Retail cannabis outlets in Osoyoos will likely be in a local business licensing class of their own as they begin to open later this spring.

After wrapping up debate that began in mid-January, Council gave three readings to a bylaw amendment Monday that sets a $500 business licensing fee — $200 more than that paid by any other permanent business in the community — for retail cannabis outlets.

And, just like the discussion Jan. 22, Monday’s conversation was divisive, with three Council members — Mayor Sue McKortoff and councillors Jim King and Myers Bennett — in favour of the $500 fee and two others — CJ Rhodes and Brian Harvey — preferring a $300 fee.

Coun. Harvey encouraged his Council colleagues to set a more modest fee based on “relevant criteria such as models, concepts and principles to underpin it” and directed their attention to the existing business licensing bylaw and an attached schedule of fees.

That schedule is comprised of 13 business classes, among them one that includes a $300 fee for banks, credit unions, hardware stores and drug stores.

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“Cannabis retail outlets are drug stores,” he suggested. “It seems to be that [the classes and fees paid] are based on size. We’re talking about a small retail outlet here.

“I don’t want to see a [fee] go in here that’s based on considerations that aren’t grounded — fear of the evil weed or something of that nature.”

Coun. CJ Rhodes agreed, suggesting the “$500 fee is very punitive.”

“These are new businesses that are coming into our community,” he said. “It is absolutely mandatory that we be supportive of everything that they do. They are legitimate legal businesses.

“I do not like pulling a particular segment of our business out and charging a fee that’s different than everybody else’s.”

The argument on the other side of the Council table appeared to be based on an expected effort on the part of the Town’s planning and Development Services department to update the business licensing structure and raise fees across the board.

Coun. Bennett, who did not participate in the Jan. 22 debate that ended in two deadlocked votes, suggested he would support the $500 licensing fee because he expected “in a couple of months from now” it would be raised to that amount anyway even if it were initially set at $300.

“[That] doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.

However, a document delivered to Council in December suggests six levels of licensing fees would not be created until 2020. The proposed fee structure would keep banks and financial institutions at $300 until 2021 when they would increase to $500.

The document makes no mention of drugstores but does propose a $1,000 fee for cannabis outlets.

It also suggests 2021 licensing fees that range from $300 for most commercial businesses in the community — including home-based businesses — and up to $500 for hotels, motels and licensed restaurants.

Coun. Rhodes rejected Coun. Bennett’s argument, noting “I always hate making decisions based on things that may or may not happen in the future.”

CAO Barry Romanko also noted the drug stores included in the existing licensing schedule are “pharmaceutical-type of drug stores — prescription drugstores, over-the-counter drugstores.”

A change to Zoning Amendment Bylaw No. 1085.115, 2018 is necessary to add licensing amounts for retail cannabis stores — which cannot open until they have a business license in place.

Three site-specific applications are before Council — including two that are awaiting final approval from Council and another approval from the provincial government.

“It’s fairly important that we make a decision on this — even if it is only short-term,” said Gina MacKay, the Town’s Director of Planning and Development Services.

“It is quite likely that a cannabis license should be issued for, at least the first application, I would say within a month.”

The licensing amount appears to be of little consequence to the potential pot vendors, one noting he would gladly pay much more for the opportunity to sell in the community.

“That’s very nice because I thought it would be a heck of a lot more,” said OC Canna applicant Richard Stagg of the $500 amount. “I thought it would probably be around the $3,500 to $5,000 range.”

Council is expected to give a final reading to the bylaw amendment at its Feb. 19 meeting.

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