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Public health unit recommends opting out of cannabis sales

by Patrick Raftis

DRAYTON - Wellington OPP officials are encouraging local councils to craft “enforceable” bylaws to deal with legalized marijuana and public health officials are urging municipalities to just say no on the question of allowing cannabis stores in their communities.

About 50 people attended an information meeting at the PMD arena on Nov. 22 to hear speakers from the OPP and public health discuss potential impacts of marijuana legalization and provide input for Mapleton council on local cannabis sales.

“Council has a really difficult decision to make, but clearly they’re here, they’re interested and they’re very willing to hear what you have to say and hear your opinions about what to do,” said Mapleton CAO Manny Baron.

He pointed out Mapleton’s three returning councillors, Dennis Craven, Michael Martin and Marlene Ottens, were in attendance, along with councillor-elect Paul Douglas and mayor-elect Gregg Davidson.

Baron also advised the gathering of an apparent change of direction on provincial funding to municipalities for cannabis legalization costs.

Baron said municipal officials had been anticipating a $10,000 grant from the province for costs related to legalization, regardless of whether they opted in or out of allowing local sales.

“Just last night we got a memo from the Association of Municipalities of Ontario letting us know that if we opt out, we opt out of any future funding whatsoever,” said Baron.

He continued, “In this case, I’m not sure if that matters or not.

“You can’t bribe us with our own money first of all. I think it’s a shame the way they’ve done it, but they are the provincial government after all.”

Despite the potential loss of funding, Dr. Matthew Tanenbaum of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health said the agency is encouraging municipalities to opt out.

“If we had to offer a recommendation, our recommendation would be to opt out of allowing retail outlets for the time being, so we can wait until we have more information,” Tanenbaum stated.

“One thing we’re keeping in mind is if, as a municipality, you choose to opt in to allow retail cannabis outlets, a lot of the way that would roll out is out of your hands.”

Tanenbaum added, “We do hope municipalities choose to pursue rigorous bylaws around where people can consume it.”

Legalization “will have impacts on the health and social well-being of the people in this community for many years to come,” Tanenbaum told the gathering.

“It’s not a benign substance. It has a number of health effects; some of them are long-term, some of them are short-term. They can affect your lung health, your breathing. They can affect your memory, concentration; impacts affecting your brain and mental well-being.”

Groups most at risk of negative health impacts include people under 25 because “the effects of cannabis on a developing brain are more substantial,” as well as those with mental health issues, or family history of mental health problems and people who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.

In terms of health effects, Tanenbaum also pointed out because cannabis has been illegal until very recently, “there hasn’t been as much research on this as things like alcohol, tobacco and other substances.

“It is something we’re keeping an eye on. We know it’s an area we don’t know much about yet.”

While criminalizing cannabis can have negative impacts on people, such as the possibility of obtaining suspect drugs from unregulated sources, or people acquiring criminal records, “which affects their well-being and the well-being of their families,” Tanenbaum said lack of regulation leads to “higher levels of use, and higher levels of the harms that come along with those substances.”

The goal, he said, is to “try and find that sweet spot in the middle where it’s basically legalization, but with strict regulation to make sure we’re managing the health effects we want to avoid.”

While carefully controlled access can reduce potential harms, Tanenbaum suggested the province’s new legislation may not contain enough restrictions.

“We know that regulations are fairly lax about how you can open cannabis stores and where they can go,” he said, adding once a municipality chooses to allow retail sales, they “have no ability to restrict the number of outlets.”

In Denver, Colorado, he pointed out, the number of outlets rose quickly after marijuana was legalized in 2014 and the city now has 500 sales locations.

“That’s more than the number of McDonalds, more than the number of Starbucks,” he said.

“So if you were thinking this is going to be a slow rollout just making a gradual increase in the number of outlets … looking at other parts of the world, we might not expect that.”

Another area where the doctor suggested the new regulations are not particularly stringent is in the distance - 150 metres - cannabis stores must be located from schools.

“That might sound like a big number, but it’s really only a few minutes’ walk,” said Tanenbaum.

While the province has allowed smoking marijuana anywhere tobacco smoking is allowed, Tanenbaum stressed municipalities can go further.

“A municipality does have the option of creating more restrictive bylaws, as some municipalities have done … to decreases the number of places where you can use tobacco.”

He added, “This is a new frontier for Ontario, and for Canada, but we are trying to learn things as fast as we can.”

Wellington County OPP Inspector Scott Lawson and Staff Sergeant Bruce Aitken provided an outline of drug-related criminal activity and police measures to combat it locally.

Aitken noted that over the last 10 years Wellington OPP have dealt with 249,000 occurrences in county, with violent crime, property crime and drug occurrences accounting for about 11 per cent while actual drug occurrences represented only 1% of the total.

He pointed out controlled substances police have to deal with include drugs such as cocaine, heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl.

However, Lawson explained cannabis has traditionally factored in to the largest number of incidents.

“There’s a number of drugs we see and, prior to the legalization of cannabis on Oct. 17, we were still seeing the majority  of our concerns in our communities with respect to drugs being cannabis,” he stated.

With legalization, he said, that trend can only be expected to rise.

“We’re entering into a whole new world in terms of legalized cannabis,” he stated.

Lawson said that means a potential increase in everything from mental health issues to impaired driving cases. He added the OPP is well prepared to deal with the latter.

The county has two drug recognition experts to help with accidents or roadside stops where drug impairment is suspected. In addition, 60 of the detachment’s 147 uniformed officers are trained in standard field sobriety testing - “finger to your nose, walk the line sort of thing.”

While the only federally-approved non-invasive roadside saliva testing device is not currently available to the OPP, Lawson stressed, “We have the ability, and we’ve proven this, to detect and apprehend drug-impaired drivers. We did prior to October 17 and we certainly do after.”

Lawson said one of the goals of cannabis legalization is to cut down on related crime.

“We (police) all know, and this room should know, that the illegal market is pretty much controlled by organized crime,” Lawson stated.

While the aim of providing licensed outlets is to cut the criminal element out of the picture, Lawson said,  “We’re not sure how that’s going to go. Stay tuned.”

Lawson stressed that when council is developing any cannabis-related bylaws “it’s going to need to be enforceable .... if there are bylaws that are being created by any municipality you have to weigh it with how much enforcement you can offer to support it.”

He added, “there’s no need to rush into things. You have to take your time on this to get it right.”

Drayton resident Ron Ellis, citing an article in the Wellington Advertiser, noted Lawson had called for Wellington County municipalities to consider passing uniform bylaws related to cannabis.

“Are you meeting with other municipalities right now to make decisions regarding this situation?” he asked.

Baron explained CAOs from the county were set to meet the following day and Lawson was invited to address the group.

Lawson said he recognized it “may not be 100 per cent possible to have everyone aligned.” However, he added his intent is to make clear, “if we’re going get into assisting municipalities with enforcement, then it’s really going to be difficult for us to have a whole bunch of sets of rules.”

One member of the public suggested taking a show of hands, while others suggested a vote or survey of township residents to determine the level of support for allowing a cannabis store.

“Let democracy prevail,” suggested Mapleton resident Buck Ross.

Baron pointed out an election had just been completed and although a number of positions were filled by acclamation, “In my opinion that means you’ve given them confidence to make those important decisions on your behalf.”

However, he noted, a plebiscite of some kind is an option council could consider. “I think you’ve given council a great deal to think about. I guess the word that we’re looking for is referendum maybe. We need to kind of collectively meet and figure out how we’re going to tackle this extremely important decision,” Baron stated.

“One thing that I think is safe to say on behalf of the municipality is that we will do our very best to communicate whatever decision is made, and how it’s made, to the public.”

November 30, 2018


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