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Coming Up: September 10

Council meets on Monday night. Following is a summary and my take on what will be discussed. The biggest topic of discussion will be revisiting the Cannabis Retail Store license cap. We'll also be discussing a proposed self-storage yard and a potential bid for the 2022 Arctic Winter Games.

As always, any mistakes or opinions belong to me and me alone, not to Council or City staff.

If you would like to watch the meeting or read any of its supporting material for yourself, you can do so by clicking here.


Proposed Self-Storage Yard

There is an interesting property at 10715 - 92 St. It is a site originally created for industrial use which later had residential development pop up around it. It currently has a large utility tower, warehouse space, and RV storage.

The owner of this property is proposing to change the RV storage into a self-storage facility. Due to underground utilities and guidelines for the tower, building permanent structures is not feasible. The proposal is to build this facility using sea cans. These would be installed at a uniform height and painted a uniform color. The site would also receive aesthetic improvements including a privacy fence and planted trees.

It seems to me that the proposed changes would make the site not only more useful to the owners, but also a better fit to the surrounding area. I'm also of the belief that people should be able to do whatever they want on their property as long as it is not likely to create a safety issue or significant disruption to neighbours. I don't see a reason to think this change would be unsafe or disruptive. Therefore, I am currently leaning towards supporting this proposal.

That being said: there have been some concerns brought up by residential neighbours. You can read these concerns by clicking here. I do have several questions relating to these letters that I intend to ask management. Most significantly, I want to learn more about the frequency of police complaints at this site and at self-storage facilities elsewhere in the City. However, it seems to me that the major concerns raised have been well addressed. At the same time, if neighbours still have reason to worry about this development I am very open to hearing their perspective at the public hearing on Monday. 


2022 Arctic Winter Games

The City has been asked to consider submitting a bid to host the 2022 Arctic Winter Games. Under the direction of the Community Living Committee, management is working to understand what a bid would entail. This committee has recommended that Mayor Given should be directed to write a letter to the County of Grande Prairie, the MD of Greenview, and other regional municipalities to consider joining the City in a potential bid.

I support this. I want us to continue learning more about what hosting the Games would entail, and a potential bid should be considered as a region.

However, I do not know if I will ultimately support a bid for the Arctic Winter Games. On one hand, I am convinced the Games would have a positive impact on our community: it would inject money into our economy, help us market ourselves, and create community spirit. More importantly, I know many youth who have taken part in the Arctic Winter Games and it has had a very positive impact on them. On the other hand, this would be a significant draw on volunteer labour and donations in our community. I fear the impact this might have on other local non-profits. 


Cannabis Retail Store License Cap

Council will be debating a bylaw amendment to remove the cap of 15 licenses for Cannabis Retail Stores.

As we've discussed legalization, I've wanted to see youth usage and substance abuse by all ages minimized in our community. This has led me to do a lot of research, talking, and thinking about municipal approaches to cannabis.

As Council considers this amendment, it strikes me that there are two factors which need to be considered: availability of cannabis and normalization of use. 

 

Normalization

I have concerns about legalization. My biggest hesitations have to do with youth usage. I've spent my career working with young people, many of whom experience risk factors. I've talked to a lot of teens who think cannabis use is risk and consequence free. I've also worked with many who have learned about its hazards only after developing unhealthy or very dangerous habits and behaviours. Cannabis use is already too normalized with our young people. 

After legalization, cannabis will be legally available and more socially acceptable across our country. Additionally, our provincial government will be selling it through online sales. There is a possibility that legalization may increase normalization which could in turn increase youth consumption of cannabis.

So the question is, what impact will retail regulations have on this normalization? 

Unlike liquor stores, cannabis retailers will not be allowed to allow minors inside nor have cannabis products or accessories visible from outside. The province has also placed strict limitations on signs and names. You can see all these provincial regulations by clicking here. The City has imposed additional rules to limit normalization including restrictions on the clustering of Cannabis Retail Stores and a 300m buffer between Cannabis Retail Stores and High Schools.

Given these restrictions, the potential normalization effects of retail locations will likely be mitigated to a large degree. Cannabis Retail Stores will be discrete compared to many other businesses. I've also had many potential retailers tell me they are having big problems finding available permitted locations. Retailer locations will already be limited due to the Land Use Bylaw amendments Council passed. With these factors in mind, I'm not convinced that a cap will do much if anything to decrease the risk of normalization.
 

Availability

Availability of cannabis and other substances is always a concern due to many people in our community suffering with substance abuse.

I've been told by people of varying ages (including youth and law enforcement) that dealers are easy to find in our community and ordering illegal product online is also relatively easy. For those who don't want to obtain cannabis illegally, I'm also of the understanding that there are very few barriers to obtaining a medical prescription under false pretenses. Despite the best efforts of law enforcement, quasi-legal and illegal recreational cannabis are already very available in our community.

After October 17th, legal recreational cannabis will also be readily available. Adults will be able to order it online and have it delivered to their home. We also live in a relatively small City with high vehicle ownership. Even if there were only a handful of retail licenses distributed, recreational cannabis would be very available to most people living in Grande Prairie.

I'm not persuaded that keeping the cap at 15 licenses will have a big enough impact on availability to significantly impact use in our community.


Problems with the Number and Distribution of Capped Licenses

If we do have a cap, no one has given me a justification as to why 15 (or 10 or 20 any other number) of licenses is the appropriate number. If no justification can be given for placing the limit at a particular number, I have troubles seeing how a limit can be justified at all.

I've also talked to many business people- some who are investing in cannabis retail and many who have no intention to. The general consensus I've heard is that, once the market is settled, Grande Prairie is unlikely to support much more than 15 cannabis retail locations anyways (click here to read one letter Council from a retailer with a license: it supports this opinion). If we are unlikely to have much more than 15 surviving cannabis retailers anyways, I don't see why those who do business in town should be selected through a lottery.

If the limit remains in place, we will have given an arbitrary number of licenses to randomly selected businesses. I'm not comfortable with important public policy being governed in that fashion.

 

My Thoughts (For Now)

Whatever concerns our community has about legalization, the federal government has decided to push it through and the provincial government has created its own framework. I do not think a municipality has the role of further limiting a legal substance unless it has very good reason to do so in the interest of public safety.

I have not been given good reason to believe that capping retail licenses will decrease substance abuse in our community. I also do not like seeing licenses given arbitrarily and randomly.

For these reasons, I do not support the cap. I do welcome discussion and push back- I always go to Council meetings with an open mind. However, I currently intend to vote in favour of removing the cap.

 

Potential Benefits of Removing the Cap

I oppose the cap because I have not been given good reason to support it. However, I also think there are two potential benefits to removing the cap. Without a cap, we are likely to see better legitimate retailers and we have a larger chance of seeing a contraction of the black market.

 

Competition Will Yield Safer Retailers

The province is giving itself the sole right to wholesale cannabis- all retailers will be buying from the same wholesaler. The province has given the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission the ability to set minimum retail prices. It will also have retain a monopoly of online sales, meaning that physical retailers will need to compete with the online prices it sets. Additionally, the province has made it clear that it will require retailers to seek a profit- well funded operations will not be allowed to undercut the market by intentionally running at a loss. This means that ability for retailers to compete on price will be limited.

Additionally, retailers are extremely limited by provincial regulation on how they can differentiate themselves with their names, signs, advertising, and other branding efforts.

With these traditional avenues of competition extremely limited, retailers will need to find other ways to differentiate themselves. They'll have to compete based on attributes like knowledgeable staff, secure locations, discrete service, local involvement of owners, and educational opportunities offered to customers. These aspects of a business will help mitigate the social impacts of cannabis retail.

If we have a cap, local retailers will have less pressure to be competitive. A random lottery is a very poor way to establish who undertakes cannabis retail sales in our community. Since competition in this industry is likely to carry a social good, it should be allowed to happen. I would hate to see low quality or more dangerous retailers survive in our community simply because the market has been artificially constrained.

 

Legitimate Retail Will Impact the Black Market

Cannabis is already readily available in our community. Due to my other job, I'm around teenagers constantly- I see youth using it multiple times per week. I've asked dozens of teenagers about their opinions and experience with cannabis- all have told me it is readily attainable, most have said it is easier to get than alcohol. I also know of many adults who are recreational users.

Right now, many of these people are being served by a black market. This is concerning for a number of reasons. Black market dealers:

  • will sell to anyone, including minors and people who are inebriated
  • will sell anywhere, including school parking lots and on residential streets
  • rarely undertake efforts to educate customers
  • support or contribute to violence in our communities
  • often sell products whose chemical composition is unknown
  • sometimes add other illegal substances to their product
  • can offer access to substances more dangerous than cannabis

While I do have hesitations and concerns about legalization, I also see some potential benefits. The biggest positive I hope we see is a limiting of the black market. This is less likely to happen with a cap on retail locations. In fact, a cap has potential to encourage the black market. If legitimate retail out competes it in other communities, it may consolidate into communities where licensed retailers are limited.

No matter what local policies we implement, our community will be impacted by national and provincial cannabis policies. If we are going to see all the potential harms these will introduce, I want us to be well positioned to also experience all of the potential benefits. I do not want to see total demand in our community increase (especially among youth). However, I also hope at as much demand as possible is met through legitimate retailers instead of black market dealers. We've been trying for decades to limit the black market and it has not worked. If we want to see the legitimate market out compete it, it makes no sense to impose an artificial limit on it.

 

Objections I've Heard

As removing the cap has been discussed, I've heard three arguments in favour of the cap repeated several times. I want to address them.

 

"Council should be motivated by safety, not profit."

I completely agree with this. When we discuss raising the cap, potential revenue for the City does not enter the equation for me. My biggest concern is mitigating the social harms of cannabis use. I'm not concerned with the City improving its bottom line due to cannabis sales. In fact, at the June 18th Council meeting I made a motion (which was defeated) to have all license fees from cannabis retailers and producers be directed towards cannabis education initiatives. Any money generated from this industry should be used to mitigate its effects. I have no interest in having this industry be a net financial gain for the City.

 

"Never mind a cap- no stores should be allowed."

No matter what Council's view on legalization is, the federal government is rolling it out and the provincial government is enabling it. Municipalities are subject to senior levels of government. Even if I have hesitations about federal policy, I do not think it is appropriate for a municipal government to ban a legal industry entirely. City Council does not have the ability to stop legalization. Instead, Council needs to do its best to pursue policies which will mitigate any potential negative impacts. I don't see how a cap governed by a random lottery contributes to this mitigation.

 

"You don't know what will happen."

I also agree with this statement. We don't know what impacts legalization in general or any policies in particular will have. However, I don't see how this argument favours one policy over another. While we don't know what impacts removing the cap will have, we also don't know what impacts keeping the cap will have (it has potential to prop up harmful businesses due to lack of competition, encourage the black market to consolidate in Grande Prairie if it is out-competed elsewhere, and create other unintended consequences). All Council can do is pursue the course it thinks has the best chance of success. I currently believe that removing the cap is likely to be the best course.


That is what is on the Council agenda for this week. As always, I welcome any questions, ideas, push back or feedback. I value the comments I receive based on these posts. They always make me better informed, and they sometimes change my position.

You can comment below. Or you can contact me at dbressey@cityofgp.com or 780-402-4166. I'm happy to talk online or over the phone. I'm also always willing to setup a time to meet for coffee.

If you aren't already a member, you might also be interested in joining the GP Round Table. This is a Facebook group that often has great discussion about municipal issues. I think this post may stimulate a good one...

Thanks for reading!

-Dylan