City officials welcome provincial funding as Ottawa braces for marijuana legalization

Funding to be allocated to municipalities based on number of households, size of police services

The Ontario government will be passing along $40 million of the federal excise tax on cannabis over to municipalities to help cover the costs of pot legalization. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ottawa police and city politicians are welcoming the province’s announcement of a $40-million transfer to help municipalities with law enforcement and safety costs associated with pot legalization — though they are still waiting for details.

The government of Ontario said Friday the money, which will be provided to municipalities upfront, will come from the first two years of federal duties on pot producers.

The province will divide the money between municipalities on a per household basis, though officials did not provide CBC News with details of how much of the $40 million will be allocated to Ottawa.

Mayor Jim Watson has previously called for $8 million from the provincial and federal governments to help cover the cost of pot legalization.

In a statement after the provincial announcement, the mayor was “pleased” Ontario had taken the step and repeated that the “upper levels of government” should cover the local costs of the new law.

‘A step in the right direction’

Coun. Eli El Chantiry, chair of the Ottawa Police Services Board and president of the provincial association of police boards, said some details still need to be sorted out, but the announcement is good news.

“It was a step in the right direction, it was a recognition from the province that the municipality is going to bear a huge burden,” El Chantiry said.

He said it will likely take two years to really understand the cost of pot legalization, as police services buy new equipment and adopt new practices.

Costs may go down, he said, as investigations into minor possession become a thing of the past and illegal dispensaries are shut down.

The Ottawa Police Service has pegged its needs at $6.2 million to prepare officers for new enforcement responsibilities, but have qualified the estimate as being based on incomplete information and preliminary assumptions.

‘We’re not ready’

Insp. Murray Knowles, the business lead on the Ottawa police cannabis transition team, said the news of provincial funding is encouraging, but it’s hard to assess its value.

“Are we ready? No, we’re not ready,” Knowles said. “I don’t know what enough is because we don’t know what the requirements are yet.”

Knowles said the provincial funding will be used, in part, to cover the expenses of training officers, who need to be able to detect impairment caused by pot consumption and defend their assessment in court — for example, in impaired driving cases.

“I really don’t want our front line people unprepared because we didn’t give them the proper tools to do their job,” Knowles said. “And I’m afraid that without proper preparation and proper notice and proper actions from the province and from the federal government that we may be doing that.”

Knowles said there’s a risk of establishing bad case law in the absence of the cannabis equivalent of a breathalyzer test for alcohol, which adds to the importance of training.

“It’s substantial training. It’s not cheap training. They have to be able to justify and articulate in court why they think someone is buzzed and they’re driving,” he said.

In a statement, Ontario’s Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services said the province is training an additional 1,500 officers in the standard field sobriety test and training 60 more officers as drug recognition experts by July 2018.

The ministry says there are currently 1,500 officers trained in the sobriety test and 200 drug recognition experts. It will also be hiring additional forensic experts for toxicology testing.

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