Article by Sam Riches, Growth Op
In January, a petition arrived on the desks of town officials in Altona, Man., a small community about 10 kilometres north of the U.S. border.
A few months earlier, in October 2019, the town had held a public hearing to discuss the possibility of a cannabis retailer moving in. As part of its effort to have a weed store within a 30-minute drive for 90 per cent of Manitobans, within two years of legalization, the provincial government had selected Altona as a retail destination.
Not everyone was thrilled with that decision. The petition triggered a community plebiscite with one question and only two possible answers. “Should licensed retail cannabis stores be allowed in Altona?”
Since Canada legalized cannabis in 2018, communities across the country have had to answer a similar question. Not every municipality has welcomed the industry, though some have reversed course, opting back in after initially saying no.
In Altona, Mayor Al Friesen and the town council said yes from the beginning. They saw an opportunity in an emerging industry.
“We said ‘yes’ because it would produce jobs,” Friesen told The GrowthOp in February. “We felt a regulated product was better than a ziplocked product, and it was pro-business.”
But in Altona, like in other communities across the country, cannabis still carries a stigma and some locals feared having a retail store in town would lead to easier access for youth, Friesen said. “That was one of the primary things that we heard. I may disagree with that, but that’s how democracy works,” he added.
Originally scheduled for May, the plebiscite was pushed to October due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The current pandemic requires our community to pull together and focus its attention on COVID-19, and not be sidetracked by the cannabis plebiscite,” Friesen said in a community press release in March. “The new date will allow a sufficient window for advertising, and formal community forums before the vote is held.”
One of those forums was a virtual town hall, hosted last month, but available for viewing on the Altona YouTube page.
The event saw Friesen joined by Police Chief Perry Batchelor, Altona’s chief administrative officer Dan Gagné and cannabis educator Jehna Grobety, manager of learning and development for Delta 9 Cannabis Inc., which operates a chain of stores across Manitoba.
The panel took questions from the community and the discussion covered everything from the history of cannabis to industry regulations and dispelling stoner stereotypes. “The image of the cannabis user being the stoner sitting on a couch eating Doritos every night is a very outdated stereotype that is just not at all true of most cannabis users,” Grobety told viewers.
Batchelor shared the experiences of neighbouring communities that had allowed for cannabis retail and found there were no negative impacts.
The months that passed since the petition first surfaced also gave the community time to sit with the issue, Friesen says. “I think that allowed things to settle down a little bit and allowed people to move on their own timetable.”
Finally, on Wednesday evening, the town had an answer. More than 1,100 people voted, with 463 saying ‘no’ and 692 saying ‘yes’ to cannabis retail.
Though Friesen and the town council have been in favour of allowing cannabis retail from the beginning, they didn’t try to influence the process, he says, adding that he saw a similar approach throughout the community.