Billing cannabis as a ‘gateway drug to public engagement,’ Tofino hosted an open house on Tuesday to talk about the federal government’s expected marijuana legalization this summer.
The open house stemmed from heavy public discourse the district has received since its municipal council considered a temporary ban on the sale and distribution of cannabis during their Jan. 23 council meeting.
Locals clamoured against that ban at a Feb. 13 public hearing, leading council to put the proposed restriction on the back-burner and launch a revitalized community engagement process.
Tofino mayor Josie Osborne told the Westerly News during the event that its purpose was to engage all sectors of the community including businesses, residents and parents to hear their thoughts about cannabis retail stores and consumption and noted the event drew significantly more participation than other public engagements, like budget meetings.
“The turnout has been absolutely fantastic. Obviously, this is a conversation starter if you ask people how they feel about cannabis regulations so we’ve had dozens and dozens of people through here,” she said. “I wish we had this at all our open houses, but it’s great to see people engaged. They obviously care and they want to have their say about their feelings and how cannabis retail should be regulated.”
Savanna Callison currently operates the Tofino Herb Company, a herbal apothecary, out of Green Soul Organics and is interested in operating a retail cannabis store.
“I did find the open house very helpful and I think I’ll find it even more helpful when I take home the information that was provided,” she said. “I’m, hopefully, going to meet with some of the council members to talk about some possibilities.”
Adam Wilson expressed concern over marijuana being zoned away from schools or playgrounds, but added he found his local government receptive and the vibe at the open house “absolutely positive.”
“Council definitely is willing to talk to people. They’re being up front in a lot of ways. So, I think, that’s a big beneficial point for our community to actually move to the next level,” he said. “I asked a lot of questions. I asked the mayor, I asked a lot of council members and they were more than happy to make sure that they answered me completely, that they were honest. Even off-record, I felt they were being honest so, all in all, I think it was a very positive step.”
Tofino councillor Greg Blanchette was happy with the turnout and said the open house format allowed for beneficial, free flowing, conversations.
“We can have some back and forth with people and, I think, get a much better idea of what they think,” he said. “For a brand new issue like this, it’s very important to have that dialogue. My mind isn’t made up. I hope nobody’s mind is made up until we hear from a bunch of people with different points of view.”
Logan Kapler hopes cannabis will be embraced in Tofino.
“I truly feel that cannabis could be helpful in the community if regulated in a proper way. I personally have been growing and using cannabis for many years and I’ve seen more good than bad come from it,” he said. “I would love to see the community of Tofino embrace the new legislation instead of trying to turn it away.”
Chris Heisterman attended the event to see how the community was reacting and said he was happy with how the open house was held.
“The District of Tofino, in general, they’re great and I felt that the munchies they put out were hilarious,” he said, though he added he was troubled to see strict regulations proposed around where cannabis can be sold.
“One thing I found interesting was how distance to schools was so important…So long as the consumption is regulated similar to alcohol, I don’t really understand why it needs to be 100 metres from a school or a park.”
Councillor Dorothy Baert said the community has an important role to play in shaping the future of cannabis in Tofino.
“The community is very interested in this question and how it evolves and I think we need to have a really wholesome discussion with as many residents as possible to get a sense of how this will play out in our community,” she said. “I’m not here to rewrite history. Decisions have been made at higher levels of government. I have no issues in that realm whatsoever. I see opportunity. I just want to know who benefits.”
Councillor Duncan McMaster said attending the event was a no-brainer given the focus the issue has received in the community.
“Obviously this is an important matter for the community and I want to hear what people think,” he said. “That’s what I’m employed for. It’s what I got elected for; to try and put forward the community’s views not just my view and I don’t have a view.”
Councillor Al Anderson suggested Tofino should start including budget information at cannabis meetings to take advantage of the attendance the issue draws.
“It’s an important issue. Lots and lots of interest has been generated and it’s always important that councillors are engaged; even more so when there’s this amount of interest,” he said.
Councillor Ray Thorogood said he appreciated the opportunity to hear from his constituents.
“Maybe we can get some direction to help make council’s decision on the direction we should be proceeding considering federal and provincial regulations that are going to come down first,” he said. “I just want to make a fair decision.”
Councillor Cathy Thicke said the open house was fruitful, but she hopes to see more effort made to reach out to local parents.
“We’ve heard quite a lot from certain groups of people in our community but, as I’ve said before, I’m very interested to hear what the parents of children and teenagers in our community feel because there’s quite a strong sentiment in the Cannabis Act which speaks to protecting young children, not only from visual cues, but also access to,” she said.
She added she has faced criticism for her view that feedback from parents and guardians of children should be actively sought.
“People have criticized me for asking that question,” she said. “But, as we all know, raising children is a fairly time consuming business and I think with vulnerable communities such as children, youth and First Nations I think it is incumbent upon us to ask those questions in a timely way just as we’re asking the general community here.”
She added a comment board saw repeated submissions around marijuana use and proximity to schools and parks.
“Certainly the responses on where a retail store should not be located seems to be fairly strong in terms of not being in proximity to schools or parks,” she said. “I think that is a really, really, good thing.”
Tofino’s manager of community sustainability, Aaron Rodgers, whose desk is where the initial proposed restriction came from, said the information collected at the open house will be reviewed and presented again at another open house scheduled for April 3. He added Tofino would consult with health professionals and neighbouring First Nations.
“From there, we’ll take all the feedback and try to start developing policies that we can get in front of council for their consideration,” he said.
He added though that January’s proposed amendment to restrict cannabis sales is not off the table.
“We’re paused now and we’re going to reverse a little bit based on the outcome of what we hear and then move forward from there,” he said, adding he’s been happy to see the public get engaged.
“I think it’s been really great. People are really passionate about it and engaged. It’s probably the greatest public engagement we’ve seen.”
On the other side of the peninsula, Tofino’s neighbour Ucluelet remains unsure how to handle the federal government’s incoming legislation.