A ‘wild west’ of marijuana stores is growing in Toronto

TORONTO – If you are longing for a government-approved joint, then you have come to the right city.

The opportunities along Queen Street West are plentiful. You can start at the Toronto Cannabis Authority, with a sign outside suggesting customers “warm up with hot cannabis-infused beverages.” One could take a few steps down the sidewalk and get into Friendly Stranger, which deals with nostalgia for tokers who picked up their first bong here, long before cannabis was legalized three and a half years ago. Or you can hurry across the street to Hunny Pot, which made headlines in 2019 when it became the city’s first legal cannabis store and saw a number of customers overnight.

And it’s only 1,000 square feet. Go two minutes and three more options appear.

“There’s a standing joke in Toronto that pharmacies are sprinkled around like parsley. They’re everywhere,” said Dalandrea Adams, a courier who stood behind the long glass counter – revealing pipes, grinders and rollers – inside Friendly Stranger. is practical if you are a potter. “

While Toronto is slowly coming back to life after two years of repeated shutdowns and closures, the wreckage of the pandemic is popping up on the surface like cigarette butts in melted snow drifts. Along the city’s many main streets in the neighborhood, “For Rent” signs hang in dusty windows. Office towers in the dense core of the city remain largely empty.

The obvious exception: cannabis shops, which the provincial government allowed by emergency order to continue operations during the pandemic. There were only 12 in the sprawling city with 2.8 million left in March 2020. Today, 430 are competing for customers, with another 88 in the approval process, though some are struggling to stay open in the midst of fierce competition.

“It’s the wild, wild west,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, a city council member who supported the legalization of cannabis but has called for a moratorium on new shops in the city.

“Never at any community meeting has anyone said, ‘Our neighborhood is not complete without a pot store,'” she said. “But now, in some places, you can not get groceries, but you can get weeds.”

Nowhere is it more evident than along Queen Street West.

For years, the city center road has been known as the city’s vibrant heart for music, art and street fashion. Starting at the Court of Appeal, it stretches past a jazz hall, restaurants and retail stores selling Doc Martens and sunglasses – all mixed in tight storefronts.

There’s an old instrument store where Bruce Cockburn picked up guitars, and venues where the classic Canadian band Blue Rodeo and international stars like the South African musician Hugh Masekela played on Friday night.

Over the past two decades, the street has gentrified and lost much of its gravel – a Lululemon replaced the world music club BamBoo, and many of the vintage clothing stores have been displaced by chains. Though through nostalgia, the strip still retains its artistic, hipster reputation.

But lately, almost the only thing that has opened here is pottery: There are 13 along a 1.4-kilometer-long tow.

“It’s like, ‘Oh look, another pot store, next to the pot store, across from the pot store,'” said Teddy Fury, who has been serving beer on the street for 35 years now at Horseshoe Tavern. The stores are just the latest trend he has seen, and an occupied store is better than an empty one, he said. But it raises an obvious question: “How stony do people become?”

The reasons for the sudden spread across the city include loosening licensing restrictions, an increase in available storefront space and the government’s decision to allow cannabis stores to operate during closures. While restaurants in Toronto were ordered to close for more than 60 weeks, according to Restaurants Canada, cannabis stores served customers – though sometimes just at their doors – for all but a handful of days.

“It was a perfect storm of supply and demand in Ontario,” said Jack Lloyd, a lawyer specializing in cannabis.

In 2018, Canada became the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize marijuana in an attempt to eradicate the criminal trade and keep the drug out of the hands of young people by regulating the market. The stores first appeared slowly due to lack of legal marijuana. The provincial government allowed only five to open in Toronto, North America’s fourth largest city, in the spring of 2019.

Two of them were along Queen Street West.

At the time, about 20 vendors worked on four retail floors in Hunny Pot, where they walked an endless array of customers through the finer differences between different marijuana strains. The store had two extra floors for celebrities so they could shop privately. On its best day, more than 2,000 customers came through, said Cameron Brown, communications manager for Hunny Pot, which now has 17 cannabis stores in Ontario.

“It was nonstop, all day, every day,” he said. “It was insane.”

Competition remained limited the first year. But just as the pandemic came, the doors were thrown wide open for retail licenses. Unlike other jurisdictions in the country, the Ontario government favored unrestrained competition and introduced just one simple restriction on stores that require them to be no closer than 150 meters from a school.

In just three years, the sale of legal marijuana in Ontario has surpassed estimates of unlicensed sales and boosted the economy by $ 10.6 billion, according to a recent government-sponsored report. More Canadians are consuming it than before – 25 percent of people aged 16 and up, according to a recent survey by Statistics Canada.

But the crowded competition has pushed some stores out of operation.

When Lula Fukur’s license was finally approved, and she opened her first of two cannabis shops on Queen West last year, there was already one across the street, with three more open two streets away.

“There are too many of them,” she said as she sat at the end of her hollow, artfully decorated and noticeably empty store, Cori, one recent afternoon. “Obviously, half of us will shut down. Everyone is burning money at this point.”

In their heyday, the first cannabis stores sold an average of $ 20,000 a day in marijuana, according to a government report. But Hunny Pot serves only one-tenth of its record, Mr. Brown, and forced management to close everything except the front foyer, where a bidder serves customers from a simple desk. Cori is lucky to see 60 people a day, said Ms. Fukur, who plans to fill half a store with natural wellness and beauty products in hopes of attracting more customers.

Even more than unbridled competition, the biggest problem for store owners is an inability to differentiate their product, Ms Fukur said. Every legitimate store is required to get their supply from the public wholesaler. That means they all sell the same things, in the same regular, sealed packages.

Most have tried to entice customers with friendly, knowledgeable service and unique interior design – a difficult feat, as government rules prohibit cannabis or accessories from being visible from the street.

“It feels like it’s still illegal,” said Ms Fukur, who has created a window display reminiscent of a health food store, with vases of dried flowers on tree stumps. The nearby Bonnefire shop is like a walk into the Canadian bush, with birch trees, canoes and beams.

Already now one of the new stores on Queen West closed. Most expect more to follow. Still, the government is reviewing five more applications for cannabis shops on the strip.

Hollywood Hi is an old-fashioned main store a few doors down from Friendly Stranger. Its window is filled with rolling trays and a giant inflatable joint – only allowed because the store does not sell cannabis. The owner, Christina Ciddio, applied for a cannabis license two years ago. She still does not have it, and she is happy about it.

“Do they not check briefly to see how close they are?” she said of the government office approving new stores.

She reckons she makes more money selling cannabis equipment than her neighbors do by selling pot.

“Yes, I do not have cannabis,” she said. “At this point, with the saturation, I will not. They can get it.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *