LETHBRIDGE - A bylaw, to amend the text to allow for retail cannabis stores when the Federal and Provincial Governments legalize growing, distribution, sale and use of recreational marijuana has been postponed for two weeks.
The postponement, requested by Councillor Joe Mauro, will allow council to consider information from several presenters at Monday's Public Hearing, including the city's own Senior Development Officer Gepke Stevenson, Dr. Lizette Elumir from Alberta Health, and Rabbi Sidney Speakman, leader of the Joyful House of Prayer Congregation.
At the hearing, Stevenson talked about legalization background information, the purpose of the bylaw amendment, the city's evaluation and analysis, the consultations undertaken and the department's ultimate recommendation.
The proposed Bylaw 6123 would not seek to limit business opportunities or to regulate competition. It would essentially treat cannabis stores just like any other retail store, subject to provincial separation distance requirements of 100 metres from any school, school reserve, or provincial health care facilities, along with AGLC processes and approvals.
In some cases, however, a potential business would have to prove it is at least 100 metres away from any school or health care facility, such as the case of a proposed location at the West Lethbridge Towne Centre, which, as a whole appears to be less than 100 metres away from a school. Individual stores within the shopping centre may be much farther than the minimum required distance.
The recommendation was also to allow cannabis stores in the five commercial districts where retail stores are a permitted use. Those include the Downtown Commercial, General Commercial, Highway Commercial, Neighbourhood Commercial and Shopping Mall Commercial areas.
But the 100-metre distance is something the Public Health division of Alberta Health Services and some religious organizations in Lethbridge are concerned about.
Dr. Lizette Elumer presented a proposal to council, which recommended a 300-metre setback from any childcare facility, school, and community centre, a minimum 100 metre distance from any other tobacco or liquor retailer, in addition to a square kilometre density restriction at the onset of legalization.
"That was based on the federal task force. They put a lot of work into looking at Colorado and Washington State when they first legalized.... the lessons learned there was that the farther their setbacks the more effective to mitigate harms.
"What we're recommending is to try to be as strict and restrictive as possible, because it's easy over time, to come back from those restrictions, but it's harder to impose restrictions. We're trying to make those restrictions as wide as possible so that we can evaluate after and see how effective it was afterwards for those communities."
Rabbi Sidney Speakman also made his case for a set back of 150 metres that would include all Religious Assembly Properties, such as his own Joyful House of Prayer synagogue on 13 St. N.
He presented a petition with dozens of signatures from numerous affiliations to support his request.
He says the Synagogue is about 120 metres from a proposed cannabis retail location. and that doesn't sit well with his congregation.
"First, historically, they (religious institutions) have been a place of care for children and youth. Second, they are a year-round institution where children and youth congregate. Third, they have been and still remain places of teaching and training of children and youth. Number four, they are places of recreation for children and youth. Number five they are places of music and singing for children and youth.
"These are the religious institutions. Churches, synagogues, mosques, wards and temples.... and it is a known fact that cannabis is an entry level drug. When our city is facing an opiate epidemic, it would be a major travesty to the moral health and psychological problems to our future adults."
Speakman also cited his experiences with a brother who he said began using marijuana, then graduated to harder drugs and ultimately died from an overdose.
However, City Director of Planning and Development, Jeff Greene, said that if council were to increase the setbacks and to accommodate each request, there wouldn't be much room left in the city for any cannabis retail outlets.
"When you map out what they're recommending, it would essentially zone cannabis stores out of Lethbridge, because 300 metres in some cases 500 metres, or 150 metres between cannabis and liquor stores would be in my view, so rigid that you would essentially not allow stores to locate in the City of Lethbridge. And I think AHS may have been looking at this as a kind of a global recommendation, and that might work in Calgary, but given the geographic scale of Lethbridge, it wouldn't work here."
Greene says the city wants to make it as simple as possible for retailers, in order to avoid potentially complicated bylaw enforcement issues in the years to come.
He explained that any potential setbacks would also apply to those religious organizations, schools and healthcare facilities.
"In other words, if you want to re-locate your church that's in downtown Lethbridge and re-located it along 3 Ave, given the separation requirements if there's two or three cannabis stores, you're basically reducing the places you can locate that synagogue or church. Because it works both ways."
Greene added that his staff was mandated to talk about the retail cannabis sector, and not public use, health implications or moral questions.
Over the next two weeks councillors will consider all of the information from the public hearing and submit potential revisions of the bylaw to either the City Clerk, to the Planning Department or at the next council meeting June 25. A decision is expected at that time.
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