Preparing for legal pot: South Shore officials grapple with incoming marijuana legislation

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>A neon-lit marijuana store outlet in Vancouver, where, like elsewhere, it is still illegal to sell recreational marijuana. It&#8217;s this kind of hard-sell councillors such as MODL&#8217;s Martin Bell is pushing for Nova Scotia to avoid.</p>

In a province where residents already are among the most prolific consumers of cannabis in the country, it's hard to imagine much will change in Nova Scotia when the consumption and sale of recreational marijuana becomes legal in Canada next summer.

However, Nova Scotia's municipal and provincial governments are scrambling to have new systems in place when Canada becomes the second country in the world to legalize marijuana, after Uruguay made the leap in 2014.

On the South Shore, municipal leaders and staff are expressing a range of concerns and opinions on the way forward for when pot is on par with alcohol, from the length of the consultation process to costs, and regulatory design and enforcement, to health and education issues.

"A lot of questions. A lot of unknowns. And I think the time-frame here is way too short to do a good job in what they want to do," Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, the mayor of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg (MODL), told a policy and strategy committee meeting on October 17.

The concerns and issues facing MODL are reflective of not just other municipalities in Lunenburg and Queens but those throughout the country.

For a start, as Jeff Merrill, MODL's director of planning and development services, put it: "It's a major change in public policy and it will impact municipal budgets."

Municipal officials in Lunenburg and Queens counties have prioritized meetings with provincial bureaucrats, police and health officials to have their say and glean as much information as possible on how it will all work.

The federal government has set the parameters for legalization of recreational use of marijuana, which it has said would take effect July 1, 2018. It has introduced Bill C-45, the proposed Cannabis Act, and followed this with Bill-C-46, which would see amendments to the country's Criminal Code concerning driving while under the influence.

But Ottawa has left it to the provinces for each to determine details such as the legal age of consumption and how and where cannabis will be sold and distributed.

To this end, the Nova Scotia government has consulted a variety of stakeholders and interest groups as well as the public for their input.

Its online public survey attracted more than 20,000 responses. While the results of the consultations and survey are yet to be released, they will reflect public opinion on issues such as the preferred legal age of consumption, impaired driving provisions and where cannabis can be consumed.

As well it held a series of four working sessions with municipal officials throughout the province.

The last of these workshops was held at White Point Lodge in Queens County October 19. The afternoon workshop attracted approximately 50 officials and staff from the province, MODL, the Region of the District of Queens, and the towns of Mahone Bay, Lunenburg and Bridgewater.

LighthouseNOW sat in on the meeting. While specific discussions that took place were off the record, overall there was concern among local officials that it is they who will be on the front lines of handling the day-to-day realities of the changes.

Councillors worried about increased policing costs and where the money will come from to pay for these. They wondered about the impact on zoning regulations and how they may relate to both retail and consumption of cannabis.

And, considering a large portion of municipal budgets feed into the education system, they felt strongly that youth education concerning cannabis consumption should be included in the way forward and extra funding should be provided to ensure this is achieved.

Following on from that meeting, a team of health officials from the Nova Scotia Health Authority also made presentations to municipal councils on some of the issues surrounding the proposed legalization.

The members largely argued in favor of legalization, opining that prohibition hasn't worked to curtail marijuana consumption. But they emphasized the need to get proper regulatory systems in place.

Their biggest concern was in relation to youth, for whom, they say, research has shown may suffer cognitive development issues as a result of marijuana consumption.

Frances Kangata, health promotion coordinator for addictions and mental health for the Nova Scotia's Health Authority's (NHA's) western zone, was one of those who addressed MODL's council on October 24.

He noted that, despite prohibition, people are still accessing cannabis in large numbers. According to Kangata, Canada's youth are among the top five or six pot consumers in the world, with studies indicating about 21 per cent of 15 to 19 year olds and 30 per cent of 20 to 24 year-olds have had cannabis in the past year.

"We're trying to look for that sweet spot whereby we've legalized it, but we've regulated it to the extent that we're able to minimize all the harms. For us, that's the key - trying to minimize the harms," said Kangata.

While he agreed "the timeline is pretty short" in determining the best way forward, he added, "But I think we can get ahead of the curve and make sure at least our communities are protected locally."

Speaking at the same presentation, Sadie Watson, a health promoter with the NHA's Western Zone, emphasized the magnitude of the decisions facing MODL and other municipal councils.

"What do you want cannabis consumption to look like in your community in five years, 10 years, 20 years?...We should look at lessons learned in the regulation of alcohol, tobacco and gambling, experiences in other countries.

"If you had a blank slate, would you do it differently with respect to other substances?" she asked.

"I think we're in a really unique position now with respect to government and health care to really set a precedent and be mindful about what we want this to look like in Nova Scotia and our communities," said Watson.

At MODL's planning and strategy committee meeting, MODL official Merrill highlighted some of issues facing municipalities, such as marijuana retail locations.

"We want to make sure it's away from schools, playgrounds, daycare."

Zoning regulations will also come to play in regard to the location of lounges and cafés where marijuana may be consumed by the public.

And enforcement may need to be stepped up in relation to marijuana consumption by people in their apartments or condominiums, Merrill added.

"We should be advocating for a share of the tax revenue to help pay for those costs that we will be incurring," he advised.

The new legalization not only applies to marijuana that is smoked, but edible products as well. To this end, participants at the White Point workshop expressed concern about current edible marijuana products designed to look like candy such as lollipops, fearing they will attract, if they're not actually targeted toward, young consumers.

And as well as design of edibles, designs of the retail outlets themselves have come under discussion.

Martin Bell, the councillor for MODL's District 2, said he was in Vancouver recently and saw retail outlets gearing up there with flashing neon lights.

"It's maybe not the model that you would think best," he says.

"I would urge the province to establish restrictive advertising and marketing regulations to prohibit products and marketing companies that would appeal to underage citizens," Bell told LighthouseNOW.

Eric Hustvedt, councillor for MODL's District 1, said, "The focus on public education to my mind is number one [priority]."

LighthouseNOW asked the Nova Scotia education minister, Zach Churchill, who was in Bridgewater recently, whether the province will look at an educational component to the legalization of marijuana.

"I think there needs to be," he responded.

"We evaluate our curriculums every so often and we want to make sure our curriculums are reflective of the needs of our kids.

"We have a health and safety curriculum and I think there is already some information in there about cannabis. And with legalization happening, of course, we want to have the best information for our kids as possible to help inform their decision making," said Churchill.

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