Will Cities Be Able to Opt Out of Legal Cannabis?

byMichael Warford6 minutes

Cannabis legalization is now only days away, but if you think that means you’ll soon be able to head down to your local legal cannabis store, then you may be in for a surprise. That’s because many municipalities, including in Metro Vancouver and the Greater Toronto Area, are moving to ban the retail sale of cannabis.

How is it possible for municipalities to ban what the federal government says is legal? The answer is complicated, but it largely boils down to the fact that the federal government has given each province a lot of leeway over how they regulate marijuana. In turn, each province has its own rules over how much regulatory oversight it passes on to municipalities.


Can Cities Ban Cannabis?

Strictly speaking, cities can’t ban cannabis outright. Beginning on Oct. 17, 2018, the Cannabis Act will make it legal for adults to possess up to 30 g of dried cannabis, or its equivalent, in public. This change applies across the entire country, and no province or municipality can pass a law that makes possession of cannabis illegal.

However, what cities can do is regulate the sale and public consumption of cannabis. In much of the country, municipalities get to decide on issues around building permits and zoning bylaws. So, in some provinces, municipalities are free to ban brick-and-mortar cannabis stores from their jurisdictions.

In many more municipalities, they can pass bylaws that essentially make it impossible for a cannabis stores to operate legally. People in those jurisdictions will still be able to buy marijuana, but they’ll have to do so online or somewhere else.


The State of Cannabis Stores by Province

Atlantic Canada

If you live in Atlantic Canada, you’re in luck as all four provinces have been well ahead of the rest of the country in terms of setting up brick-and-mortar marijuana shops.

If everything goes according to plan, on Oct. 17, the cannabis store tally will be:

  • Prince Edward Island: four
  • Nova Scotia: 12
  • New Brunswick: 20
  • Newfoundland and Labrador: 29

Municipalities in Atlantic Canada, many of which have long suffered from high unemployment, see cannabis as a job-creating opportunity. Because of this, there hasn’t been much talk from communities there about banning legal marijuana sales.


Alberta has also done a decent job of getting ready for legalization and will have 17 private marijuana stores up and running on Oct. 17. The provincial government also estimates that 250 marijuana stores will open within the year.


Quebec, meanwhile, has been experiencing delays getting its stores operating, but there hasn’t been much talk there around trying to ban cannabis sales outright.

The newly elected premier of Quebec, François Legault, has said he wants to introduce tougher regulations for cannabis, but he hasn’t indicated how he intends to do that beyond raising the minimum cannabis consumption age to 21.


Manitoba gave communities the opportunity to hold plebiscites on whether to allow cannabis sales. Eight communities will hold plebiscites on Oct. 24 and municipalities that haven’t held a plebiscite won’t be able to ban cannabis sales outright.

But they can still pass permit and zoning rules that make it extremely difficult for cannabis stores to open.


In Ontario, the legal situation is especially messy. Newly elected premier Doug Ford threw out the previous Liberal government’s plan to create a government-run, cannabis sales monopoly. Instead, he decided to open up cannabis sales to private retailers.

The government is giving municipalities until January to decide if they want to opt out of having cannabis stores in their area. But there are still a lot of questions to be answered such as, if a community opts out of legal cannabis stores, does that include online cannabis sales, too?


British Columbia

Although British Columbia (B.C.)—widely regarded as Canada’s cannabis capital—has the highest support for marijuana legalization in the country at 79%, it also has the most municipalities attempting to opt out of cannabis sales.

Recently, the city council in Richmond, which is already the largest city in the province to lack a marijuana dispensary, unanimously voted on a motion expressing its opposition to marijuana legalization. It asked the provincial government to give it more of a say over cannabis regulation. City councillors expressed fears of marijuana being a gateway drug and have vowed not to grant permits for any cannabis stores.

While Richmond has emerged as the most anti-cannabis city in B.C., it’s not the only municipality in the province that’s trying to ban cannabis sales, although in many cases these are temporary measures to give these communities more time to come up with regulations. Municipal elections in B.C. scheduled for Oct. 20 could also determine the future of these bans.


Even if you live in a B.C. town or city that has no ban against cannabis stores, you probably still won’t find a store near you on day one of legalization. Only one government-approved cannabis store will open in B.C. on Oct. 17, in Kamloops. While there are more than 100 applications for cannabis store permits, most of them are being held up by municipal red tape.

The Big Reason Why Some Places Are Hesitant About Legal Marijuana

There may be one main reason why cities aren’t so eager to sign up for legal cannabis: If a community opts in to legal cannabis, it can’t opt out later on. Once a community says yes to marijuana, it will have little control over how cannabis stores are regulated.

Municipalities even have an incentive to opt out of legal marijuana: By opting in, they give up some of their oversight powers to the province. The new law says that communities that opt in can’t pass zoning laws specifically targeting cannabis stores or license them the way they do taxi companies. Many communities are worried that by opting into the provincial law they’ll have no way of controlling cannabis stores.

In Ottawa, for example, which is currently in the midst of a municipal election campaign, most of the candidates are in favour of allowing cannabis stores in the city. However, some are saying they are open to opting out of legalization as a temporary measure.

Other Ontario municipalities, including Markham, Richmond Hill and Norfolk County, have already said they want to opt out. Others say they’ll wait until after municipal elections before deciding.

Regardless, the situation means that Ontario could be divided into a patchwork of “wet and dry” cannabis regions. Just one of the upcoming marijuana issues municipalities across the country are going to have to deal with.

Photo credit: Maximillian Conacher