Cobourg examines information on opt-in-opt-out cannabis question

By Cecilia Nasmith

Information on opting in or out of allowing a cannabis retail store in Cobourg was shared at Monday's special public meeting – from town staff, a health-unit staffer and Cobourg citizens – but Mayor John Henderson said it was all to work toward an answer to one question.

“We have to do a submission by Jan. 22 to the provincial government,” Henderson said.

“If we do not make it, the strong assumption is, we are opting in. Our decision is, do we opt out?

“If we do, we have the opportunity after Jan. 22 at any time by council resolution to opt in at a future date. If we choose to opt in – once you are in, you are in. You are not allowed to opt out. That is where we are,” Henderson explained.

About 50 people showed up at the Victoria Hall Concert Hall for the meeting. Manager of communications Ashley Purdy said the on-line survey now being conducted – and which as of the meeting date had seen more than 3,400 responses - has been consistently in favour of opting in by about 80%. Similarly, citizens speaking in person at the meeting were five in favour of opting in and one against (plus one undecided).

Municipal clerk Brent Larmer led off the presentations with highlights from the staff report he had prepared.

The meeting was taking place two months to the day following federal legislation legalizing recreational cannabis use, Larmer noted, and implementation in Ontario falls under the provincial Alcohol and Gaming Commission. Through the licensing process, municipalities and citizens may comment upon any application for a license within a 15-day window of application being made.

Larmer pointed out that any objections made must demonstrate that such a license would be contrary to the public interest – a term the commission identifies as protecting health and safety, protecting youth and limiting access to cannabis, and preventing illicit activity in relation to cannabis. Otherwise, the commission's decision trumps local land-use and zoning bylaws.

The province is making municipal grants available through the Ontario Cannabis Legalization Implementation Fund, to offset such related costs as increased law enforcement and paramedic calls. There is a formula based on the number of households, Larmer said, but the minimum amount of $5,000 – the amount to be split 50-50 between the municipality and any applicable upper-tier municipality.

Because of the cannabis shortage, the province has announced only 25 licenses will be awarded initially. These will be awarded on a lottery basis.

“Regulations are coming down every week, so I try to stay on top of it,” Larmer said.

Cobourg Police Service Deputy Chief Paul VandeGraaf and Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit Substances and Harm Reduction Co-ordinator Catherine MacDonald gave presentations on the law-enforcement and health aspects of legalized cannabis.

VandeGraaf said the impact on law enforcement was in four areas – road safety and impaired operation, access by such vulnerable people as children, training of officers, and enforcement.

Possession (legal for those aged 19 or older) is limited to 30 grams of dried cannabis, or its equivalent in fresh, solid or non-solid product, concentrates or seeds. A household that contains at least one person aged 19 or older can grow up to four plants.

As for driving, cannabis cannot be contained within a car or boat unless it is in original unopened packaging or otherwise in a closed and sealed container kept out of reach – and only then if the operator or at least one passenger is at least 19 years of age.

VandeGraaf outlined how enforcement would work in terms of traffic stops, but said there had been very little impact in the two months since legalization – certainly not the sharp upswing of incidents that some had expected.

Should the town opt in and a retail store open, he said, the Cobourg Police Service would work with the company operating it to ensure public health and safety concerns are respected.

MacDonald explained that cannabis can have both psychoactive and therapeutic effects. It's the THC cannabinoid substance that provides a high that lasts a few hours, but it also is expelled from the body only very gradually – over days or possibly weeks.

She pointed out that the concentration of THC in the product has increased over the years, from 2% to 3% in the 1980s to 14% to 20% today.

One benefit of legalization is to provide a safe product and allow for better research.

MacDonald shared study statistics that show that about 12% of the population were users in 2015 (roughly 3.6-million Canadians), up from 11% two years earlier. It is estimated that 33% of this group are daily or almost-daily consumers, and 24% say they use it for medical purposes. She gave the average age of initiation as 14 years. Nationwide, about half of Canadians admit to ever having been users (the figure for Ontario is about 40%).

Effects on users ranges from giggly-and-lively to anxious-fearful-confused. Symptoms of use can include red eyes, dry mouth, increased appetite and heart rate, and lowered blood pressure. Therapeutic effects include relief for those with nausea, pain, depression, insomnia and even such chronic conditions as Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's Disease.

Harmful effects can include mental-health problems, difficulties with memory and thinking, injury from impairment, mental-health issues, breathing or lung problems and dependency.

The health unit is addressing the risks with health-promotion and -protection measures, evidence-based programming and evidence-informed policies and practices, as well as promotion of lower-risk cannabis-use guidelines (choose products with lower THC, for example, and limit and reduce use).

“We recognize people are using this substance. We provide recommendations and suggestions for reducing the harms,” MacDonald said.

She also supports the suggestion that has come forward to prepare a Municipal Cannabis Policy Statement to address local concerns.

Audience comments in favour included remarks by a young woman who has owned a vaping emporium with her husband for five years and also spoke in favour of such that suggestion – and perhaps an advisory committee as well.

She shared her belief that opt-out proponents don't realize how heavily regulated this industry is going to be.

“As someone in a heavily regulated industry, I can tell you business professionals do take regulations seriously, and the fines imposed to break those regulations will keep those businesses in check,” she said.

“Our police department and our health unit are properly equipped for enforcement,” she added.

“Opting out is not a solution. Opting in and being committed to a balance of education and fair and swift enforcement is the best choice for all of us.”

A retired Toronto paramedic recalled accompanying his father to the LCBO decades ago, when you wrote out your order at a counter and your choice of spirits was fetched from the big storeroom for you.

“The government of that day matured and decided citizens of Ontario were responsible enough to set our own legal intake,” he said.

“There comes a time when society has to look after themselves. We can't expect people to come and make rules for everything.

“The last I heard, we have the largest world-wide grow op there will eventually be here in Cobourg. They are going to have their dispensary. It's weird to accept their money, to accept their taxes, and yet say no to citizens of Cobourg and no to other people who come into our town who wish to be entrepreneurs.”

A young man who'd had experience working in a Peterborough dispensary allowed that there is much to learn about cannabis – and, he stated, what better place than in such a store.

“Seventy-six per cent of users want to buy from a legal market, and they want safe access,” he said.

“If we don't have a store in Cobourg, we are denying safe access, where they can walk into a store, get education on that product, and walk out with something that's 5% THC instead of 28% THC.”

The speaker who hoped to influence the town to opt out admitted to being a user, but does not want to see a store in Cobourg.

“We can go up to Roseneath,” he said.

“I don't think we need that. I don't think it's going to attract people – not the people we want.

“Anybody who needs it can find it. I don't think we need it in town.”

The undecided speaker said he was having trouble making up his own mind and would be interested to hear each councillor's thoughts.

“That's not part of the agenda, but it will be debated at our Jan. 7 committee-of-the-whole meeting,” Deputy Mayor Suzanne Seguin said.

Henderson added that it would also be on the agenda for their Jan. 14 regular council meeting, starting at 4 p.m.

“I will be asking each member of council to make a decision – and please remember, the decision truly is do we opt out.

“Regardless of our decision, I will ask council to make a resolution or motion so we have a record going forward.”

The survey can be accessed at until Jan. 2 to allow for a full report to come to council at the Jan. 7 meeting, which will offer time for presentation and discussion as well as the opportunity for citizen delegations.