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Some Ontario municipalities push back against retail cannabis stores

Marijuana plants grow at LifeLine Labs in Cottage Grove, Minn., in a June 17, 2015, file photo.

Jim Mone/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Ontario government says it will delay opening branches of its new cannabis retail chain in municipalities that object to having them.

A handful of mayors in the Greater Toronto Area have said they do not want a marijuana store in their areas, even though they recognize they are powerless to stop Queen's Park.

Among them is Dave Barrow of Richmond Hill. His town council has received a deluge of complaints from residents about the province's plan to open one of the provincially controlled stores in the suburb north of Toronto, and is expected to vote No to it on Monday.

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"We have taken a stance of: We are not a willing host," Mr. Barrow said in an interview. " … I don't know that we are going to get anywhere. But we had thousands [of people saying] we don't want it in our community, we don't want it near our schools, we don't want it here and why do we have to have it?"

A spokeswoman for Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa said on Wednesday that the government would not force municipalities to accept stores in the first wave of 40 outlets the province aims to open by July, 2018, when Ottawa legalizes marijuana.

"If a municipality is not prepared to locate a store, the province will defer locating in that municipality," Jessica Martin, Mr. Sousa's press secretary, said in an e-mail. "As we roll-out the next phase of stores, we will continue to engage with municipalities on an ongoing basis, including with those municipalities who may not be ready for a store opening in July, 2018. Ultimately, our goal through a controlled model is to ensure a safe and sensible framework for cannabis legalization."

The e-mailed statement says "municipal engagement is a priority" but does not appear to say municipalities would have anything like a veto over the plan to open 150 stores by 2020.

Richmond Hill received formal notice that the new LCBO-controlled cannabis retail agency had its eye on sites in its jurisdiction in a letter dated Nov. 28. Several municipalities have also been notified.

Earlier this week, Mr. Barrow and the town's councillors in committee-of-the-whole voted unanimously to tell the province Richmond Hill is not interested. Council will vote officially next week.

Mr. Barrow said he expects a store will eventually open despite his town's objections. He hoped to delay it until 2019 or 2020 – when some of the unanswered questions around the legalization may have been answered.

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Officials from the nearby city of Vaughan have already met with provincial officials about their concerns over plans for a site there.

Markham's mayor said his city has also received a notice from Queen's Park. But Mayor Frank Scarpitti said that, if he had his way, his community would have no marijuana store at all.

"We've sort of kept them at bay for now," Mr. Scarpitti said. "I certainly conveyed to them that Markham didn't want to be the first. … We've got a lot of questions about how it's going to work."

Last month, the province unveiled the first 14 municipalities where it planned to put cannabis retail outlets: Barrie, Brampton, Hamilton, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Mississauga, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Toronto, Vaughan and Windsor.

Both the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and Toronto Mayor John Tory, whose city is not a member, have repeatedly demanded a share of cannabis revenues to cover higher policing costs, a concern echoed by Mr. Scarpitti and Mr. Barrow.

A report by Richmond Hill officials also says municipalities will be left dealing with mundane disputes such neighbours' complaints about pot smoke wafting over fences or within apartment buildings, causing "staff pressures."

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The federal government is targeting 16-to-24-year-olds with ads warning against driving under the influence of marijuana. Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale points to studies showing the message hasn’t gotten across to young people. The Canadian Press
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