The Winding Path to Cannabis Legalization in Edmonton

Many people will think of October 17, 2018 as the first day of cannabis legalization in Canada and Edmonton. While this is true, City of Edmonton staff worked for more than a year to get ready for the day when cannabis retail stores opened and to communicate to residents where they can or can’t consume cannabis.

In the spring of 2017, the City established an internal team consisting of many different department and branches to determine the City’s role in regulating cannabis sales and consumption. We met with provincial representatives, AGLC representatives and Members of Parliament as we tried to anticipate what the City’s roles and responsibilities would be if legalization was approved.

There were a lot of unknowns at this time. While the higher levels of government shared any available information they had, we didn’t know with 100% certainty how cannabis could be sold or consumed until the provincial and federal legislation passed. We had to create rules and processes that were agile enough to kick off as soon as legislation occurred.

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How close is too close?
By the end of 2017, the Zoning Bylaw team held several engagement sessions with citizens, groups who would be touched by the legalization and interested retail operators to explore what the appropriate regulations would be for opening and operating a cannabis retail store.

We were faced with a choice: we could regulate it as a regular retail store, or we could treat it similarly to liquor stores in the city. There was no consensus about where stores could be located. When the Alberta government passed regulations requiring separation distances from places such as schools and hospitals, we realized that it made sense to treat cannabis stores similarly to liquor stores.

Once preliminary regulations were drafted, another round of consultation occurred in early 2018, with the regulations approved by Council in June 2018.

Let me in!
There was pressure on City staff to establish a clear and transparent process to issue permits and licences in time for stores to open on legalization day. That would be fair to large companies as well as independent operators. We also needed to make sure the process was legally defensible in case we were sued if someone couldn’t open a store.

We settled on a random selection draw to determine the order we reviewed permit applications. To ensure transparency, and to make sure everyone could see the process was fair and random, we hired MNP as a third-party to hold and record the draw in June 2018 (after the zoning regulations were approved). Maclean’s called it a “profoundly boring two hour video of the process.” They were right. Guilty as charged. That was the point. It wasn’t a “lottery” where people won or lost something. The video was meant to share a step in the process—in all of its boring, transparent detail. If you’ve watched it, you know it’s true, but that was the whole point. It was intended to show that it was just a step in the process, not a “lottery” where people “won or lost something”.

We published the list of entries so everyone knew their chances for approval. In the end, we received 181 applications and have approved 81 locations so far. A few were open on day one, with more to come.

Smoking or Drinking?
When regulating consumption, the debate was undoubtedly about whether we treat cannabis the same as cigarettes or liquor. Cannabis can belong to both worlds in terms of regulation, so staff had to walk a fine line in determining what was appropriate. The fact that edibles and consumption in lounges would still be illegal after legalization, meant that there would be nowhere to use cannabis outside your home if public spaces were completely prohibited. The result was a proposal to permit it on sidewalks and in some parks, with some restrictions. Council approved this proposal and decided to align the smoking bylaw with the cannabis rules. The real work of educating the public about the rules and preparing to enforce them began in the weeks leading up to legalization day and continues beyond October 17, 2018.

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What’s Next For Edmonton
After October 17, the City’s work on cannabis continues, because the federal government will eventually issue rules for cannabis lounges, processing cannabis, and cannabis-infused foods. We will also monitor how the rules for regulating stores and individuals are working. The City will work to change the rules around cannabis as necessary and educate the public on any changes to ensure that cannabis is sold and used responsibly.

For more information about all things cannabis legalization in Edmonton, visit the City’s website.

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City staff visit a business to share information about Edmonton’s cannabis rules

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