Mississauga is set to reopen the debate over cannabis stores and this time at least one city councillor says that she is willing to reconsider her past opposition to legal weed.

Mississauga is one of 66 Ontario municipalities which have opted out of having cannabis retail stores in their communities.

But during a meeting last month Ward 7 Coun. Dipika Damerla asked staff to prepare a new report taking a closer look at the issue, suggesting that now might be the time to revisit a prohibition which has been in effect since cannabis was legalized in 2018.

Damerla has previously voted against cannabis stores in Mississauga twice, most recently in June 2021.

“What is prompting me is the fact that I have an illegal cannabis store that has been operating in my ward since 2019. For years I've not been able to shut it down. Six times the police put chains on the store and six times it reopened. So it is a surreal situation where I cannot stop an illegal cannabis store from operating but I am stopping legal cannabis stores from operating. That makes no sense,” Damerla told CP24 this week.

Under provincial legislation municipalities who have opted out of legal cannabis stores can opt-in at any time but once they do there will be no opportunity to revisit that decision.

Damerla told CP24 that she initially objected to opting in amid concerns over provincial rules which don’t provide municipalities with any say regarding store locations.

She said that at the time she assumed that the provincial government would eventually consider giving municipalities “more authority,” especially in response to concerns over the “clustering” of stores in some neighbourhoods.

The province, however, hasn’t budged.

Its regulations do require a minimum distance of 150 metres between cannabis retail stores and schools but don’t give municipalities any input on the locations of stores, as is the case with LCBO storefronts.

There are also no caps on the number of licences that can be granted in a particular community.

“Because the province has shown such inflexibility I'm being forced to choose,” Damerla said. “It's either legal stores with no control over where they go or illegal stores with no control where they go. So if I am in a situation where I'm going to have cannabis stores with no control over where they go, I would rather they be legal.”


Business leaders have pushed for legal cannabis stores

There are currently around 1,500 cannabis stores operating in Ontario, including more than 400 in Toronto.

But the stores remain off-limits in a number of GTA communities, including Mississauga, Caledon, Vaughan, Markham, Richmond Hill and Whitby.

Trevor McPherson is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Mississauga Board of Trade, which has been calling on Mississauga City Council to revisit its 2018 decision to opt-out.

He says that cannabis is one of the “most highly regulated retail industries you can get” and by prohibiting legal stores, Mississauga risks sending the wrong message to the wider business community.

Mississauga is currently the largest Ontario municipality to have opted out.

“I think it does send the wrong message,” McPherson said. “I understand the concern. In 2018 this was brand new and there was an interest on the part of the council at the time to take a wait-and-see approach to see how it played out but I think we've done that. We have four years of data. Much of the fear that was out there in terms of ‘this is going to create undue harm to our communities’ has largely been overstated and with regard to any arguments around the market itself, and if there are too many stores and that sort of thing, I just don't think it is role of council to determine whether the market is suitable for a particular industry or not.”


Crombie plans to vote yes

The decision by Mississauga City Council to revisit the issue of legal cannabis stores came following a Jan. 25 presentation by several advocates for the industry.

During that meeting, Ward 5 Coun. Carolyn Parrish referred to herself as a “stick in the mud” and said that she continues to have concerns about stores “clustering” in a number of Mississauga neighbourhoods, including Malton and Port Credit.

But she also acknowledged that there does appear to be a “little shifting going on” amongst her colleagues on council.

“I am sure you would get 100 per cent agreement here if we could control the locations. That is the big stumbling block for us,” Parrish said. “Keeping them away from schools isn’t the issue. Jamming them together in a neighbourhood is the issue.”

In a statement provided to CP24, Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said that she expects a report back from staff in “the coming months” and will “once again vote in support of Mississauga opting in,” as she did in 2021.

She went on to say that revisiting the issue now, for a third, time is appropriate given some of the turnover on council following October’s municipal election.

“During past discussions, council has been concerned about clustering. We have asked city staff to report back with more information on what that looks like in other municipalities now that the market is more mature, more licenses are being issued and there is some evidence of the market sorting themselves out,” she said. “The fact is that many of our residents use cannabis, and they should have access to convenient and legal options in our city rather than being forced to travel to other cities or purchase it illegally.”

Council voted 8-4 against opting in back in 2021.