Opinion: Dear Toronto, we need to talk about your weed problem

Mar 25 2021, 11:46 am

Dear Toronto,

We hoped it wouldn’t come to this. But we need to talk.

You’ve become a city of vacant storefronts, fast food chains, and – most notably – a seemingly endless and rapidly growing number of weed shops. To be blunt (no pun intended), there’s nothing inspiring about it.

To date, the Alcohol Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO) has issued 119 licences (at time of writing) for cannabis retail store authorization within your confines, with 127 currently officially under review (with some of the latter so close to reality that the store signage is already up).

Once an appreciated novelty, pot shops are now quite literally everywhere.

weed toronto

Shutterstock

At the onset of quarantine measures, it was one thing to see your incredible theatres and stunning event venues sit empty; to pass your taped-off playgrounds that resembled crime scenes; and to photograph your eerily desolate downtown streets and office buildings.

Last April, we acknowledged that this was an undeniably sad sight…but your current state is quite another story altogether. You’ve completely lost yourself. And it’s not okay.

First off, your downward spiral is obviously understandable. You had a relentless global pandemic to contend with, and, devastatingly, became the most locked-down city in all of North America in the process. It was a life-altering blow.

Like countless cities around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic turned you upside down almost instantly, quite literally depleting you of your lifeblood and personality. Within weeks, it rendered you a shell of what you were when we entered 2020 – North America’s fastest-growing city and a perpetually bustling culture and culinary mecca – as the non-stop street traffic disappeared and lights went off and stayed off in surrounding businesses.

We’d hoped it would be fleeting – a dark phase that would be but a blip in the radar by now – a full year later. But, as treasured independent restaurants and retailers began to permanently close their doors and your storied streets began to fill with “for lease” signs, it became evident that you really were in for the fight of your life.

Somewhere in the midst of this, an influx of pot shops began to pop up once the warmer weather rolled in last year – and they haven’t stopped invading your streets since. There’s no denying that it’s become an issue.

bonify cannabis retail

Shutterstock

Now, let’s be clear: it was a magnificent day when Canada finally legalized cannabis in all of its multi-benefit glory. And it’s admittedly quite convenient that the closest dispensary is within a few blocks anywhere in the downtown core. But the sheer number – many would say, over-saturation – of weed spots is the problem here.

It’s too much of a good thing.

In December 2020, the AGCO announced it would double its cannabis Retail Store Authorizations (RSAs) and issue up to 80 each month. Then, in February, it said it would authorize 30 per week. The goal is to approve 1,000 stores across the province by fall.

These days, it’s not uncommon to see three or more cannabis dispensaries within the same block; sometimes, right next door to one another. It started last summer when Yonge Street somehow became “the green mile,” with at least five dispensaries between Dundas and College streets.

Now, there will soon be three dispensaries on the same side of the street, in one single short block of your once tourist-filled St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood (shoutout to the friendly folks at Meta Cannabis, who came first). Over in Riverdale, there is a cluster of seven(!) pot shops right near the Queen and Broadview intersection. Meanwhile, there are about 10 dispensaries clustered in the Queen West neighbourhood.

It’s a similar story throughout the city. If it’s not a pot shop, it’s a shuttered storefront or a fast food joint.

It seems the fast food spots are practically the only businesses thriving – or even still standing – in these times, hence their increasing relative saturation on city streets. Really, it began with the impossible-to-ignore invasion of A&W locations a few years back that continues to this day.

Restaurants Canada covid-19 survey

Closed restaurant (Shutterstock)

On the other hand, since the start of COVID, you’ve lost hundreds of precious local businesses that just weren’t able to sustain the economic blow of the relentless pandemic and its never-ending lockdown measures. We’ve kissed some of our favourite brunch spots, special occasion go-tos, and beloved bakeshops goodbye for good. The places that once brightened people’s moods now serve as depressingly lifeless reminders of your demise.

Now, clusters of pot shops – with their covered windows (an Ontario regulation) – threaten the once rich and vibrant diversity of neighbourhood main streets at an already incredibly difficult time for local businesses.

Some may argue that pot shops are at least helping to breathe some life into your storefront commercial real estate, keeping people employed and neighbourhoods afloat during these trying economic times. Fair point. But we could see even more shuttered storefronts when many can’t stay in business due to stiff competition. Or, if clusters of dispensaries are super successful, the success could drive up rents and make it impossible for smaller, hard-hit retailers to stay – especially in the event of a potential third wave of COVID-19.

This warned-about third wave could have your core looking even more like Detroit than you do now (no offence to Detroit, but you’re in another league altogether) if we lose even more local businesses.

No doubt, there’s an undeniable market for cannabis; with the pandemic, people are smoking more weed than ever. Statistics Canada says Canada’s cannabis sales increased by nearly 30% between May and September of last year. It’s safe to say COVID-19 likely resulted in countless new cannabis customers.

And – in the grips of this global pandemic that’s costing Ontario billions of dollars – the provincial government is finally starting to make a profit from the pot shops. Some may indeed argue that we need all the cash (i.e., pot shops) we can get. On the flip side, however, tired taxpayers may want to see their hard-earned dollars go elsewhere, rather than to pay the salaries of Ontario Cannabis Store employees.

Then, there’s the growing backlash from pot shop owners regarding the role of the government, who they feel is profiting grossly at their expense in their role as a wholesaler. A growing number of local BIAs and politicians aren’t happy either and are understandably calling for tighter regulations from the province in the cannabis retail approval process.

So, it’s becoming a bit of a complicated mess. There’s no denying that.

But there’s so much more to you than this, despite how well the fast food spots pair with the pot shops for the stoner set.

In time, your world-famous layers and colours will return, hopefully, more vibrant than ever. You have so much support in this. We want our city back. We’re all here and waiting to bring you back to life; to wine and dine in your restaurants, sing our lungs out in your concert venues and karaoke spots, and build new diverse businesses…instead of yet another dispensary.

Let’s just hope you don’t lose even more of your heart and soul in the meantime.

Erin Nicole DavisErin Nicole Davis

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