Two Toronto councillors want the province to stop issuing new cannabis retail licences until residents have more say over where pot shops are located in their communities.
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam and Coun. Paula Fletcher will ask city council on Tuesday to request that the Ontario government hit pause on new cannabis retail licences for a year, or until a private member's bill on the issue becomes law. The councillors are concerned about the concentration of cannabis shops in Toronto and their proximity to one another.
The private member's bill, Bill 29, Cannabis Licence Amendment Act, 2021, would allow municipalities to have more say on where and how many cannabis licences can be issued. NDP MPP Marit Stiles introduced the bill, which has passed first reading in the Ontario legislature.
Wong-Tam, who represents Ward 13, Toronto Centre, said on Sunday that her constituents are concerned about the number of cannabis stores in their neighbourhoods and she is concerned about the lack of control that city council has over where they are located. She estimates there are about 300 cannabis stores now in Toronto and said they could "cannibalize" main streets.
There is less diversity of retail because of the concentration and proliferation of cannabis shops, she said. It's also not clear why there are so many close together in some areas, she added.
"It's been a very fast, rapid number of stores that have opened. In many neighbourhoods, there seems to be a concentration of them," Wong-Tam said.
"Oftentimes, they are on main streets, where we see dynamic and diverse retailers. Oftentimes, those stores are now being taken over by cannabis shops. And so that means that we're seeing less variety and diversity in the number of retailers. And that's not necessarily great for commercial streets."
Constituents have complained to her office, she said. People live and work in neighbourhoods where there are a lot of cannabis shops, she noted. Cannabis retailers themselves have complained about the number, she said.
"We're hearing from operators and retailers across the city, small mom and pop shops, whether it's on the Danforth or Queen Street West, saying that they can't compete with the high profitability of cannabis stores. Restaurants as well as bars and small green grocery stores just are competing for this prime real estate and they're being outbid," she said.
"We want to see a variety of shops. We want to see a variety of retailers. In order for us to be a very competitive city, I think you need to have our main streets thrive. And at this point in time, what we're seeing is just too many stores, cannabis retailers, that are opening up in close proximity to one another."
Wong-Tam and Fletcher want council to endorse the private member's bill and notify the province that Toronto has endorsed it.
According to the item to be considered by council on Tuesday, municipalities are allowed feedback on the sale of controlled substances through the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). To serve or sell alcohol in Toronto, a person needs a liquor licence from the commission and may need documentation from the city to support applications for certain licences, the item says.
"This process could and should apply to cannabis retailers as well," the item reads.
Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General and the AGCO have not responded to a request for comment from CBC Toronto.
Stiles, who represents Davenport, said she is encouraged that the city may endorse her bill and thinks that support will help to convince the province that communities need a larger voice in where the pot shops are located. She said small businesses in her riding have contacted her about the concentration of cannabis shops.
The bill was introduced two years ago before the pandemic hit and she had to reintroduce the bill.
"I am a supporter of the legalization of cannabis. And I'm excited about this new exciting industry that's emerging. And I do think that, to some extent, natural market forces will reduce the numbers and the concentration we're seeing now," Stiles said.
"But again, I think it's really important, when we're talking about a regulated industry like this, that we do make sure that communities have some say, in especially that proximity issue."
Doing nothing not good policy, expert says
Adam Vassos, president of the Retail Cannabis Council of Ontario, said the motion may be "coming from a good place," but it may be "ill-conceived." Once a municipality opts into the provincial mandate for licensing retail cannabis stores, it loses the jurisdiction to govern or regulate cannabis stores through bylaws, he said.
Vassos, however, said the city can take action by shutting down illegal or non-licensed retailers. Ultimately, though, it's up to the province to take action, he said, adding that doing nothing is not good policy on the province's part.
"The government is responsible for protecting public safety clearly," Vassos said.
"Our government has chosen to adopt a strategy of burying their head in the sand and hoping with the opening of more legal stores, you are going to get rid of the illegal stores, or the unlicensed stores, and that's just not happening."