Credit where credit is due: Collingwood council this week voted unanimously to allow a cannabis store to open here. That came as somewhat of a surprise given earlier negative comments from come councillors, but in the end they all agreed to it. It made sense to say yes, given that pot is now legal in Canada. Saying no would have made the community seem both out-of-touch and fusty, and would have reinforced the resolutely-closed-for-business reputation that last council gave our town.
But the staff report also shows that there is still a deep prohibition-era thinking in town hall. Take a look at the map, above, showing in blue the 200-metre buffer staff thinks need to created to prevent stores from opening nearby. Like parks, for example. Although there is no logical reason to ban sales near parks, the proposed 200 meter buffer basically rules out all of the commercial space and strip malls along First Street.
And who decided 200 metres is appropriate for anything? Would anything change if it was reduced to 100? or 50? How about 1.5m, the width of most sidewalks? Is there some scientific research that says a community is safer, more morally upright if cannabis stores are 200 metres from, say, an arboretum, bench or labyrinth? I half-expected staff to show council a clip from the 1936 film Reefer Madness as the reference to back up their recommendations.*
Within those very buffer zones, the town already has retaillers selling alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. You can get drunk in a dozen restaurants and bars along First Street, but staff think someone selling pot nearby is a threat? Do staff really believe that selling legal pot will corrupt park visitors in ways that, say, legal opioids or cheap whisky don’t? Or that strollers walking their dog along a trail will suddenly be overcome and engage in crimes of moral turpitude when they inadvertently come within 200 metres of a cannabis store? I say we got trouble my friends, right here in River City… **
And as for tobacco – it’s the most insidious, nasty product you can buy legally: addictive, cancer-causing, and dirty. Our parks, streets and beaches are already heavily littered with toxic cigarette butts. Butts are the ocean’s “single largest source of trash” according to data collected by NGO Ocean Conservancy. Smokers are universally dirty – I’ve never met one in all my years who didn’t litter. Just take a look at the sidewalk in front of the coffee shops downtown, or the deep reefs of discarded butts beside Wal-Mart or other box stores where staff go to smoke. Do town staff (who do nothing about the toxic butt problem let alone smoking on public property) really think a single pot store is worse than all those smokers and the outlets where they can buy their drugs?
Personally, I would prefer to see a store downtown because it would be good for the downtown economy. But I don’t think it should be the only viable area offered for a retail outlet: location should be the retailler’s choice based on their business model and own studies (and concerns like parking). Arbitrarily limiting its location might be a fine way to do things in the old Soviet planning system, but those of us who still believe in free enterprise have always found that system rather stifling.
Cannabis should be treated the same way as alcohol and other drugs. We already have zoning in place to limit where retail or commercial operations can take place. Why create artificial buffer zones when we already have all the necessary planning rules? All that will do is add another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to the process in a town already labelled closed for business.
But maybe that’s the goal.
According to Collingwood Today, the town had 1,400 responses to an online survey about cannabis sales. This prompted Counc. Bob Madigan to comment:
“The people have spoken,” he said. “Seventy-seven per cent of the people in Collingwood want it.”
Well, no, Bob. I hate to burst your mathematically-challenged bubble, but 77% of an online survey is not 77% of the population. Not even close.
First of all, every online survey dis-enfranchises people without a computer or mobile device (we saw what happened to those people when the town went with an online-only municipal election last year – a drop of 20% in the voter turnout!). Second, there was no way to eliminate respondents from outside the municipality or to prevent multiple responses (cookie-based authentication is easily bypassed through incognito windows and VPns, and IP-based identification is at best good for a geographic region, not municipal boundaries). And third – how was the survey advertised and promoted? Online (see the first issue)? Or on the town page in the increasingly-unread, ad-dense local paper (aka flyer wrapper)? To have an effective reach, you would need to advertise it to all residents through the mail so that each household received notice and had an option to respond offline or access a public computer.
So the town’s survey was not representative of the community, but rather only of a small group of people who were interested in or had a vested interest in responding, had the technological means to do so, and who may have responded multiple times. In other words: it was balderdash, statistically speaking. Using a ouija board in future would be as accurate and a lot less effort for staff to assemble.
For the survey to be valid, it needed to have all sorts of qualifiers simply to make sure people don’t vote more than once, or to be sure respondents are from the town and not outside. The town’s poll had none of those.
In general, internet polls are not valid for anything more than entertainment. I wrote about the inaccuracy of such surveys back in 2012 and 2013, noting the bias in such polls, and the lack of scientific and statistical constraints to ensure accuracy and validity:
Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.
In subsequent piece on polls in 2014, I quoted an article titled “No Data Are Better Than Bad Data,” that noted (emphasis added) “…self-selected opinion polls result in a sample of people who decide to take the survey — not a sample of scientifically selected respondents who represent the larger population.” I also quoted:
…obtaining representative, unbiased, scientifically valid results from online surveys is not possible at this time, except in the case of the closed population surveys, such as with employee surveys, described earlier. This is because, from the outset, there is no such thing as a complete and valid sample — some people are systematically excluded, which is the very definition of bias. In addition, there is no control over who completes the survey or how many times they complete the survey. These biases increase in a stepwise manner, starting out with the basic issue of excluding those without Internet access, then non-response bias, then stakeholder bias, then unverified respondents. As each of these becomes an issue, the data become farther and farther removed from being representative of the population as a whole.
But there’s Bob claiming the opposite against all evidence to the contrary.
That doesn’t invalidate council’s decision – just points out a significant flaw in its decision-making process. I can only hope that isn’t the way other decisions will be made this term and that there is at least some resort to valid data.
* I almost expected for staff to start singing the song Trouble in River City from The Music Man play that humorously warned of the moral degradation of pool halls on the youth of America:
The first big step on the road
To the depths of deg-ra-day–
I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon
Then beer from a bottle!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be fritterin’ away
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’!
Fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too!
Never mind gettin’ dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Til your parents are caught with the cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble
Yes you got lots and lots of trouble…
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Rag-time, shameless music
That’ll grab your son, your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!
** Schools also have a similar 200m buffer around them. It’s okay to have a convenience store, coffee shop and candy store 20 or so metres from the local high school, though. Sugar, junk food, tobacco and caffeine are just what teenagers need, right?