Hamilton politicians defer question of legal pot shops after passionate 8-hour debate

The question of whether to allow legal cannabis shops in Hamilton has been deferred until the new year by a badly divided city council.

The issue is now to be decided on Jan. 14, 2019, eight days before the province’s opt-out deadline.

A staff report presented to the General Issues Committee at the start of an eight-hour special meeting on Tuesday recommended that the city permit cannabis retail stores to operate in Hamilton.

General manager of economic development Jason Thorne says it is now a legal product, a job creator and “the best path forward that at least gives us some progress towards pushing out some of the illegal operators.”

Hamilton police say there are still 34 illegal dispensaries operating in the city, down from a peak of about 80 earlier this year.

Hamilton Chamber of Commerce president Keanin Loomis was also in favour of legal pot stores.

“Cannabis has the opportunity to be to Hamilton what the grape is to Niagara,” Loomis told city councillors.

Loomis says cannabis represents advanced agriculture, adding that Hamilton has many licensed producers who “at their peak, will employ thousands of Hamiltonians and bring in billions of dollars in revenue.”

Dundas Coun. Arlene VanderBeek stressed the importance of trying to weed out the underground market.

“To know there are places where you can trust what you’re purchasing and know that you’re safe taking it, that’s pretty important,” VanderBeek said.

However, others argued against allowing cannabis retail stores in Hamilton, noting that the city would not be able to license them, limit their concentration within a specific area or control in which retail areas they would be allowed to operate.

Councillors are also disappointed with the province’s 150-metre separation from schools. They had been arguing for a 300-metre separation from sensitive land uses such as schools, parks, community centres and mental health and addiction centres.

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla added that the $574,000 Hamilton would receive over two years to cover implementation costs is a bad deal and not enough to cover the city’s enforcement and other related costs.

He also argued that suggesting cannabis retail stores are going to be the “magic bullet” that eliminates the underground market is “misleading.”

There are plans for a public survey on the City of Hamilton’s website before council decides the issue on Jan. 14.

The Ontario government has said that it will issue only 25 licences provincewide for its initial phase of openings on April 1, 2019.

Lincoln, Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga, Markham, Pickering and Richmond Hill have also opted out, while Burlington has delayed its decision until Jan. 14 as well in order to gather more public input.

Toronto and Ottawa have voted in favour of hosting the stores.

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