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Ontario government takes first steps to roll out LCBO-run cannabis stores

TORONTO — Municipalities in Ontario will find out in the coming weeks where the government wants to locate the first batch of provincially run cannabis stores once recreational marijuana is legalized next summer.

In a letter to local authorities sent Friday, Finance Minister Charles Sousa said Ontario's store roll out aims to achieve the right geographic distribution across the province and to reduce the number of illegal marijuana dispensaries that have opened since the federal government announced its plans to legalize pot.

Sousa said a subsidiary of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario will run the stores and the agency itself will oversee the planning process to establish their locations.

"Our proposed approach is to build on the expertise and back-office capabilities of the LCBO to set up the Crown Corporation," Sousa said in the letter to municipalities. "Our priority is to reduce the illegal market by building on our strengths to create an efficient and secure system for people across the province."

Sousa said the LCBO will notify municipalities about the proposed cannabis shop locations in the coming weeks and will work with officials in each community to address any concerns.

The public will also be notified about the proposed store locations and will be asked to provide feedback directly to the LCBO, he said.

None of the retail stores will be located near schools, Sousa said.

"As we establish a new legal retail system for cannabis, it is critical that we do so with the objectives of protecting our youth and addressing the illegal market," he said.

The federal government introduced legislation in April with a goal of legalizing and regulating the use of recreational pot by July 1, 2018, but left it up to individual provinces to design their own distribution system and usage regulations.

Ontario was the first province to announce a detailed plan to sell and distribute recreational marijuana and will set the legal age to purchase it at 19.

The province plans to set up approximately 150 standalone cannabis stores by 2020.

The first wave of 40 stores will open in 2018 with that number rising to 80 stores by July 2019.

Consumption of legal weed will not be allowed in public spaces or workplaces and should be confined to private residences, the province has said.

Attorney General Yasir Naqvi has said the government will clamp down on illegal distribution channels, which include dispensaries that have cropped up in recent months in anticipation of widespread legalization.

"Illicit cannabis dispensaries are not legal now and will not be legal retailers under the new model," Naqvi said in September. "These pot dispensaries are illegal and will be shut down. If you operate one of these facilities, consider yourself on notice."

Earlier this month, Toronto city council passed a resolution affirming its support for the provincially run cannabis stores but also asked for "detailed guidance and adequate resources and authorities to enforce regulations".

A spokesman for Toronto Mayor John Tory said the city wants to ensure the focus is on neighbourhood safety, public health and ensuring the city isn't "burdened with the additional costs created by these changes."

"(Mayor Tory) has stressed that there should not be an excessive number of these stores and they should be located in a way that places a premium on neighbourhood safety," Don Peat said in a statement.

Association of Municipalities of Ontario President Lynn Dollin said her group's members are waiting for more details from the province on how it plans to fund enforcement measures that include efforts to close illegal storefront operations.

"We're still wanting to have that conversation with the province (about) the implications of this decision and how it will effect local communities and what resources will be necessary in the future to deal with this," she said.

Dollin said each community also needs to be consulted to ensure growth isn't impacted or future school locations aren't scuttled.

"What we're always trying to tell the government is that one size does not fit all," she said. "What works in Windsor might not necessarily work in Bracebridge."

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