When Ontario’s current Progressive Conservative government came into power in 2018, it decided to develop a new framework to govern cannabis retail sales within the province. Part of this new framework included a provision that allowed municipalities to opt-out of having licensed cannabis stores within their municipal boundaries. Several municipalities within the “905” corridor around Toronto decided to take a go-slow approach towards legal cannabis sales. Yet in the two and a half years since, it has become clear that this concern was groundless.
In fact, in its 2020 National Cannabis Survey, Statistics Canada found that the percentage of those aged 15 to 17 consuming cannabis had been cut in half since legalization. Moreover, municipalities that initially chose to opt-out of legal sales appeared to see an increase in illicit market activity, particularly associated with illegal delivery services within their borders.
In June of 2020, Toronto Sun columnist Brian Lilley went so far as to write, “go on Google and search for cannabis stores in Mississauga and you’ll be flooded with ads from illegal retailers offering delivery, some even claiming to have retail stores in the Square One mall.”
Several municipalities have since reversed their earlier decisions to opt-out of legal cannabis retail sales and for a while, it looked like Mississauga might follow suit.
Despite vocal support from both Mayor Bonnie Crombie and Ward 2 Councilor Karen Ras, last month Mississauga City Council voted 8 to 4 against allowing legal cannabis stores to set up shop despite being presented by their own city staff’s polling, which showed that over two-thirds of residents oppose a continued ban.
So, the question arises as to why Mississauga councillors chose to ignore evidence and voted against the desires of most of their residents? The main reason so many councillors choose to maintain the status quo likely has more to do with political considerations than policy ones.
Like all Ontario municipalities, Mississauga has a municipal election in October 2022. While most voters support a change in policy, those on the opposing side are more vocal and more passionate.
So, what are some lessons the cannabis industry can learn from this episode?
First, better coordination is required. Despite Mississauga being a large potential market for licensed producers and retailers alike, there was no coordinated government relations strategy.
Compare that to the approach taken by the auto and life sciences sectors. On large public policy issues, those industries often pool resources and put forward common positions. This did not happen in the case of the recent Mississauga vote.