High or dry? Manitoba municipalities must decide if they’ll allow marijuana sales by Christmas

Manitoba municipalities have less than one month to get on board with pot sales in towns and cities or be left dry and not-so-high — and that tight turnaround is worrying some rural officials.  “I may be reading this wrong, but I get the impression they [provincial officials] are as much in the dark still as we are — just feeling their way around trying to come up with regulations,” said Brian Hodgson, reeve for the rural municipality of Victoria Beach.

Mayors, reeves and councillors from across Manitoba met at the annual Association of Manitoba Municipalities (AMM) conference in Brandon this week to learn more about the province’s hybrid private-public pot model, and how it will impact smaller communities.

Prospective weed retailers have until Dec. 22 to pitch business plans to the province. Rural leaders learned Tuesday that date is also the cut off for when they have to notify the Pallister government about whether they’re in or out of the pot business.  “We only have two council meetings until then,” said Hodgson. “This is a big question to resolve in two meetings.”

Growth Minister Blaine Pedersen admitted the province is still working through the details.  “We’re dealing with the same issues as the municipalities are, in terms of jurisdiction and costs, in terms of policing costs, health costs, enforcement,” he said.

The federal government plans to make weed legal July 1, 2018, and the Manitoba government unveiled its strategy for the sale of legal marijuana earlier this month.  The provincial plan leaves municipalities with final say over how to regulate local retail sales; zoning laws for how close a pot shop can be to, say, a school, or what to do with tax revenues from marijuana sales fall on communities to decide. Municipalities also have to decide on behalf of their constituents whether to allow pot retailers to operate in their communities.

Saddling municipalities with those decisions upset Winkler Mayor Martin Harder at the time. But Pedersen said for the most part, the government hasn’t met much resistance.  “Mayor Harder at first expressed some concerns about the process, but it was never, ‘No.’ We have not heard from any municipality saying no,” Pedersen said.  “We are reaching out to them. We want to make sure that the municipalities want to have this, because it is in their jurisdictions in terms of location and what not. That’s their prerogative.”

Members of the media and Official Opposition were shut out of the “Provincial Retail Cannabis Strategy” session at the AMM meeting on Tuesday, so it’s unclear exactly what was discussed behind closed doors.  A provincial spokesperson explained this was done because it was “the only opportunity to meaningfully discuss this subject with municipalities prior to the introduction of legislation.”  “The legalization of cannabis is a significant policy change with far reaching impacts in governance, health and justice.  Key aspects of the regulation of legalized cannabis will fall to municipalities,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.  “We planned today to have a frank discussion with municipalities on cannabis legislation that will soon be introduced.”

The AMM meeting wraps up in Brandon Wednesday.

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