticism from pundits and experts on both sides of the political aisle. Liberals tended to see opting out as an unfair restriction on Ontarians’ right to access cannabis. Meanwhile, many conservatives decried opting out as restricting businesses.
Opt-out communities are also giving up more than just cannabis stores. The province set up a Cannabis Legalization Implementation Fund of $40 million. These funds are set to be divided between municipalities to help cover the costs of extra policing and education campaigns arising from marijuana legalization. While opt-out communities will still get some of that money, the majority of it will go to communities that have opted in.
Additionally, opt-out municipalities will miss out on a big share of tax revenue from cannabis sales. The province has decided that any amount of its share of the federal excise tax on cannabis that exceeds $100 million within the first two years will be distributed to municipalities. The catch is that this tax revenue will only be given to municipalities that opt in to allowing cannabis stores.
Did Outdated Notions About Marijuana Lead to Opt-Out Votes?
It’s tempting to see the municipalities that opted out as simply clinging to outdated “reefer madness” attitudes towards cannabis. The truth, however, is more nuanced than that. While many opt-out communities voted no to cannabis stores, because of a perceived stigma attached to the plant, others opted out as a protest against the way Premier Doug Ford and the ruling Progressive Conservatives have handled cannabis regulation.
The biggest point of disagreement between municipalities and the provincial government is that once a municipality opts in, it relinquishes all control over where cannabis stores can be located in their communities. They also don’t get a say in how many cannabis store licences can be granted there.
Instead, the decision over the number and location of marijuana stores rests entirely with the provincial Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). While the AGCO can consider the concerns of the local community when granting retail licences, it’s ultimately up to the AGCO—and not the community—to decide whether to grant licences. Most other provinces have given municipalities far more say over where there can be cannabis stores.
That lack of control gave municipalities an incentive to say no to cannabis stores temporarily. Even municipalities that are overwhelmingly in favour of marijuana legalization pondered opting out, because they opposed the provincial government’s approach to regulation. Ottawa, for example, discussed opting out temporarily in protest of provincial regulations before voting to opt in.
When Toronto City Council voted to opt in, it also unanimously passed a motion expressing its displeasure about the lack of control it was being given over cannabis retail licenses. Toronto Mayor John Tory said he was unhappy with this lack of control, but decided to support opting in as a way to discourage organized crime. He also hoped it would ensure the city received access to provincial funds and tax revenue linked to cannabis.
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Why Many Opt-Out Communities Could Soon Opt In to Cannabis Stores
Among the municipalities that opted out, some of the biggest ones admitted that their decision was driven at least partly by these concerns over provincial regulations. Mississauga and Oakville, for example, have both indicated they will reconsider their votes in the future.
Disputes over regulation aside, the fact is that even in opt-out communities, support for allowing cannabis stores is strong. In Mississauga, for example, 68% of residents said they thought the city should allow legal cannabis stores.
With support like this, it’s hard to believe that residents of opt-out communities will be content with losing out on cannabis access—and the tax dollars that come with it—for too long.
Photo credit: Get Budding