COLUMN: Why I changed my mind

City councillor Anna Purcell on the marijuana vote....

Something unusual happened in council chambers last Wednesday: I brought a passed motion back to the table for reconsideration. This is pretty rare. What then happened was a long conversation about the council decision Monday night to prohibit cannabis sales in all zones of the city.

Council has been talking for more than a year about the changing laws around cannabis and what they may mean for Nelson. How do we honour our complex and sometimes conflicting values? How do we support small business, protect our diversity, and maintain public health and safety? How can we take advantage of changing federal regulations in a way that is best for us, and how can we position ourselves to have maximum flexibility for the benefit of all of our residents?

One of the tools proposed was this total prohibition, not intended to be acted upon, but in place so that IF the federal regulations allow for mom-and-pop, or “craft” style dispensaries, we won’t be stuck with existing, non-conforming dispensaries in places we, as a community, may have decided we don’t want them (in other words no dispensaries would be grandfathered in).

For example, maybe we won’t want them on Baker Street, especially if they end up with bars on their windows and frosted glass with glaring security lighting. Maybe we don’t want more than five or ten in total. Maybe we want them all in one area. Maybe we want to offer cheaper licenses to non-profit or social enterprise dispensaries. Whatever our feelings about cannabis are, it’s going to be legal and we need to know what we collectively want for our city. This bylaw was an effective, if clumsy way to give us a legal clean slate for the conversation afterwards, if federal regulations allow private dispensaries. We wouldn’t have enforced it broadly, but we wouldn’t end up with stores where we may not want them as a community. It was a stop gap measure in a murky and changing legal environment that the federal government has been (frustratingly) quiet around.

I still believe in it as a tool.

So why did I bring it back for reconsideration? Because I was uncomfortable with the process we had undergone. I still consider myself new to council work and I am learning more about the importance of bringing the community along on decisions of broad public interest.

Public engagement often falls victim to lack of time and money and we do little more than required by law. Around matters of broad public concern, I believe this is inadequate.

Did the decision to prohibit dispensaries in all zones preclude further public consultation down the road? Officially no, but socially yes. By failing to publicly engage on this issue before we voted to prohibit pot sales, we broke the trust of some people we’re hoping to work with in the future.

And listen, good public consultation doesn’t mean everyone getting their own way we could have undergone an excellent public process around this issue and still arrived at the same decision, but with more people informed of the intent behind the decision and more trust from the community. We didn’t, so I couldn’t support it.

Where things stand now is that the bylaw remains at third reading. It can be brought back any time for adoption, should we need it in the next few months before legalization. And it means we’ve hopefully sent a message to our community that this issue is worth having a really great process around.

 

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