A ‘Wild West’ of marijuana shops grows in Toronto

Toronto — If you’re longing for a government-approved joint, you’ve come to the right city.

Options are plentiful along Queen Street West. You can start at the Toronto Cannabis Authority, which suggests customers “warm up with hot cannabis-infused beverages.” You can walk a few steps down the sidewalk and enter Friendly Stranger, which traded nostalgia for the crates that took their first bong here, long before cannabis was legalized three and a half years ago. Or you can walk across the street to the Honey Pot, which made headlines In 2019, when it became the city’s first legal cannabis store and saw an overnight queue of customers.

And that’s just 1,000 square feet. Walk two minutes and three more options appear.

“There is an enduring joke in Toronto that dispensaries are sprinkled around like parsley. They are everywhere,” said Dalandria Adams, a badtender standing behind a tall glass display counter—of pipes, grinders, and rollers inside the friendly Stranger reveals. “Which is convenient, if you’re a pit.”

As Toronto slowly comes back to life after two years of repeated lockdowns and closures, the debris of the pandemic is coming out like cigarette butts in droplets of melted snow. Along the main streets of many of the city’s neighborhoods, “for lease” signs hang in dusty windows. Office towers are built in the dense core of the city mostly empty,

The obvious exception: cannabis shops, which were permitted by the provincial government by emergency order to continue operating during the pandemic. The sprawling city of 2.8 million had just 12 in March 2020. Today, 430 customers compete for, with another 88 in the approval process, some struggling to stay open even amid stiff competition.

“It’s the wild, wild west,” said Kristin Wong-Tam, a city councilor who supported the legalization of cannabis but called for a crackdown on new stores in the city.

“Never at any community meeting has anyone said, ‘Our neighborhood isn’t complete without a pot shop,'” she said. “But now, in some places, you can’t get groceries, but you can get weed.”

Nowhere is this more evident than on Queen Street West.

Over the years, Downtown Road has been known as the pulsating heart of the city for music, art, and street fashion. Starting at the Court of Appeal, it extends to a jazz hall, restaurant and retail store that sell Doc Martens and sunglasses – all linked together in cramped storefronts.

There is a vintage instrument shop where Bruce Cockburn picked up guitars and a music venue where international stars such as classic Canadian band Blue Rodeo and South African musician Hugh Masekela played on Friday nights.

Over the past two decades, the street has gentrified and lost much of its grit—a Lululemon has replaced the world-music Bamboo Club and many vintage clothing stores have been supplanted by chains. If only through nostalgia, the strip still retains its artsy, hipster reputation.

But lately, the only thing that has opened here are pottery shops: there are 13 at a distance of 1.4 kilometers.

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

Reasons for the sudden spread across the city include easing of license restrictions, increase in available storefront space and the government allowing cannabis shops to operate during the lockdown. While Toronto restaurants were ordered to close for more than 60 weeks, according to Canadian Restaurants, cannabis stores serve customers — though sometimes just at their doorstep — for all but certain days. For.

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

In 2018, Canada became second country in the world Uruguay followed suit to legalize marijuana, in an effort to end the criminal trade and keep the substance out of the hands of youth by regulating the market. Due to the lack of legal marijuana, stores appeared slowly at first. The provincial government allowed the opening of just five in Toronto, North America’s fourth largest city, in the spring of 2019.

Two of them were along Queen Street West.

Subsequently, some 20 salespeople worked Honey Pot’s four retail floors, walking a never-ending line of customers through the finer differences between different strains of marijuana. The store had two additional floors for celebrities to shop in private. On its best day, more than 2,000 customers came in, said Cameron Brown, communications manager for Honey Pot, which now has 17 cannabis stores in Ontario.

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

The competition was limited to the first year. But as the pandemic struck, the doors were open for retail licenses. Unlike other jurisdictions in the country, the Ontario government supported unbridled competition, imposing only a simple ban on stores that required them to be no more than 150 meters from the school.

In just three years, legal marijuana sales in Ontario have surpassed estimates for unlicensed sales and most recently boosted the economy by $10.6 billion. government sponsored report states. More Canadians consume it than ever before – 25 percent of those aged 16 and older, a . According to Recent Statistics Canada Survey,

But crowded competition has put some stores out of business.

By the time Lula Fukur’s license was finally approved, and she opened her first two cannabis shops on Queen West last year, there was already one across the street, and three others two blocks away.

“There are so many of them,” she said, sitting on a recent afternoon, at the end of her cavernous, artfully decorated and noticeably empty shop, Corrie. “Of course half of us will be laid off. Everyone is burning money at the moment.”

In their heyday, the first cannabis stores were selling marijuana for an average of $20,000 a day, according to a government report. But Honey Pot is serving just one-tenth of its record, Mr. Brown said, forcing management to close all but the front foyer, where a bystander serves customers from a simple desk. Kori is lucky to see 60 people a day, said Ms Fukur, who plans to fill half of a store with natural health and beauty products in the hopes it will attract more customers.

Even more than free competition, the biggest problem for store owners is their inability to differentiate their product, Ms. Fukur said. Every legal store is required to obtain its supplies from a government wholesaler. That means they all sell the same stuff, in the same plain, sealed package.

Most have tried to woo customers with friendly, knowledgeable service and unique interior design – a daunting feat, given government regulations making hemp or stuff visible from the street.

“It looks like it’s still illegal,” said Ms Fukur, who has created a window display reminiscent of a health food store with a vase of dried flowers on a wooden stump. The nearby shop bonfires seem like a stroll through the Canadian bush with birch trees, canoes and log piles.

A new Queen West store has already closed. Most are expected to follow. Still, the government is reviewing another five applications for cannabis shops on the Patti.

Hollywood Hi is an old-fashioned head shop a few doors down from Friendly Stranger. Its window is filled with rolling trays and a giant inflatable joint—only allowed because the store isn’t selling cannabis. The owner, Christina Siddio, applied for a cannabis license two years ago. He still hasn’t, and he’s happy about it.

“Don’t they check the maps to see how close they are?” She said about the government office approving the new store.

She believes that she is making more money selling cannabis items than selling her neighbors’ utensils.

“Yeah, I don’t have cannabis,” she said. “At this point, with saturation, I don’t want to. They can have it.”

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