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Part of cannabis laws and regulations

Anyone wanting a drink in Cardston has to leave Canada’s first Mormon settlement and drive 45 minutes north to Lethbridge or 20 minutes south to the duty-free shop on the other side of Alberta’s border with Montana.

The town has been "dry" since 1905 and, even though prohibition of alcohol is a distant memory for most of the rest of the country, an overwhelming majority of the community's 3,500 citizens voted in a 2014 plebiscite to keep the ban on booze sales. Now, however, politicians in Cardston, as well as their counterparts in other reluctant municipalities across Canada, are contending with how, or even if, they want to let cannabis shops in.

"We are a very small community, it’s a community that is essentially faith-based and it’s a community that has a certain way of handling things," Mayor Maggie Kronen says. "Essentially, we are law-abiding people so there is a law that is a federal law that we will absolutely follow and we will do our best through land-use regulation to be able to deal with the issue."

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Three years ago, long before legalization, Vancouver and Victoria began to accommodate the storefront sale of cannabis by regulating dozens of entrepreneurs who had already opened illicit dispensaries.

But a patchwork of communities, including those from cannabis-friendly B.C. to the more conservative parts of Ontario, are doing their best to stem the tide of legalization by banning the coming sale of cannabis or severely restricting it within their boundaries − either through large buffer zones between these stores and areas used by children or by introducing prohibitively expensive licensing fees.

Legal experts say these municipalities can outlaw the sale of the drug and strictly regulate its consumption in public spaces without infringing upon the constitutional rights of their citizens.

But they also warn that if the prohibition era of alcohol holds any lessons, allowing for easier access to regulated forms of the drug might ultimately improve public health and safety.

In Alberta, the province's new cannabis rules do not force communities to accept bricks-and-mortar stores or change their bylaws, but cities cannot stop their citizens from legally purchasing the drug through the government's online sales portal.

Jeff Shaw, Cardston’s chief administrative officer, said the town has decided not to officially ban the sales completely. Instead, it is planning to adapt its bylaws to allow for the sale of the drug, even if the chances are slim to none that anyone would apply for a business licence.

Residents of the five-square-kilometre town will meet next week to weigh in on a proposal to keep cannabis businesses at least 300 metres away from all schools, parks, playgrounds and recreation facilities, as well as the oldest Mormon temple built outside of the United States.

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These distances − which Mr. Shaw said were as far as they could go “without seeming obscene” − would leave just several slivers around the edge of town for aspiring dispensary owners, which suits the municipality just fine.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to apply anyway because you have a community where the percentage of potential customers is really low,” contends Mr. Shaw, who says his adherence to the Mormon faith has stopped him from ever trying marijuana.

In B.C., everyone who wants to open a store selling cannabis must get approval from their local government before securing a coveted licence from the province. No green light from city hall will mean no licence from the province.

Malcolm Brodie, who has been the mayor of Richmond, B.C., for the past 17 years, says his council has no plans to allow shops once the drug is legalized because of fierce opposition from his community.

“Part of it is a reaction to what has happened in Vancouver, where they have decided with the medicinal marijuana dispensaries they weren’t going to enforce the rules against them and would just allow them to proliferate,” said Mr. Brodie. He noted there’s nothing stopping residents of his city from making a short drive north to buy cannabis in person.

Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie poses for a photograph in front of a satellite image of the city.

DARRYL DYCK

Still, Mr. Brodie said legalization will cost his community because it will force municipalities such as his to regulate many other activities. “Everything from enforcing the smoking of marijuana where it’s not permitted to age requirements for possession to the number of plants you can have in your house – all those sorts of things.”

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Richmond, as with other municipalities in B.C., is hoping for a slice of the provincial cannabis tax revenue.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has announced that his government is pivoting from provincially owned stores to private outlets and he pledged that municipalities would have “the ultimate say in whether you want physical cannabis retail stores.”

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said he would push to opt out of allowing such retailers in his city if he is re-elected this October to a fourth term.

He argued that there are still many unknown costs for cities, especially if Ontario has only committed to giving out $40-million in funding over the next three years – which he estimates would amount to $250,000 for Oakville. The province is still deciding on whether communities such as his that oppose storefront sales should receive this funding, he said.

Oakville Mayor Rob Burton said he would push to opt out of allowing cannabis storefronts in his city. Here, he is seen by a Second Cup location; the coffee chain is exploring the possibility of converting some of its shops into cannabis stores.

Fred Lum

“A year from now, we’re going to be wrestling with the additional wrinkle of so-called edible products,” he said. “There’s a big social experiment going on and everybody who wants to be a guinea pig can be free to participate.”

He said parents in his “family raising town” have also told him loud and clear that they believe legal cannabis outlets will lead to more of their sons and daughters using the drug.

But M.J. Milloy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the evidence doesn’t support this claim and suggested municipal efforts to keep pot shops out will backfire.

“Canada − including those lovely places like Oakville and Richmond − currently has the highest rates of youths using cannabis [in the G7],” Dr. Milloy said. “Where is youth use coming from? It’s through youths accessing cannabis through the illicit market.

“Therefore, one assumes that people who want to reduce this phenomenon would support the idea of getting rid of the illicit marketplace through legalization.”

Dan Malleck, an expert on drug and alcohol regulation and prohibition from Brock University, expects the federal and provincial governments to iron out various legalization loopholes in the next several years to allay the panic and concern held by many people, much like what happened after alcohol was made legal again.

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