BRAUN: How many pot shops is too many?

January 31, 2021 By Liz Braun, Toronto Sun

While we’ve been in our COVID lockdown, things evolved in the world of legal pot.

Gone is the cannabis lottery. The rules have changed.

And the stores are multiplying.

Toronto grew from five pot shops to 40 in the first six months of 2020. According to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, there are 1,300 pot shop applications and 269 shops had opened in the province as of Jan. 15.

According to Mayor John Tory’s office, the AGCO issued 122 licenses for retail store authorization in Toronto, has 244 applications underway and has nine licenses in the public consultation stage.

All of which is to say there’s a pot shop coming to a neighbourhood near you.

Cannabis clustering has become a hot topic, with various places in Toronto getting what looks like a glut of stores concentrated within a few blocks.

It’s happening on parts of Queen St., on Yonge St., in the Junction, and around Yorkville. The mayor and city council are not happy about it but there’s not much they can do — it’s all controlled by the province.

Some worry that this concentration will harm neighbourhoods, bringing in undesirables, or perhaps increasing crime.

On a business level, pot shop clusters could dictate the tone of the area. Their success will drive rents and make it impossible for smaller retailers to stay.

Their failure will mean empty storefronts, always a blight on a city block.

On the pro side, clustering has made retail sense since the old days when Eatons and Simpsons existed on the same block of Yonge.  It’s why so many luxury retailers are situated in a few blocks of Bloor St.

Whether a five-kilometre stretch of Yonge can support 30 proposed pot shops remains to be seen. Richard Garner, a communications consultant and former vice president of media and communications for Biome, thinks there’s likely room for all.

Garner knows the cannabis sector well. He also knows various neighbourhoods and city councillors have complained about clusters of shops, but says that’s maybe an antiquated generational response.

“People worry about becoming a neighbourhood of deplorables. In their mind’s eye, they see the typical “Cheech and Chong” client.

“We need to get past that.”

A lot of people consume cannabis — that’s not in doubt. So empty storefronts are unlikely.

“You could argue that cannabis is fairly recession-proof. And maybe sales will be better in times like this. Certainly alcohol sales have increased during COVID.”

Other shops can benefit from having a pot shop nearby, said Garner. It brings in customers, and people getting cannabis curbside service might also pick up coffee or a take-out meal while they’re in the neighbourhood.

“Fears of pot shops closing and creating a ghost town in a neighbourhood are less legitimate than fears of restaurants or dry cleaners closing.”

Garner said he thinks business improvement groups would be wise to work with cannabis retailers.

“Cannabis sells like hotcakes, and during COVID, probably even more so. Some would say a cluster of pot shops could save a neighbourhood.”

Maybe so, but Councillor Paula Fletcher is concerned about a cannabis cluster on a strip of Queen St. E. — around Broadview Ave. — in her ward.

She has real concerns about the long-term effects on the neighbourhood. This particular section of Queen East has been slowly revitalizing over the years.

“It’s not lettuce or red peppers being sold. Cannabis is a restricted substance. Just as with alcohol, it’s a regulated substance, so it’s special in some way.”

Fletcher said the original plan under the Liberals, which would have seen pot shops located and run on the LCBO model, made sense, adding “siting was carefully done.”

But Ford switched to the corner store model: pot shops are everywhere, all selling just about the same things.

“Seven in two city blocks just dominates the landscape for other businesses. Think of all the restrictions,” said Fletcher.

“You have to show ID, the store windows have to be blacked out, there’s a bouncer at the door. It’s cordoned off. It’s not a normal shop.

“That’s all got to have a dampening effect on the vitality of the whole block.”

Nobody’s worried about the legalization of marijuana, Fletcher said.

“But the preponderance of shops, all in one block, across from a child-care (centre), a rec centre and housing for vulnerable people — it’s like having seven LCBO outlets in a row. Or seven methadone clinics.  They’re all legal, but we’re careful where we put them.

“This model has a lot of people concerned.”

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