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Toronto council has voted to allow private marijuana retailers in the city and will urge the Ontario government to let the municipality set its own restrictions on where cannabis is sold.

The strong majority backing at council’s meeting on Thursday came despite calls from some councillors for the city to follow the lead of Mississauga and Markham and not allow legal street-front pot retailers.

Mayor John Tory argued that doing so would leave the marijuana market in the hands of organized crime. Some councillors had urged the city to defer its decision on marijuana shops and try to get better terms from the province, but Mr. Tory said Ontario’s rules leave few options.

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“I don’t think that the right approach is for us to sort of say that we have some bargaining position,” he said.

“With this government, I’m just not sure that that is a valid argument to make. And I think the risks of that in any event are outweighed by the risks of going back to the Wild West and having dispensaries open willy-nilly all over the city, illegally, and us trying to enforce the law."

Late on Thursday, the province announced it will phase in private cannabis retailing, with the first 25 stores allowed to open on April 1. Licence applications will be chosen by lottery.

In its debate, which finished shortly before the provincial announcement, council voted 20-4 to allow marijuana retailers. And by a unanimous vote, the council agreed with Mr. Tory’s motion asking the province to provide Toronto with regulatory powers over the location of these stores.

A motion calling for the province to consider restricting marijuana sales within 500 metres of schools, religious centres, recreation facilities and community centres failed on a 12-12 tie vote.

Discussions of the cannabis issue were split into two parts on Thursday, interrupted by a scheduled debate on whether to engage in talks with the province about the possibility of the Ontario government taking over the subway system. A majority agreed to do so, but also affirmed their support for keeping transit city-owned.

“How do you put a price on the heart and spine of the city,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam asked. “This is actually the hill to die on.”

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A number of councillors acknowledged they have little power against Queen’s Park. But many argued it would be too big a risk to stand aside as the province pursued its desire to take over the city’s subways.

The Ontario government has promised legislation or regulation early next year that would allow Queen’s Park to assume ownership of Toronto’s subway network. In the meantime, even simple aspects of the idea remain murky.

Council agreed to give city manager Chris Murray the authority to engage with the province to clarify its intentions.

During this debate, councillor Jim Karygiannis tried to rally support for extending the Sheppard Avenue subway line, arguing that people in his part of the city’s northeast are treated as second-class citizens. His motion was defeated by a large majority on council.

Mr. Karygiannis was also out-voted in his bid to exempt his ward from having cannabis retailers.

During this debate, several Toronto councillors suggested Toronto should opt out for now, so it can demand a say in where pot shops are located, their opening hours, or how many a given neighbourhood can have.

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However, city bureaucrats said a Jan. 22 deadline to opt in or out was firm under Queen’s Park’s rules – and council has no more scheduled meetings until after that date.

Opting out, staff warned, would mean foregoing future revenue from the province meant to help with the added costs of police and bylaw enforcement related to cannabis – even if Toronto were to opt in later.

The city has already received $3-million, Tracey Cook, head of Toronto’s municipal licensing and standards department, told councillors. She said her staff is in talks with the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) on the new regulatory regime.

In addition to a requirement to be 150 metres away from schools, AGCO can refuse pot-retail licences for other “public safety” reasons, and municipalities and neighbours will have an opportunity to have input before it makes decisions, she said.

Ms. Cook’s department and police have raided and charged scores of illegal pot retailers, beginning with a wave of enforcement two years ago. While numbering well over 100 at one point, she said at last count just 14 illegal retailers were still open in the city.

But she warned that with neighbouring municipalities not allowing legal stores, Toronto could see more pot retailers looking to set up shop.

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