A 'Wild West' of marijuana stores is growing in Toronto

TORONTO — If you’re dreaming of a government-sanctioned joint, then you’ve come to the right city. The options along Queen Street West ...


TORONTO — If you’re dreaming of a government-sanctioned joint, then you’ve come to the right city.

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

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

“There’s a running joke in Toronto that dispensaries are sprinkled like parsley. They’re everywhere,” said Dalandrea Adams, an assistant standing behind the long glass counter – revealing pipes, grinders and rollers – inside Friendly Stranger. “Which is handy, if you’re a pothead.”

As Toronto slowly comes back to life after two years of repeated lockdowns and closures, the wreckage of the pandemic is surfacing like cigarette butts in snowdrifts of slush. Along the many main streets of the city’s neighborhoods, “For Rent” signs hang from dusty windows. Office towers in the dense city core remain almost empty.

The obvious exception: cannabis shops, which the provincial government authorized by emergency order to continue operating during the pandemic. There were just 12 in the sprawling city of 2.8 million people in March 2020. Today, 430 are vying for customers, and 88 more are in the process of being approved, even as some struggle to stay open amid fierce competition.

“It’s the wild Wild West,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, a city councilor who has backed cannabis legalization but called for a moratorium on new stores in the city.

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

Nowhere is this more evident than along Queen Street West.

For years, the downtown street has been known as the beating heart of the city for music, art and street fashion. Beginning at the Court of Appeals, it stretches past a jazz hall, restaurants and retail stores selling Doc Martens and sunglasses – all mixed together in narrow storefronts.

There’s an old instrument store where Bruce Cockburn bought guitars and concert halls where classic Canadian band Blue Rodeo and international stars like South African musician Hugh Masekela played on Friday nights.

Over the past two decades the street has gentrified and lost much of its guts – a Lululemon has replaced world music club BamBoo and many vintage clothing stores have been supplanted by chains. If only out of nostalgia, the band still retains its artistic and hipster reputation.

But lately, about the only thing that’s opened here are pot shops: there are 13 of them along a 1.4 kilometer strip.

“It’s like, ‘Oh look, another pot shop, next to the pot shop, across from the pot shop,'” Teddy Fury, who has been serving street beers for 35 years now, told the Horseshoe Tavern. Stores are just the latest trend he has seen and a busy store is better than an empty one, he said. But it raises an obvious question: “How stoned do people get?”

Reasons for the sudden proliferation across the city include the easing of licensing restrictions, an increase in available storefront space, and the government’s decision to allow cannabis stores to operate during shutdowns. While restaurants in Toronto were ordered to close for more than 60 weeks, according to Restaurants Canada, cannabis stores served customers — albeit sometimes right on their doorstep — for almost days.

“It’s been a perfect storm of supply and demand in Ontario,” said Jack Lloyd, a cannabis lawyer.

In 2018, Canada became the second country in the world after Uruguay to legalize marijuana, with the aim of extinguishing the criminal trade and keeping the substance out of the hands of young people by regulating the market. Stores appeared slowly at first, due to a shortage of legal marijuana. The provincial government only allowed 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 salespeople worked four retail floors of the Hunny Pot, walking an endless 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 turned up, said Cameron Brown, communications manager for the Hunny Pot, which now has 17 cannabis stores in Ontario.

“It was non-stop, all day, every day,” he said. “It was crazy.”

Competition remained limited in the first year. But just as the pandemic hit, the doors were thrown open for retail licensing. Unlike other jurisdictions across the country, the Ontario government has fostered unbridled competition, introducing one simple restriction on stores, requiring that they be no closer than 150 meters from a school.

In just three years, legal marijuana sales in Ontario have exceeded unlicensed sales estimates and boosted the economy by $10.6 billion, a recent government-sponsored report states. More Canadians are using it than before — 25% of people 16 and older, according to a recent Statistics Canada survey.

But strong competition has pushed some stores out of business.

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

“There are too many,” she said, sitting at the end of her cavernous, artfully decorated and visibly empty store, Cori, on a recent afternoon. “Certainly half of us will close. Everyone is burning cash at this point.

At their peak, early cannabis stores sold an average of $20,000 worth of marijuana a day, according to a government report. But the Hunny Pot is serving only a tenth of its record, Mr Brown said, forcing management to close everything but the lobby, where a budtender serves customers from a mere desk. Cori is lucky to see 60 people a day, said Ms Fukur, who plans to fill half a store with natural health and beauty products, hoping it will attract more customers.

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

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

“It looks like it’s still illegal,” said Ms. Fukur, who created a window display reminiscent of a health food store, with vases of dried flowers on wooden stumps. The nearby Bonnefire store appears like a walk in the Canadian bush, with birch trees, canoes and piles of logs.

Already, one of Queen West’s new stores has closed. Most expect others to follow. Still, the government is considering five other applications for cannabis stores on the Strip.

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

“Don’t they check the maps to see how close they are?” she said of the government office approving new stores.

She thinks she makes more money selling cannabis accessories than her neighbors selling weed.

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

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Newsrust - US Top News: A 'Wild West' of marijuana stores is growing in Toronto
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