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Don’t let your investment go up in smoke – Six simple rules for lobbying municipal governments on cannabis

Changes made to the way Ontario plans on selling cannabis have thrown industry a chance at showcase innovation and their ability to sell controlled substances. But city governments won’t make it easy.

The Ford Government’s decision in July 2018 to allow the private sector a chance to sell cannabis and related products in storefronts is a dramatic, and welcome, shift from the previous plan to limit sales to a government-run store on the model of the LCBO.

The plan as currently laid out allows for privately owned storefronts to sell cannabis and related products (to be sold by the government as a wholesaler), and will allow for municipal governments to control licensing and bylaw issues, including a one-time only opportunity to opt out of allowing sales entirely.

At first glance, it seems like a massive victory for the cannabis industry. In reality, the new sales model presents some difficult challenges for the cannabis industry, which if not handled correctly could result in either an overly regulated licensing environment.

So what can you do if you want to open a cannabis storefront? Aside from engaging NATIONAL’s cross country team of government relations specialists to help you participate in the upcoming Ontario government consultations on private cannabis sales, you’ll need to open dialogues with cities in which you want to do business.

So how do you succeed in convincing municipal governments that you’re the right fit for their community?

1. Find out what the rules of engagement are and hire specialists

Every jurisdiction has different rules about lobbying. What is considered lobbying, what is proper or improper, what sort of reporting requirements exist, and various levels of transparency that feel awkward to industry leaders who sometimes need discretion for fear of competitors getting the better of a situation.

Following lobbying rules goes beyond ethics or legalities – it also demonstrates goodwill and a desire to operate as part of the system as a trustworthy stakeholder. For a file as sensitive as the sale of cannabis, goodwill and trust will be essential to your success as a vendor both financially, and as an institution of the community in which you are seeking to do business.

Thankfully you don’t need to do this alone. NATIONAL also has several consultants who have experience, and specialize, in municipal affairs who can navigate the system for you.

2. Understand that City Councillors matter, a lot

City Councillors can be a curious mix of rising political stars, or stars since fallen back down to earth from higher levels of politics. Or they are often intensely concerned citizens who have the community connections required to run for office and win. Some councillors stay in their seats until something better comes along, and some seem like they’re going to remain city councillors forever.

What makes them even more unique is the level of power individual councillors tend to have in the governance of their cities. Councillors can even bar certain sorts of developments from their wards either formally, or informally in conjunction with their colleagues who will be deferential in hopes of receiving the same deference in the future.

Perhaps most notably, there is no party system or ‘government whip’ system in Ontario cities that dictates how any individual councillor must vote. Therefore, unlike with the federal or provincial government, there is no smaller group of gatekeepers who can open and close doors to stakeholders. Each individual councillor will matter during these sorts of decisions, particularly if they hold a seat on planning and/or bylaw committees.

3. Realize that City Councillors depend on city staff for sound recommendations

Unlike the federal or provincial government, cities have far fewer civil servants who offer non-political policy and planning advice. In some jurisdictions, this group may be as small as a handful of dedicated staffers.

It is important to understand that while there may be fewer civil servants, mayors and city councillors are not always subject matter expects and heavily rely on these public officials for sound advice on many decisions. Therefore, because there are fewer civil servants it is absolutely necessary to cultivate them as allies simply because of their outsized influence on a city’s decision-making process.

4. Education is going to be essential for success

The legalization of cannabis has, and will, continue to be a source of many questions for politicians and city officials ranging from concerns about community policing, consumption issues, health risks, and youth and children to name just a few.

It will be necessary for industry to incorporate educational material (such as social and/or scientific research) in lobbying efforts along with standard bylaw and planning requests simply because this is not only new territory for many people – but also because of the stigma that accompanied the use and sale of cannabis for decades.

5. Public engagement will be necessary

This section is necessary because this is new territory for a lot of people including the public at-large. While public engagement campaigns may not be as necessary five or ten years after legalization, the fact that the stigma associated with cannabis has been so strong for so long, combined with lingering questions about health risks, youth, and children remain creates an environment where those who may want to enter the market to sell cannabis in Ontario may find themselves lobbying both the city and the public at large.

6. Measure expectations

Be reasonable in your expectation of what ‘victory’ looks like. City governments will likely not be okay with allowing a high density of cannabis retailers in their cities, it’s unlikely that cannabis stores will be common in suburban areas initially, and it is entirely possible that some municipal governments opt to outright ban the sale from their jurisdiction entirely.

However, this demonstrates that the work we do as government relations specialists is long term in many cases and will take time to yield favourable results. The key is to be persistent, cultivate a strong and positive relationship with municipal officials, and strive for the status of a trusted stakeholder.

As rap artist Snopp Dogg once said “sometimes a loss is the best thing that can happen. It teaches you what you should have done next time.”

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Written by Guillaume Lefèvre | Pascale Soucy

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